"Captain! There!" called his lookout.
Beal stared in astonishment from the railing as a stray breeze parted the fog. The wharf loomed ahead, but it was now clear they were approaching it from the wrong angle, parallel instead of perpendicular. Incredulously, the captain extended his spyglass. A bark flying British colors had wrecked against the tip of one of the piers and caught fire, while another schooner, marked the Gladiator, had drifted against the wharf, where its crew feverishly tried to tow it in. As he watched, fiery debris spread to the Gladiator's sails, which an instant later were wreathed in flames.
At least half a dozen ships were visible in those few moments of clarity, and all were foundering in various states of distress across the once-orderly harbor, reverberating with shrieking whistles, bells, foghorns, and other desperate signals.
Beal frantically stumbled and slid on his way to the navigational instruments. The needle of the steering compass, held under glass by the wheel, spun around violently, as if bedeviled, while on his pocket compass the needle was 180 degrees off the mark - north was south. He'd sailed by these navigational instruments - finely tuned with the expertise of nineteen centuries - for his entire life as a seaman, and he knew there should be no way for them to fail all at once.
The pleasure steamer they had crashed into suddenly lurched forward with a boom. In seconds it was entirely underwater. Where it had been, a vortex opened, sucking under those already stranded in the water, and then spitting them out high into the air.
"To the lifeboats!" shouted Beal to his thunderstruck crew. "Find anyone alive and get as far away as you can!"
Submerged. As the waves soothed his naked body, his athletic strokes worked in concert with the rhythm of the current. The first week in April had not yet promised any warmth, the water still rather icy. But he willingly endured the chill ripping through his body for the better feeling swimming afforded him. It was a feeling of being alone but not lonely, a sense of freedom from all restrictions and control. Floating, kicking, somersaulting - try as he could to make noise, the water rendered him irrelevant.
Throughout his boyhood in a port town, he'd heard so many people spoken of as "lost at sea." Now it seemed to him the strangest turn of phrase. As long as he was in the water, he could not be lost. He could bask, bathe, disappear, and the water sheltered him as much in Boston as it had back home. Not that he ever felt homesick, as some of the other Institute students did who had come from outside Boston. He still traveled the forty miles back and forth to Newburyport by train every day to keep down living expenses, although it cost him more than an hour each way.
To his mother and stepfather, the Institute remained a strange detour from his good position at the machine shop, and a daily interruption to his help at home. His stepfather, James, had always been unhappy, plagued by a partial deafness in his left ear that made him shun all society and friends. He worked as a night watchman for a jeweler because he preferred the solitude and uneventful nature of the position. He assumed people were speaking ill of him because he could not hear what they said, which led him to the further conclusion that city life, being loud, was an evil cacophony of deceit. As for his mother, she was a religious zealot of the old Puritan kind who saw danger in urban life and no value to the son's studies in Boston.
Even now, when he was a senior, graduation a mere two and a half months away, they did not accept that he - Marcus Mansfield, of all people! - was a student at a college.
Marcus plunged his head back into the cool water, ears tingling as he surveyed the river - a tranquil and forgiving lane that ran between Boston and Cambridge, lined by a gentle, sloping green sward that would shade swimmers and oarsmen from the hot days to come. Unseen behind the thick weather, above the riverbank and the fields and marshes skirting it, there lurked the crowded brick and iron and gold-domed city, propelling Marcus forward with the powerful thrust of a gigantic engine.
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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