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The Kells Club bustles at this time of the evening. Men and women sit around white tables, filling the air with the noise of chatter, the smell of a thousand perfumes. The men wear black and white evening dress, black bowties, silken waistcoats. They shine beneath the lights, the starched white of their shirts glowing in the dim room. The women wear pearls, evening gowns, hair piled atop their heads, or else falling in ringlets around their shoulders. Christopher feels naked here, exposed and uncouth. He is dressed well, though not formally, lacking tie, tails, and dress boots. Kells is not black tie by any stretch of the imagination, but still he imagines he feels eyes on him. Despite his supreme calm, despite his steady breathing, his regular heartbeat, his iron self-control, the past sneaks in and bites at him. Somewhere inside, he is still uncouth, still unwelcome in places of light and grace.
The host materializes beside him. "Mr. Downing, sir?"
He blinks, yanked from his own thoughts. "Yes?"
"You'll be looking for Mr. Reiter's party, I assume?"
"Yes, yes I am."
"He has a table in the green room this evening. Will you be dining with him?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Very good. This way, please." The man turns on his heel and makes his way through the press of tables. Christopher hurries to follow him, excusing himself when he is forced to slip between crowded parties. The host opens one of the oaken doors that line the far hallway and ushers him inside.
Christopher steps through the doorway, into the earthy scent of Reiter's pipe, the sharp tang of men's cologne, the mingled smells of people contained within a small, windowless room. He gives his coat and hat to the host, who bows and retreats, closing the door after him. The noise from without is cut off, and now he can hear Reiter berating the man next to him, his booming voice filling the small room.
"You may think you understand the political nuances of Germany, Danforth, but your views are- I say this in all kindness- either reprehensible, if adopted for morality's sake, or woefully out-of-date if adopted for pure fashion. You could- ah!" He turns to Christopher, still hovering near the door. "Downing! Splendid! Come in, come in! Sit down!"
"William." Christopher's voice, always soft, seems a murmur next to Reiter's room-filling baritone. "Good to see you again."
"Of course. Sit down, and I'll introduce you around." Reiter gestures at an untouched place setting across the table from him. Five of the other places are filled, three men and two women, all looking at Christopher now. Another man sits in a wing-backed chair in the corner, a paper open in front of him.
Reiter strikes a match and relights his massive Tyrolean pipe. "Now," he says, when he has it smoking to his satisfaction. "This fellow at my left with the pale complexion and the ridiculous ideas about Germany is Mr. Charles Ritchie."
Christopher reaches across the table to shake his hand. "The artist?"
Ritchie smiles, obviously pleased. His complexion is bad, his hair carefully groomed. "The very same. You're the adventurer, yes? The fellow who studied with the Yogins?"
"Yes, though that was some years ago."
"Still an adventurer, by all accounts," says the man to Reiter's other side. "You were just in the Himalayas, weren't you? I'm certain William was saying something to that effect."
"I returned a few months ago," Christopher says. "I've been in the City since February." He sits back, feeling a vague discomfort. "It seems my movements are known..."
"I've been talking you up, Downing," Reiter says. "Your exploits make for good stories."
"Not quite Allan Quatermain," Downing says, still feeling uncomfortable.
"Oh, come now. Don't be like that." Reiter grins, puffing smoke from the corner of his mouth. "I know you won't care to talk about your adventures on your own, so I've saved you the trouble. Stop glowering like I've kicked your dog. Have you eaten?"
"No. I still don't think-"
"Good. We'll be ordering in a matter of minutes. Soup and then fish, and whatever specialty the club is offering this evening. How does that suit you?"
Christopher sighs. "Suits me well." He nods at one of the bottles on the table. "Pour me a glass of that red, if you could."
"Of course." Reiter snatches the bottle up, reaching past the man to his right. "Good God, I've missed your company, Downing. This gentleman over here, by the way, is the esteemed Richard Shake- and the elegant Lady Shake- both of whom, I've just learned, are deeply involved with the Naxos Lodge here in the City."
Christopher turns to him with interest. "Naxos? I think I've heard of you. Aren't you associated with the Golden Dawn?"
"Not directly." Shake is a big man, though not as big as Reiter, and posessed of an extravagant set of drooping moustaches. "We're more focused on Greek mythology than Egyptian, and we-"
"Will talk your ear off about it if you let them," Reiter says. "Anyway. The gentleman and lady to your left are Lord and Lady Esterling, who need no introduction, I'm sure."
Christopher turns and shakes hands with Charles Esterling, who gives him a warm smile. He takes the hand of Lady Doris Esterling, clad in its immaculate green glove, and bends over, lips an inch above the emerald cloth. "Charles. Doris. It's a pleasure to see you both again."
Reiter blinks. "Hm? My apologies. I didn't know you were acquainted."
"Oh yes. We-"
Before he can finish, the door opens, letting in the din of the main dining room. A man steps inside, slamming the door behind him with a careless gesture. He is an imposing man; not big, but somehow space-filling, as though there is more of him than what the suit and bowtie contain. His dress is garishly formal, colors chosen to be just offensive enough to the senses to cause comment. His face is handsome, though the boyish charm is beginning to fade before the onslaught of middle adulthood. His hair has already begun to recede. Despite this, he wears the perpetual half-grin of a mischievous child. His eyes, beneath heavy brows, blaze with a wild intensity; a stare that could bore through walls.
Reiter takes the pipe out of his mouth. "Excuse me. This is a private dining room."
"I think you'll find you're mistaken," the stranger says. "At least, if by 'private' you intend to apply that the room is, in some way, under your jurisdiction or control. Nevertheless and nonwithstanding! There's no room in the main dining area. You wouldn't deny a hungry stranger his place at table? Or has the milk of human kindness run completely dry in that abused and overworked teat?"
Looks of displeasure around the table. Reiter's brows furrow. "Who are you?"
The stranger ignores this entreaty. He looks about the room. "I see you've not eaten yet. Splendid!" He begins to remove his overcoat. "And Mr. Downing! What a relief to see a familiar face amongst these hostile black ties."
Downing nods, bemused. "Mr. Crowley. Always a pleasure."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.