At the shallow bend of the river Marcus took another big breath and sank, closing his eyes and relishing the drop. Down below, pieces of debris and lumber had lodged in the muddy riverbed. As he brushed against the foreign articles, he heard a voice beckon, distant, as though issued from the sky:
"Mansfield! Mansfield! We need you!"
Marcus bobbed up from under the water and then grabbed onto the side of a boat.
"Mansfield! There you are! You're late."
"How did you know I was swimming?"
"How did we - ? Ha! Because I saw a pile of clothes back there on the shore, and who else would dare plunge into this freezing Styx!" The tall, blond oarsman dangled a suit of clothes above Marcus's head. "Actually, it was Eddy who recognized your clothes."
"Morning, Marcus," said the second, smaller oarsman with his usual open smile.
"And since Eddy and I were both ready," continued Bob, "we pushed out to find you."
"Then you were early," said Marcus, treading water toward the bank, "before I was late."
"Ha! I'll take that. Get dressed - we need our third oar."
He shook himself dry on the bank and climbed into his gray trousers and light shirt. His two companions presented a study in opposites as they helped him into their boat: Bob, with the quintessential New Englander's clear skin and crown of handsome curls, standing carelessly at the edge of the shell; Edwin Hoyt, slight and frail-looking, throwing the little weight he possessed to the other side in anticipation of a tragic drowning.
Despite knowing the water and boats pretty well, Marcus had not grown up indulging in such impractical pursuits as rowing for pleasure, with its arbitrary rules and catchwords. Some weeks before, Bob had announced one morning, "This is the day, fellows!" to Marcus and Edwin, their fellow Institute of Technology senior, as he bounded ahead of them on the way to a lecture.
"Spring is here, Mansfield, and since it's our last one at the college it's time I showed you rowing just as I promised. Why, I hardly knew one end of the oar from the other until I was nine years old. A scrawny boy I was, the smallest Richards ever!" This served to emphasize what a commanding twenty-two-year-old Bob had become. Marcus could not actually recall Bob promising to teach them, but let that pass, given Bob's enthusiasm.
To his surprise, Marcus found rowing not to be the wasted time he expected, and it took his mind away from worrying about the looming future away from the Institute. It was at once calming and exciting, a thrill when the shell launched across the surface of the water as though alive. They tried to recruit more oars among their classmates to join them, but the few willing candidates never did find time.
As their small vessel pushed steadily along, Bob began laughing to himself. "I was just thinking of my brothers," he explained. "They used to warn me about the sea serpent of the Charles. Nearly one hundred feet long, they said, with humps like a camel and a cry like a braying donkey crossed with an elephant's trumpeting. You know how I have to take it upon myself to investigate anything in nature. Well, for three months I searched out old Charley, until I determined that the water wouldn't sustain a sea serpent's diet."
"But how did you know what a sea serpent ate?" Edwin asked seriously.
"Bob, would you mind rowing farther east today?" Marcus proposed.
"A quest! Where to?"
"I haven't seen the harbor since..." Marcus did not finish his sentence.
"Better not to, Marcus," Edwin said quickly. "I caught sight of it this morning after it was all over. The whole harbor was up in smoke. It was like looking into the face of a bad omen."
"Eager to see the destruction?"
"Actually, Bob, I was hoping to learn something from seeing how they begin the repairs," Marcus corrected him. "There is already some debris on the riverbed that must have drifted on the current." He stopped when he saw Bob's face narrow as he looked out on the water behind them. "What is it?"
Excerpted from The Technologists by Matthew Pearl. Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Pearl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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