Alternative Alternative History

The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920 : The Two-Way : NPR

An intro story intended as a direct reference to Robert Chambers’ The Repairer of Reputations. I do recommend the original, provided you can overlook one or two references to attitudes that are justifiably no longer acceptable. Beyond that, though, in the niche of literature that Lovecraft and Derleth came to dominate decades later, The Repairer of Reputations stands out as a particularly subtle example among weird fiction’s supremely un-subtle enclave, with its portrait of a shining, futuristic 1920s New York (from the perspective of its 1895 publication date!), seen through the eyes of Hildred Castaigne, a megalomaniacal but only understatedly unreliable narrator. It also has suicide booths.

The original leaves the open question of how much Hildred’s insanity has affected his perception. There are clear, “onscreen” arguments over whether Hildred’s combination safe is, in fact, a breadbox, or whether the crown he keeps inside it is simply a piece of trash, but those allude to the arguments no one has: How much of the ordered, tranquil, pomp-and-circumstance New York of the future can be real if we are seeing it only through his distorted gaze. It’s an elegant ambiguity, one I ignore entirely in the below. My story is not elegant, and where Chambers’ work was meant to stand alone, mine is intended to introduce an aesthetically similar but larger and (by modern standards) much more conventional interweaving of characters. My version of Chambers’ setting is meant to be unambiguously real (because I like it), but I hope it will pique your interest anyway. The tags/categories are relevant, of course.

Toward the beginning of the year 1920 the government of the United States (and, newly, of Britannia) had practically completed the program adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration.  The country had every appearance of tranquility.  The Great War, despite its ravagings upon Europe, had left no such scars upon the republic, having cemented its mutually agreed-upon annexation of the British Isles and Canada and emboldened its navy, granting it control over a profitable majority of both the Atlantic and Pacific.  The last vestiges of the white separatist movement in Texas had been quelled and its leaders apprehended with the aid of the Venus of the Sinaloa, and with the exception of the Army’s ongoing, troubled campaigns in the Shandong jungle, the country was in a superb state of defense.

Moreover the nation was prosperous.  Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, argent and stately and even more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its people in 1893.  Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the dingiest existing edifices.  Streets had been widened, properly paved, and lighted; trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished, and underground roads built to replace them.  The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks, which proved a godsend to the population.

The colossal Congress of Religions had convened only a year ago, but already itseemed clear to most that a new understanding prevailed between men and their cultures and creeds, that bigotry and intolerance were to be laid in their graves, that kindness and charity had finally triumphed over that ugly, sectarian will to conflict.  Many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world, which, after all, was a world unto itself.

Many thought as much, yes, but Beau Pierre wasn’t so sure.  He looked down, bleary, from the window of his tenement–one of the few of its hideous kind remaining in the city–upon the newly reconstructed Pell Street, its wide, neat sidewalks, flowering cherry trees, alabaster storefronts opening to the carefully managed calm of a seaside park two blocks down.  People were supposed to like these things, to draw from them the same outward order and organization within their own souls, but Beau found them curiously soulless.  Something was wrong with him, he admitted.

After the war, he had enrolled at Columbia.  Prospects had been bleak at the time for a return to Paris, and he had been eager to resume his studies.  But it didn’t take.  It wasn’t that the faculty weren’t supportive or that they were hostile to expatriates or really any subversion of his expectations for the place.  Beau had changed.  It might have been the war–the Romantics had oft described the change that might occur in man upon his immersion in hardship and violence–but something told Beau that the particulars of the Western Front weren’t what the Romantics had in mind.  Besides, the war failed acutely to provide an explanation for the other changes he’d noticed in his life.

Beau turned to look at the door at the opposite end of his dusty studio and focused, flexing a muscle in his mind which had gradually made itself apparent over the past three years.  Clouds of possibility converged about the door, forming lines and threads stretching into dimensions he could intuit but not consciously fathom, along which the door began to shift.  The vast majority of them–ninety five percent, Beau estimated–were closely grouped, and the majority of what remained did not stray far.  It was a near certainty, then, that the door would open between seven and eight minutes from now.  He checked his pocket watch.  Ten minutes late.  Perhaps it was a power play?

Since his departure from the university, Beau had drifted through a few different arrangements of employment, less for the needs of his lifestyle–he lived cheaply and had been able to extricate an appreciable nest egg from his family’s holdings in France before his crossing–than for an idle fascination with Americana and its trappings.  A store clerk, a carriage driver–a profession swiftly yielding to the automobile traffic coming to dominate transportation about the city–a librarian, a shop assistant to a record seller–it was through this last, oddly, that he finally encountered the grasping fingers of New York’s peculiar underworld.  Out of curiosity, he had accepted an invitation to a secret society dedicated to the King in Yellow, who seemed to Beau to be a sort of cross between myth and metaphor, though he still had little idea what any of the society’s gibberish actually meant.  It was through that bizarre enterprise, however, that he had been recruited by Felix Wilde.

He’d never seen the man–only received messages from the other members of the society.  The employment they offered–periodic requests to deliver cryptic messages and nonsensical objects to individuals across the spectrum of social standing–paid poorly, which was notably orders of magnitude better than it ought to have paid.  It was terribly interesting, Beau felt, made all the more so by the enigma of Mr. Wilde himself.  The man, purportedly a microcephalic gremlin, was the chief accountant at Hawberk Armoury and Defense, the largest arms dealer in the country, but it seemed he had his malformed digits in some great share of New York’s illegal operations as well.  Some small portion–liquor smuggling, forgery–seemed profitable.  Most, like Beau’s errands, did not, but it was clear that Mr. Wilde held a sort of ineffable sway over the city’s miscreants.  Beau dearly wanted to understand why, but salient evidence had thus far eluded him, which was why the development of three weeks ago was so exciting.

