Owen's hangover had receded behind an inebriate hum in his chest. Hale was making them another drink and embarking on a voyage of uncommon knowledge, clipping his way through a flotsam of historical totes and trinkets. Something about the deadbeat escapement of Old World clocks and wasn't this preferable, to separate the locking mechanism from the impulse, to let the pendulum swing continuously? Owen had no opinion on the subject of clockworks. Besides, he was taking in the display cases that covered an entire wall of Hale's enormous office. It was a private museum, a thousand artifacts resting on velvet. Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese rhinoceros-horn cups, Malagasy beaten brass, Hopi funerary bonnets and sashes, obsidian knives, canopic jars, scarabs, Pacific Island clubs and tomahawks, a haft imbedded with shark teeth.
Owen's hands ghosted up to the glass. Ever since those boyhood days spent razing houses with his father, his lust for objects had been unceasing; by age ten he'd assembled a scrapyard museum of fixtures and architectural flourishes. Long before he'd ever been to the Field Columbian Museum, he'd felt the libidinal pull of cold, dead things. Now he studied the filigreed edges and native brocade work and felt something like object-lust. It was a desire to look at the carvings and whittlings of people long dead, to witness the lasting sediment of their minds. Owen thought of the policy files some floors below, the wooden towers reamed with paper, or the pneumatic tubes that carried addendums to Hale Gray's desk for signature. It was a different kind of collection - a living museum of riders and annuities, the typewritten odds of a man's decline. Owen heard the president click across the floor with his cane. Even his walk was tightly coiled, a metronome of calculated steps.
Owen turned and received a glass of gin from his gently drunk host. Hale moved for the east-facing windows and Owen followed. Dusk was hardening over the rooftops. The yellow lights of schooners stippled the blackening lake. An office worker - bent in lamplight at his desk - could be seen through the window of an adjacent building.
"You must be the first one in the city to see sunup," Owen said. He was aware of their reflections in the windowpane, the glimmer of Hale Gray looking north toward Canada. The whiskey gave Hale a pawky, speculative air. A few of the westward windows were open and a draft came up from the street, carrying the metallic sound of the El grinding into a turn.
"What do you think of my collection, Mr. Graves?"
"Very impressive. Is that a Papuan skull?"
Hale raised slightly onto his toes. "Good eye. See the engravings. But why? Why engrave a geometric pattern on a human skull?"
"Some kind of ceremony. Funeral rite perhaps. I've heard them lecture on it at the Field."
"What a lot of tweed and chalk dust they burn through at the museum these days. Wasn't one of the curators trying to measure the ears of Chinamen not long ago?"
"I didn't hear that."
"Yes. He wanted to prove a correlation between ear length and philosophical disposition. It came to him while standing in front of a portrait of Lao-Tze in a New York museum. Now picture him chasing Mongols down Clark Street with a tape measure and all the Oriental merchants running like bandits."
Hale shot out a laugh that took them both by surprise. A cloud of breathy vapor fogged the glass pane in front of him. Owen smiled and held a swallow of gin in his mouth, nodding in afterthought. When would the wolfhound get on with it?
Hale turned his back to the skyline and gestured with his drink to the sitting area. His tumbler led the way, a steady prow cutting across the room. A dim and smoky portrait of Elisha Edmond Gray hung above the mantel - the great man in repose, floating through the woody pall of an English manor. He sat waistcoated by a hearth, hound at his side, slightly ablaze in the cheeks, as if he'd rushed indoors from a pheasant hunt.
Excerpted from Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Dominic Smith. Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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