It was progressively colder as the season turned. To add insult, the breeze was enough to turn hats. These were the first and the last redeeming qualities Britannia had to offer, and his reception made the weather seem warm in comparison.
He soon found he much preferred the stiff company of a book to the, decidedly stiffer, shoulder of Oxford’s public, which endeavored to be in constant collision with his. To be sure, it wasn’t the weather he disliked, but the people. The feeling was plainly mutual.
The second night of his stay had seen him thrown full-body into the river, much to the delight of the superintendent on whose rug he’d deposited the evidence. It had taken three full days hanging from the casements for his clothes to dry out. The several banknotes in his pockets did not hold the same integrity.
He also did not much care for his dormitory companion, a Mr. Nigel Griffin, who had on first meeting shown a strong predilection towards leisure and a lack of fine grooming. This judgment was perhaps hasty, being that Griffin had later come knocking for those finely bred persons involved in the river incident — and not on their doors.
Following this, they kept a weekly appointment. It seemed only prudent to combine their studies: Tesla’s in the art of creation, and Griffin’s, evidently, in that of destruction. On paper, university law had nothing against the occupation of unused storage facilities, but they kept to themselves on the suspicion the law would not look kindly on the several pounds of missing flammables.
The threat of another introduction to the river never disappeared, but he learned how to perform a part, and failing that, how to swim. On the whole, he was undeterred. His social standing was of no consequence to his studies, and so did not feature largely in his mind. What communications he sparingly sent home, financial affairs permitting, made no mention. Sentimentality was not worth the price of stationary.
It was, not uncommonly, an overcast evening when Griffin, who usually spent evenings out, appeared over the threshold grinning like a fox. Deciding this was only another bout of the man’s capacity for drink, Tesla determined to ignore it.
Griffin, familiar by now to this treatment, kept on. “I’ve spotted her.”
He was too smug by far for someone without a proper shirt.
“You’ve been into town,” Tesla observed, concerning the whereabouts of the shirt.
“Out of town. Bit of a difference.”
Tesla did not turn from his notation. “Between the irregular semantics of your Queen’s English?”
“No, between losing my shirt and losing my brains. Bobbies and I had a difference.”
“I see,” said Tesla, with severe disinterest.
“Not likely, but I have.” Griffin wagged a finger. “I mean her. The only woman this whole lot’s had eyes on since term started.”
After a moment’s thought, Tesla set down his pen. The only woman of notable character who came to mind was the chancellor’s wife — and in Tesla’s humble opinion, a specimen that was hardly desirous of a glimpse from every eye of Oxford.
“I don’t follow you,” he admitted unapologetically, returning his attention to the pen and paper.
“You don’t know,” realized Griffin, who began to look devilish. He hovered close at hand, indiscriminately blocking the reading light.
Griffin wasn’t tall in stature, but what he lacked in height he made up for in unreserved verbosity. He seemed to be chewing on the information, waiting with culminating urgency. In consideration of what small variety of things Griffin found interesting, Tesla was not compelled to be in suspense.
To demonstrate, he folded his arms.
“Not so fast, my good man,” said Griffin. “I have it on good authority that there’s a lady in attendance. She’s auditing courses in the sciences. And I’ve just spotted her.”
This news had not reached him. He was not surprised at Griffin’s involvement — the man being at any given moment the nexus of every reasonably indecent affair simultaneously — but he was surprised Griffin had actually managed to stumble onto something decent after all.
“A lady.” He made to sound uninterested, hoping it might stave off Griffin’s self-satisfaction.
Griffin, who was not fooled, grinned. “A lady of science, in fact. Could give us a few pointers, I find.”
“Yes, for instance she could point you in the direction of the shirt you appear not to have found.”
“Still a damn sight better than you, aren’t I? I’d sooner miss my own head than the talk of the whole town.”
“Perhaps you'd do me a favor and miss both?” He looked up. “You are obstructing the light.”
“Oh, begging your pardon.” With an emphatic flourish, Griffin turned and snuffed the candle. The room, accordingly, was thrown into darkness.
Tesla shut his book. “You are a greater plague on my schooling than the school itself.”