Between Wilde’s sporadic requests and his own counter-research, Beau had taken to spending his afternoons at Belmont Park, testing his newfound predictive talents upon more measurable stakes.  Almost to his surprise, they proved quite reliable, and he found himself able to collect margins on small bets placed within ten minutes of a race’s start.  When he attempted to replicate his success with a more substantial sum, his predictions did not fail him, but unfortunately, his lack of guile did.  The track administrators had apparently noticed their novice patron’s perfect betting record and, upon the unfurling of circumstances that might otherwise have garnered the attention of their other clientele, decided to intervene.  Beau’s winnings were confiscated, and he was tossed unceremoniously to the street.

It was a costly error, to be sure: Though he was not currently relying on the extra pocket money, he had entertained hopes that it might provide some assurance of his financial independence in years to come.  A ban from every track in the state of New York complicated things.  Ultimately, though, Beau found it worthwhile, for the very next morning, an envelope arrived at his door, marked in the usual way with the initials “F.W.”  It was a task, of a sort, but unlike previous instances of terse, unadorned instruction, this note took the form of a ledger entry:

Incident recorded for one B. Pierre, student, migrant, amateur gambler.  Incident occurred April 3rd.  Reputation damaged on the racetrack.  Known to track proprietors as a race fixer.  Reputation to be repaired April 23rd aboard the Prince’s Emblazoned.  Retainer to be paid by client’s assistance to Mr. Hawberk on said date.  Entry papers and details to be provided to client by H. Castaigne at 8:30 AM, April 23rd, prior to departure.

-Mr. Felix Wilde

Accountant, Hawberk Armoury & Defense Co.

The mystery had coagulated deliciously.  Martin Hawberk was a pillar of society, and the Prince’s Emblazoned, his ocean liner, was the decade’s crowning achievement in modern nautical engineering–such was the agreement among every sailor Beau could find relaxing outside the cafes which bordered the harbor.  That idle engagement with Mr. Wilde’s nonsense had propelled him into such stations was a thrill in itself.  That it might finally shed light on Wilde’s intentions–or “repair” Beau’s damaged public character–was a veritable culmination of his atrophied ambitions.

He cut these ruminations short, rising in anticipation of a knock at the door, which arrived precisely on schedule.  Adjusting his sleeves, he breathed deep and opened it to a dandily-dressed young man who sauntered in with barely a glance of acknowledgment.

“Mr. Castaigne, I presume?” Beau asked.  The man delayed his response, surveying Beau’s ascetic lodgings with an almost exaggerated curl of his lip before laying his cane against the windowsill and producing a folio, which he set upon the table.

“Indeed,” he replied, begrudgingly making eye contact.  He did not sit, instead choosing to lean dramatically upon the backrest of Beau’s chair.  “You understand what is at stake here, yes?”  Beau clasped his hands and shook his head humbly, for now content to play along with Castaigne’s overstated theatrics.

“I am afraid Mr. Wilde provided me with precious little context.  What service is it I am to be providing?”

“You are to be controlling damage,” Castaigne said, almost with a snarl.  “Hawberk has decided that he shall jeopardize our finances with his frivolity, and Mr. Wilde finds this unacceptable.  We are to understand your capabilities make you an effective card player?”

“I’ve not made a habit of card playing.”  Castaigne scowled and looked out the window, perhaps to hide his sudden turn of rage.

“My blood boils at the thought that you were chosen, with wits this dim!” he spat, turning back.  “Your role is to ensure that either Hawberk or yourself wins this useless game, so that our work is not imperiled.  Do not fail, or the King in Yellow will surely enlighten you as to the meaning of fear.”

Beau considered the manic threat for a moment but ultimately found himself unable to resist:

“What have I to fear from the King in Yellow?”

Castaigne regarded him for a moment, taut-lipped, knuckles clenching around the top of the chair.  Then, in a low voice, he intoned:

“Mr. Wilde the other day relayed to me the most curious rumor of a certain Benoit Foyer, a French entrepreneur most perturbed by the theft of his family’s fortune by his estranged half-brother, mere hours after their father’s death on the Front.  I understand he is attempting to ascertain the miscreant’s whereabouts.  What do you make of it?”

Despite his efforts, Beau felt his brow raise incrementally.  Mr. Wilde’s attention was more careful than he’d realized.

“I would venture,” he replied slowly, “that Mr. Foyer may overstate his claim.  There exists no record of his parentage prior to his adoption into the Foyer family, making his accusation baseless.”

“Mr. Wilde is quite gifted at finding records, Mr. Pierre.  Hawberk’s former competitors can attest to it.  But let us agree that, in this case, he is surely mistaken in his assumption that such a record might be provided to Mr. Foyer.  And let us agree that his faith in you is not misplaced.”

With that, Castaigne deliberately relinquished his grip upon the chair and fetched his cane.

“Everything else you need should be in it,” he said, gesturing carelessly to the folio on the table.  He paused.  “Except you had best find yourself a tailor.  Even Mr. Hawberk would not suffer your presence on his ship looking like that.”

He strode out, leaving the door open behind him–and Beau to wonder whether his curiosity had been worth it after all.

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