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The Inventors at No. 8
By A. M. Morgen
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Meet George, the third Lord of Devonshire and the unluckiest boy in London. Why is George so unlucky? First, he’s an orphan. Second, unless he sells everything, he’s about to lose his house. So when his family’s last heirloom, a priceless map to the Star of Victory (a unique gem said to bring its owner success in any battle) is stolen by a nefarious group of criminals, George knows that there is no one less lucky–or more alone–than he is.
That is until Ada Byron, the future Countess of Lovelace, bursts into his life. She promises to help George recover his family legacy, and is determined to find her own father along the way–all in a flying machine she built herself. Joined by a mischievous orangutan and the long-lost son of an infamous pirate, Ada and George take off on a cross-continent journey through the skies that will change their lives, and perhaps the world, forever.
George, the 3rd Lord of Devonshire, began his twelfth birthday in a foul mood.
First of all, it was raining. This was not so unusual, as in England it was often raining. However, it was one thing when it rained outside.
It was another thing altogether when it rained inside.
George woke to rain plopping onto the tip of his nose from several large leaks in the roof.
“Happy birthday,” George said to himself.
Plop, the rain replied.
George dressed carefully in his best outfit, which also happened to be his only outfit, as he’d sold the last of his spare trousers the previous Wednesday. Then he went to the kitchen for his usual breakfast of hot water and bread crust.
Frobisher was nowhere to be found. George concluded that he must have gone to the antiques dealer already. Last night, George had asked Frobisher to sell his grandfather’s old, moth-eaten seafarer’s uniform. George might have run the errand himself, but he hadn’t left his dilapidated home since his tenth birthday, exactly two years ago. He didn’t trust the world Out There beyond the doors of No. 8. His bad luck was bound to catch up with him even more quickly Out There.
Still, he was quite lonely without Frobisher at home. Besides Frobisher—and of course Mrs. Daly, Frobisher’s beloved pet rat—George’s only company were the debt collectors who came by every now and again seeking payment of the many unpaid bills his father had left after his death.
Without anything better to do on his birthday, George went about his usual business. First, as he did every morning, he carefully collected the snails that had crawled in through the rotten baseboards and placed them in a rusty bucket for Frobisher to take out to the garden. Then, as he did every other day, he turned his attention to scouring the old house for more things to sell.
Over the last two years, he had slowly dismantled his family’s home, piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle in reverse. He and Frobisher had sold the tapestries and the rich leather chairs; the cutlery and the mirrors; the chandeliers and the standing lamps and the oil portraits of various glowering relatives. They had sold the birdcage that had once held Frobisher’s poor parrot, Frobisher Jr., before he had been swallowed by a much larger owl after a window was left open (Exhibit #9). If George could not continue to pay off his father’s bills, the debt collectors would take No. 8 Dorset Square. And if his home was taken away, he and Frobisher would be parted. George would be sent to an orphanage, where he would eat gruel and share a bed with lice.
He would much, much rather share his own house with snails. And Frobisher.
After hours of looking into every nook, cranny, and baseboard, George turned up nothing new to sell other than a litter of baby mice. He retrieved his accounts ledger to tally revenues and expenses.
It looked like this:
1. More cheddar for Mrs. Daly, 50 pence
2. Pastilles, 63 pence (cherry-flavored—Frobisher’s favorite)
3. Trouser mending, 32 pence (last pair—must invest in appearances, after all)
1. Grandfather’s seafarer’s uniform
2. Seven baby mice
3. Ten buckets of rainwater
4. Frobisher’s periscope
With a firm scratch, he struck Frobisher’s periscope from the list. It was the manservant’s sole possession, and George chided himself for even considering selling it.
George smoothed the golden-blond cowlick just above his left temple, as he often did when he was nervous. His grandfather’s uniform was, truly, their last source of income, other than the clothes on their backs.
And, of course, the map.
But he hadn’t even put the map on his list, because the map was something he had sworn never to part with.
A soft tap at the windowpane made him jump, which sent a series of thumps and bangs echoing through the empty house. His heart thudded as he turned his head to look out the window. What if someone had finally come to take him away? But all he saw was the magnolia tree waving in the wind.
Frobisher, he realized, had been gone for hours.
George could not remember the last time he had been this alone.
What if Frobisher didn’t return at all?
What if Frobisher became the latest victim of the bad-luck curse (Exhibit #10)?
A loud creak at the bottom of the stairs broke the silence.
Then there was a soft rap rap rap on the glass, as if someone had tapped a long, thin finger against it.
“Frobisher?” he called out hopefully. Of course there was no answer. Frobisher was nearly deaf, so even if he had come home, he wouldn’t have been able to hear George from all the way upstairs.
Another shiver ran up George’s back when a faint but distinct scraping sound reverberated through the house. Careful to make no noise, George lowered himself to the floor. Last month he had told Frobisher to sell his grandfather’s military saber. It was just his luck that as soon as he sold his only weapon, he needed it.
George crawled to the top of the grand curved staircase leading down to the front door. “Hello?” he called. His voice echoed back. Hello, hello, hello.
He edged down the stairs and toward the drawing room, avoiding all the creaky floorboards (which was most of them). He drew a deep breath…
And with a formidable cry, leapt into the drawing room.
It was empty.