“Not to worry, I’ll educate you yet.”
“And this woman, seeking education—what is her study?”
“Medicine, I’m told. Wants to be a physician.” Griffin looked hopeful. “How ‘bout it, eh?”
This was a very one-sided game employed by his companion, who was intent on producing a social diversion to pique his interest in public affairs. Though Griffin had yet to merit success, and was no doubt beginning to question his friend’s recreational integrity, he was an obstinate man.
It was in this manner that Tesla’s next afternoon was stolen from him on the grounds of misguided charity.
No sooner had he set foot outside than did a body appear on his left to take hold of his arm and steer him dramatically to his right. Tesla, imbalanced, trod on the foot of his abductor and glared.
“Fancy a bit of fresh air?” said Griffin.
“In London? Inform me when you’ve found it.” He followed all the same. He’d all but forgotten their conversation concerning the university’s most unconventional student, but it returned to him all at once when he sighted her.
She was sitting on the bench toward which Griffin was steering him.
Her hair was collected against her neck in a low wreath of curls, let loose to frame her face. It was not the usual style. And she was wearing a dress so absurdly red that his eyes watered from staring against the wind.
If the leaves had begun to turn, so had the times. Red and gold, crisp and warm, she was autumn incarnate.
The choice must have been deliberate. It was more than a matter of drawing attention. It was the color of biology, of physicality. All the things to which she, all too often, was reduced. She wore the things that stripped her identity like a badge of honor, owning them. The statement, by the reactions of their passers-by, was not well-received.
Those precious few seconds told him all he needed to know of her character, he had to swallow something that was tight in his throat.
The wind caught the feather marking the pages of her book. It was brilliantly plumed — certainly not from any creature he could name. It took wing, whipping past her reach on a flurry of time-turned leaves. This facsimile of flight traced the ground until it was stopped at the toe of Tesla’s shoe.
Her eyes snapped to his, and he’d never at all seen the color blue in his life until it was staring at him through her eyes. When he extended the feather back to her, she looked startled. He imagined he looked much the same.
The feather passed between them with something of a spark. Dry static bridged fingertips.
To the left, Griffin cleared his throat. He drew himself up, cobbling together his best impression of a gentleman. “Miss Magnus, if I may presume? I hope my dear friend hasn’t disrupted your leisure.”
“Not at all.” Her eyes darted between them. Her jaw was set. “In truth, he may have been the least of the disruptions.”
“Well, then perhaps further disruptions are in order. Would you be disinclined if we might solicit the good favor of your acquaintance?” said Griffin, straining at the limits of his decorum. Like an ill-fitted suit, his presentation was bursting at the seams.
Obligingly, as though she had no want of solicitations of any kind, she nodded. “You may.”
A man such as Nigel Griffin, however, gave a new meaning to the term persevering. He stuck out a hand and brought Miss Magnus’ knuckles to his lips, bowing gallantly, making a comical leg. She caught Tesla’s eye over the curve of Griffin’s posturing, confiding a wry look that made it clear exactly what she thought of his formidable courtesy. Tesla returned the look.
“Nigel Griffin,” said Griffin pleasantly, rising from his contortions none-the-wiser. “It is my honor to be a disruption to you. By your leave, may I introduce my excellent mate and least charming man I know, Mr. Nikola Tesla, esteemed gentleman at your disposal. He’s very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Remotely, Miss Magnus shut her book and echoed Griffin’s bow with a more nondescript version of her own. It occurred to Tesla that she would have had no dearth of both enterprising suitors and saboteurs alike, and would likely have had her fill of these contrived introductions, Nigel’s abundant social graces notwithstanding. Being at the receiving end of similar social entrapments, Tesla could attest to their lack of desirability. They’d been much too forward, he thought — much too frivolous for a lady who was of a mind to be taken seriously — but then, remarkably, she looked like she might laugh.
“Thank you, Mr. Griffin…although I’m sure the least charming man you know may speak his mind for himself.” Her full attention fell on him like a blow to his chest, and he felt himself frowning.
