art by Steven R. Stewart
Barnaby: Or, As Luck Would Have It
by K.G. Jewell
22 September 1917
I write to announce I have safely arrived in Paris, my zeppelin passing over the unfortunate disagreements in the Channel.
I have been well received at L'Hôtel des Vapeurs. I have had to tear myself from examining the most wonderful devices that run the establishment. My room is cleaned each day by an iron man--don't tell your Miss Margaret or she will worry needlessly about her position. When such machines arrive on our shores, I'm certain we will find some use for the lesser workers such as she.
But I digress. The antiquities auction is at hand. I go shortly to participate and hope to win the Abacus of Algernon for my (hopefully soon to be our) collection. We will need such a device to count the happiness in our days together.
I was disheartened that you were unable to see me off at the station, but I understand the importance of rest when dealing with the ill humors of the autumn. I hope they pass quickly and your cough settles soon.
Tell Miss Margaret to keep your tea as warm and sweet as your lovely temperament.
Your most humble suitor,
The door of the steam carriage swung open, cold rain splattering the thick glasses of young Barnaby Wilks. He wiped them clean and peered out at his destination. A hundred and fifty years ago, before the revolution, the building that housed the Institut Français d'Archéologie had served a god that was not science, and the ancient grey stones of the cathedral still lorded their long-lost consecration over the paving stones of the street.
The dismal afternoon filled the stained-glass windows with dark, gloomy reflections of the gargoyles perched over the eaves. Rain stained the stone in dark splotches, splotches that reminded Barnaby of the bloodstains on the handkerchiefs of his father's final months--ugly and ever-growing.
His driver stood in the rain, offering an unfurled umbrella. Barnaby accepted the device and stepped under its protection. He walked to the door, the rain pattering on the taut silk. He disliked carrying his own umbrella, but it was the price of égalité, and he understood: when in Paris, one must act as a Parisian.
An equally imposing doorman dressed in the uniform of the Directorate, complete with derringer and combat boots, blocked the imposing door of the cathedral. Barnaby juggled the umbrella to withdraw a letter of invitation from his satchel and hand it to the guard. The man examined it and then opened the door for Barnaby, keeping the letter in his hand.
Inside, Barnaby's glasses fogged. The room's smell, however, distracted him from the loss of sight. The musty air sent a shudder of desire through his being. The smell of artifacts, the smell of history, the smell of lives distilled by the press of time. This was why he had crossed the channel--to gather such distilled essences.
Barnaby again wiped clean his glasses. Once they were returned to his nose, he saw the speaker was a short, wiry man, wearing what passed for formal on the continent--a tight jacket over an off-white shirt.
"Yes," Barnaby said.
Behind the man, gaslights burned along the walls of the sanctuary, illuminating tables placed where once would have stood an altar. He could see from here that they were filled with artifacts. He noted a measuring scale of the type used for trade by Romans of the first century. A prime specimen. He itched to examine it closer.
"Je suis Monsieur Broche. Nous sommes désolés."
Barnaby concentrated on translating the words. He had studied, of course, the language of science since he was a child, but unconscious fluency still escaped him. The man continued to speak as Barnaby caught up with the flow of words.
"We have been unable to verify the letter of credit provided with your application to this event. The war has delayed our correspondence with the Bank of England." The man raised his hands. "We will not be able to allow you to participate in the auction this afternoon."
Barnaby looked at the man again, more closely. Was a competitor attempting to lead him astray? "Who are you?" he asked.
"I am Monsieur Broche. I am the Director of Operations for the Institute. I'm terribly sorry about this. It is most unfortunate."
Barnaby saw his invitation in M. Broche's hand. "Surely there must be a way I can participate?" If the doorman had given M. Broche Barnaby's invitation, he must be a legitimate official of the institute.
"Do you have cash?"
Barnaby had funds on hand for travel but not the amount necessary for an event such as this.
"No, but my bid is backed by my family name." Which M. Broche should know.
"I'm afraid such things aren't negotiable under the rules of the institute. No letter, no cash, no bidding."
"That's ridiculous!" Sharp anger raised the volume of Barnaby's voice. "My family has been bidding in auctions for centuries and we have never once made an obligation that we have not kept."
"Such words may carry weight in England, but this is France. You may remain for the auction, but I must ask you not to interfere with the proceedings."
