They had all but exhausted every excuse to stay up later. Soon it would be time to return the two lovely creatures to the boarding house across the river and for Deacon and his oldest school friend, Albert, to go back to their cramped undergraduate apartment. The clock would strike midnight in one scant hour, and he had yet to wrangle anything more than a polite greeting from either Damaris or Maisie. Deacon did not want to end yet another school term or his twenty-first year on earth a virgin.
He had been hoping at least to lay the groundwork for a more significant romantic interlude later in the summer, if tonight had not proved fruitful in regard to his love life. Albert, who had invited Damaris and Maisie up from the nearby Sweetbriar campus, had assured Deacon that while both were surely still ‘virtuous maidens,’ they considered themselves somewhat progressive, and might be open to loosening their morals a little. Almost four hours after dinner, however, Deacon’s hopes that the seclusion of Aimes College’s deserted map library would entice either girl to relinquish any of her virtue were nearly extinct.
He was also out of ideas for continuing the conversation. The men had tried cards, in an effort to introduce a shot or two of bourbon into the equation, then magic tricks, from which Deacon had earned a bruised elbow through unskilled juggling, and finally, almost thirty minutes of thoroughly bad anecdotes. Albert’s current one was about squash.
“I have a suggestion,” Damaris piped up suddenly. “Has anyone ever played ‘light as a feather’?”
This sounds promising, thought Deacon.
“I’ve heard of it!” said Maisie. “Isn’t that where you surround a stretched out person and then hoist them in the air using just fingertips?”
Not so promising, he decided, instantly repulsed.
“That sounds about as sensible as my great aunt’s ether parties,” he told them. “Maybe we should get you ladies home.”
“Nonsense!” said Albert. “I think I’m game to try this exercise.”
“You know, Deac,” said Damaris, putting a hand on his arm. “It’s not as spooky as it sounds. It’s mostly…psychological.”
“So this is about psychology now? Do you think Dr. Freud would invite the comparison?”
His father was right. Things really would go to hell if they gave women the vote.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” Albert said to Damaris as she frowned. “He’s the only one majoring in anything meaningful.”
As if that has nothing to do with it. At his family’s insistence, Deacon was using all of his time at Aimes to study chemistry in an effort to become a doctor—if the war didn’t disrupt his ambitions. After graduation, he planned to utilize his uncle’s connections to attempt entrance into Johns Hopkins. He had encountered Albert’s derision about his academic goals before, and could admit to himself that he did, in fact, think of himself as smarter and more intellectual than his friend, who studied romance languages.
“I think I’ll adjourn for the evening,” he said. Let Albert handle the business of getting them them out of here.
“No, stay!” Damaris pleaded.
“We’ll need three sets of hands,” added Maisie.
“Yes, Deacon, stay,” said Albert. “Think of your fingers under a beautiful woman.” Maisie blushed, and Damaris slapped Albert’s arm. Albert looked at Deacon with that smile young men will sometimes give each other over the tedious wooing of the opposite sex. You’re the one who wanted to shed your inhibitions, the smile said.
Damaris took down her fashionable bun, letting her dark blonde hair cascade to her shoulders. Then she stretched out on one of the library’s oak tables.
“Lift me,” she said.
So with Deacon on one side of her, Albert at her shoulders and Maisie at her feet, the trio attempted to lift her with their collective fingers. At one point, Maisie began to mutter, “Light as a feather, stuff as a board,” over and over and Albert joined suit. Deacon could not bring himself to utter the words. He felt childish enough, especially for being cowed into an activity as pointless and shallow as this for as trivial a reason as the fool’s crusade that had been getting either one of these two imbeciles into bed.
A scant minute later, he realized Damaris was hovering a foot above his head. Deacon was 6’2. She was almost touching a low hanging chandelier. He had long since dropped his hands to his sides. Deacon gave Albert a stare of genuine shock. Albert, surprisingly nonplussed, shrugged at him and stuck his own hands in his pockets. Maisie covered her mouth and giggled.