“Quite often I do,” he said, “but I suddenly feel I’ve misplaced it.” Abruptly, he turned to leave. “You’ll excuse me.”
Her eyes catalogued him. His accent, his wardrobe, his posture. He could tell when a person was sizing him up. Perhaps, as a woman of scholarly background, it was only in her nature to study others.
“You’re far from home,” she observed. It stopped him.
Stiffly, he nodded. “That is so.”
Again, she seemed amused. “May I ask where you are from, Mr. Tesla?”
“Presently, that may depend on whom you ask. I am Serbian.”
“Oh, I thought so.” She paused as if trying to recall something. “Drago mi je…da vaš upoznam, Mr. Tesla. I…my father and I stayed a month abroad in the East two summers ago.”
It had been some time since he’d heard his language aloud — and it would likely be time yet before he did. Her accent, for all her effort, fell just short of indecipherable.
Griffin adapted from gaping to grinning in the time that it took Tesla to fashion a response.
“For what occasion?”
“Oi,” said Griffin. “You’re in the company of the strictly unilingual.”
“Hardly that, at times,” Tesla added, as if to take pity.
“Business,” answered Magnus, not impolite. “My father is a man of science, and a physician here in London.”
Tesla was unsurprised; it followed that a lady of her ambition would be rooted in such a background. Griffin seemed impressed, though it certainly didn’t take much.
“I hear you incline to be the same,” said Griffin with an elbow in Tesla’s side.
Without looking away, Magnus nodded. “Yes. I do.” There was a flash of daring in her eyes. “And what of you gentlemen?”
“I’m a renaissance man, myself,” said Griffin in boastful tones. “A fair alchemist, and a fairer socialite, at your service. Formally a man of law, when I’m not breaking it.”
Formally a tedious nuisance, in Tesla’s opinion. It was a considerable act of discretion that he kept this to himself, and by no means anything to do with the proper linguistic parts of his mind going on holiday.
“And you, Mr. Tesla?”
“Physical sciences—electrical artifices.” It seemed to him all that needed saying on the matter.
Again, she almost smiled. “You don’t seem very fond of introductions.”
“It is not a reflection of my present company, if that is your implication.” Talking, he’d found, usually led down unfavorable roads. Too often here he found himself in conversational quicksand.
“Perhaps,” she shared a conspiratorial look with Griffin, “I could arrange to coerce a few more words out of you after evening lecture?”
This startled him — though it was not common for a lady to request a meeting of a man, it was less common that anyone might request a meeting of him.
“If you don’t mind,” she added, arching a clever brow.
He didn’t; He was much too occupied minding everything else. There was little choice in the matter. If looking on her was staring into the wind, thinking of her was an undertaking so vast it strained the muscle of his mind to do anything but.
Griffin clasped him vigorously around the shoulders. “He’d be delighted.”
“Is that so?” She watched him closely.
As he had no real objections, and no pretext for evasion, he resigned himself. “Where would you prefer to hold our appointment?” He did hope it would be in the vicinity of his absent sense.
“If I may,” she said carefully, “due to the nature of the request I’ll be making I believe it best if we meet in private. I understand you have just such an accommodation.” She cast a pointed look across the garden to the storage facilities in which they had, summarily, taken up residence. “Or so rumor tells, when it isn’t occupied with my own exploits.”
He exchanged a glance with Griffin. It was not entirely unexpected that their illicit affairs failed to remain upwind of the gossip. But he’d been reasonably certain, up to that point, that their meeting with Miss Magnus had been something of a chance encounter.
If she knew about their after-hours project, chance was off the table. They’d been expected. Orchestrated. At once, he realized that he’d been mistaken: He’d thought her peremptory remarks at first meeting had been a lack of interest. But she’d never been uninterested — only unsurprised.
It had been a diplomatic maneuver, saving social graces. She’d arranged to be seen, arranged to be found, and when they invariably followed her lead, arranged they come to her.
Pulling the strings, even before they’d met. It was only later, sometime in the turn of the century or the turn of a page, he’d realize they were his heartstrings.
In two hundred years, he would remember the bookmark, and the dress, and wonder if he’d only imagined the feather-touch of that place where their pages met.