"But," Barnaby drew himself up to escalate his protest, but M. Broche walked away. How rude--Barnaby Wilks treated like a man without means!--that would never happen in London.
Barnaby turned to share his indignation with others, but realized he knew no one. The channel was a deep cultural divide, one his peers seldom crossed. Perhaps Barnaby shouldn't have, himself.
While he searched his mind for a way out of his predicament, Barnaby examined the artifact tables. The Roman measuring scale held his attention for a moment, a classic piece, but one too similar to a piece in his collection. He moved on to a broader review.
It was a superb offering. The Institut d'Archéologie was selling a few of its lesser pieces to fund an upcoming expedition to the Ottoman Empire, but the lesser pieces of France surpassed many of the greater pieces of Britain.
He soon found the object that had brought him to the event. An abacus from the Far East, said to have been used by Marco Polo's bookkeeper, Algernon, to calculate the fruits of Polo's trade. The wood frame was stained a dark red, the corners fastened with worked copper. But the beading was the most impressive facet of the piece: amethysts, emeralds, and onyxes threaded on taut copper wire.
Perfect. He had inherited the family's exquisite collection of mathematical devices, and this would be his generation's contribution to the patrimony. His father had contributed an original Oughtred slide rule, but this would rival even that.
That is, if he could get it. His chances had narrowed, but if it sold for a low enough price he might be able to arrange to re-purchase it from the winner. They would make a profit, and he would get the abacus.
The room filled. Some prospective buyers perused the tables, others headed directly to the wooden pews that filled the center of the sanctuary. Barnaby slid into the last row as M. Broche walked to the front of the room and the proceedings looked about to begin.
Each seat was equipped with a lever set into the back of the seat in front of it. He examined it with curiosity. The lever appeared set to trigger a spring-loaded white flag. He was careful not to set it off.
A tall, glass column filled with mercury rose between the pews and the artifact tables. Barnaby would have thought it a thermometer of extraordinary size, but beside the column was displayed an adjustable scale of francs rather than a fixed scale of degrees.
"Welcome to worship at the capitalist altar," the man next to Barnaby said. His French was influenced by the Russian tongue, as was his dress, a red handkerchief sprouting conspicuously from a breast pocket. His mustache and beard were also out of place anywhere but the Russian land.
"Barnaby Wilks." Barnaby extended a hand to his seatmate. His words were odd, but perhaps Barnaby could convince the man to make a proxy bid on the abacus for him.
"Pavel Ilyin." Pavel accepted Barnaby's handshake, his hand thick and meaty in Barnaby's.
"What is that?" Barnaby pointed at the glass column. The auctions of England used no such apparatus.
"That is the auction mechanism. The crypts have been filled with steam-driven devices of the most intricate type, mechanisms of French design. These levers control the event."
Before Barnaby could follow up, the proceedings began. M. Broche welcomed everyone and described how the Institute would auction each item in turn, the current price indicated by the column of mercury. The price would start high and fall. The first bidder to pull their lever would win the artifact at the displayed price.
The first item was a stone carving from the Polynesian isles, once used for currency. A ring of coarse stone, it went quickly, the mercury high in the column. A flag sprung from a pulled lever indicated that the winner was a heavyset American in the second row.
"A capitalist wasting the wealth that he has ripped from the souls of workers," Pavel said.
"Are you a registered bidder?" Barnaby asked.
"I registered to gain entrance to the event, but I will pass no money to this house of oppression."
Pavel didn't seem a good candidate to provide a proxy bid on the abacus. Barnaby looked around, but no one else sat near enough to entreat for such a favor.
Three more items went for mixed prices to three different winners. The fifth piece was the abacus.
Barnaby watched closely to see who bid. The starting price was unreasonable, but the mercury soon fell to believable realms. He craned his neck to glimpse a bidder close the deal. No hand moved, no flag rose, and the fall continued.
When the mercury passed the price that Barnaby would have paid, he had an urge to pull the lever. He instead gripped his satchel in his lap, the leather seam of the handle biting into his palm. His bid would not be accepted.
His heart thumped in the silence of the room, and with each beat the price lowered further still. He scorned the bidders' ignorance in the face of beauty, but his heart rose. At these prices he could offer the winner double their bid. A few more minutes and Barnaby could even bid with his traveling funds. He might still take the abacus home.
A flag rose and the mercury stopped at a pitiful fraction of the artifact's value. A woman in the front row had pulled her lever.
"The Duchess," Pavel said.