“How high up am I?” Damaris murmured, her words slurred as if she were somehow drunk from the alcohol both women had declined.
“You’re on the ceiling!” Maisie squealed, which seemed to wake Damaris from her stupor. Her eyes opened, her head lifted up, she jerked with surprise and then descended again. Rapidly. The other three barely had time to break her fall. Damaris coughed and sputtered atop the table, the wind knocked out of her by the landing.
“That was interesting,” said Albert, clearly excited by the adventure.
“Yes, and certainly an object lesson in the power of psychology,” Deacon replied, no small amount of hostility in his voice. “She could have broken her neck.”
“Don’t yell at him,” said Damaris. “It was my idea. And obviously not a well thought out one.”
“I’m going to get some air,” said Deacon.
He made it as far as the back steps of the library. Not the great stone expanse of their larger one, these stairs were just solid brick work meant to lead the intrepid to the college’s cartography stores. The school had an impressive collection, some of it dating back as far as the pre-Colonial period, its parchment scrolled with calligraphy in French and Spanish. And somewhere in the shelves were the many Civil War era maps, the tools of General Lee, topography of rebellion and bloodshed.
Rethinking the evening, this library had certainly not been the best choice for his ill-fated attempt at seduction. He had heard things about the building over the years, stories of secret ceremonies, even the occult. Nothing as creepy as what supposedly took place in universities up North, but unsettling none the less. Deacon’s rational sensibilities rarely allowed him to entertain the possibility of a reality for the supernatural, but the incident with Damaris had rattled an old, superstitious bone in him. He was desperate to silence it, but it was presently crowing like the obnoxious refrain about feathers and boards. Deacon tried to will it to shut up, but it continued. The turtle doves chittered anxiously in the eaves. A clock chimed twelve loud gongs. Deacon went back inside.
Returning to the study area they had made their home for the evening, he was unnerved to find Albert and Maisie kissing in one of the chairs. Albert was sitting in it and Maisie had draped herself atop him in what seemed to Deacon the world’s most unabashedly vulgar position. He would never have taken her for that kind of girl. Moreover, he had no explanation for Albert’s odd behavior. Though he had never been the proverbial choirboy around women, he was no shameless Lothario, either. Where had Damaris gotten off to?
As if answering his friend’s unspoken question, Albert’s gaze drifted to the right. Deacon, fearing the uncomfortable shift in the air, walked to the tiny reading room in that direction. It was only then that he noticed the red smudges on the shoulder of Maisie’s frock. They matched a stain around the reading room’s doorknob. Deacon covered his hand with his shirt and turned it.
The horror in that room was so garish that Deacon would forever after refuse to speak of it to anyone. Not even the police, who still possessed decorum in those days, would require him to describe it in his statement. It was worse than anything he would ever see in his life, worse than the corpses he would see on the battlefields in France, worse than the accident victims he would try to repair in Baltimore’s operating rooms. How could he have even attempted description of that carnage? Their language did not contain parameters adequate to capture the incapacitating notion that a woman’s body could be disinhibited from its form in such a manner that her entrails could wind up adorning the curtain rods like sashing, her limps thrown to every corner like spare furniture.
Considering his silence, it was a wonder Deacon had never been considered a suspect himself. Albert, though he never blatantly admitted his crime, had been readily identified because of his bloody hands. Maisie, when she regained some sanity, had talked of Albert’s strange demeanor the entire night, including a curious smile on his face after leaving that room without Damaris. For his part, Deacon had eventually sought out a confession from Albert, as his friend sat behind the bars of his cell in the sanitarium.
“I don’t rightly know, old pal,” Albert had said. “I had never taken up the knife before, and, of course, have not done it since. It was as if another force wielded the blade. One more, so much more, cunning than I.” Here, he twittered, like a dove inside its eave. “It was searching for a suitable emissary, and I was the right man for the job.”