He caught a sudden movement at the window. Someone had left the sash up. Outside, a dark bird was perched on the sill. It cocked its head and stared at him with winking eyes. Rap, it said, tapping its beak against the window.
“Come here,” George commanded. (He was not fond of animals but thought perhaps Frobisher would like a bird to replace Frobisher Jr. Then Frobisher would have another reason to stay with George at No. 8 despite all the many reasons why he ought to want to leave. George did not want Frobisher to leave. If Frobisher left, he would be very alone indeed.)
But the bird took off, flashing through the trees across Dorset Square, only to disappear through an open upstairs window of the narrow gray house across the street, No. 5.
A bird flying indoors wasn’t odd at No. 8. But a bird flying into No. 5 was very odd. As far as George knew, that house was occasionally used as the winter residence of the Milbanke family. Most of the time, though, the house was shut up tighter than a can of tinned oysters. The home had been visited at various points by a famous relative, the poet Lord Byron, but it had been years since the lord himself had come around. One evening last summer, through his kitchen window, George had overheard the gossipy maids at neighboring No. 7 say the man had left his unwanted baggage at the house and never returned for it.
“Stupid animal,” George said. To think he’d been spooked by a little bird! Clearly there was no one else in the house. The noises must have been his imagination.
George let go of the window sash, which slammed shut with a bang. He jammed its rusty latch back into place as best he could.
That was when a heavy hand came down on his shoulder, and George screamed.
When George realized it was only Frobisher, finally back from his trip to the antiques dealer, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t screamed out of fear at all, but had only been practicing his vocal exercises.
But when he saw the sad look on Frobisher’s droopy face, he stopped all the humming and squawking at once. His embarrassment melted into worry. “What’s wrong, Frobisher?”
Slowly, Frobisher unwound the scarf from his neck, unbuttoned his coat, and took off the many hats he wore at George’s insistence. Then, even more slowly, he unfolded his hand to reveal four small coins.
George counted rapidly once, twice, three times. A pit opened up in his stomach. He counted them again. “Only four shillings for Grandfather’s uniform?”
Frobisher bowed his gray head.
“Did you go to Twombly first?” George asked. Frobisher nodded. Suddenly, George’s throat felt thick, as though he’d swallowed tar. “What about Wadsworth? Harris? Cotswold?”
Frobisher’s face only got droopier and droopier, like a bit of browned lettuce in the heat.
George swallowed a rising sense of panic. “But it should have been worth much more. Maybe a hundred shillings. At least a hundred shillings! It was the antique uniform from the collection of my grandfather, the renowned maritime hero, the 1st Lord of Devonshire. Did you explain that?”
Frobisher nodded again. George’s head began to ache with calculations. The money would cover expenses for a week. But soon it would run out. As would Frobisher’s cherry pastilles, which were costly. They couldn’t sell Frobisher’s coat, scarf, or hats. Surely he’d get even sicker without them.
But at this rate, they were going to lose the house within the month, and George could already imagine the sneering faces of the orphanage masters coming to collect him—
“That’s the last time I sell anything to Wadsworth! Or Cotswold! Or Harris!” He banged his fist against the doorframe to emphasize his point, biting back a yelp of pain. His eyes burned with tears. There was nothing left of any worth to sell.
Except one thing.
An item he had promised never to part with.
“Tomorrow, you will sell the map to the Star of Victory,” George heard himself say. Just speaking those words drained him. The colors in the room seemed to dull around him.
Frobisher’s watery eyes went wide, and he began shaking his head and waving his arms back and forth frantically (this was Frobisher’s voiceless version of yelling), because Frobisher knew that the map to the Star of Victory, a priceless stone that assured its owner of success in battle, was the most important heirloom George’s grandfather had left behind. Unlike the eerie portraits and rotting furniture, the map was George’s real legacy.
I’ve seen corners of the world you wouldn’t believe, his grandfather would say. All of it here, in this map. One day, you will discover the map’s secrets, with a little luck.
The 1st Lord was once a hero, and he had wanted George to be a hero, too, to take the map and recover the Star of Victory himself.
George had no interest in being a hero Out There. The only thing he wanted to save was this house, and the little life he had. In Here.
“That’s an order, Frobisher. It’s the only way to pay off enough of my father’s debts to save the house. I should have sold the map first, not last. I’ll go get it now,” George said, hoping that if he sounded firm enough, he would convince himself. “Why don’t you finish chopping up the magnolia tree outside? A fire would be nice.”
And so, with no other choice, George gathered himself and headed toward the library, which had once contained numerous books on history, geography, mathematics, and grammar. The only books left now were those no one wanted to buy, such as Useful Needlework and The History of the Rhône.
As he pulled the map to the Star of Victory out of its cabinet drawer, an old, not unpleasant musty scent filled his nose.
This map is your destiny, the 1st Lord of Devonshire used to say. George would listen raptly while his grandfather described the Star: as blue as the sky, as bright as the sun, and as radiant as the stars.
He had studied the map practically every day since his grandfather’s death and could describe it with his eyes closed. It was split into two azimuthal projections of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, their unexplored poles dotted with angular topographical markings. The blues, greens, and grays of the seven seas were so realistic, George heard them churn in his sleep. Knowing it might be his last chance, he admired his grandfather’s more fanciful additions: colorful sea serpents that writhed in the oceans and flying turtles that soared up to the clouds. He studied the peculiar symbols that laced the map’s edges, which looked like toppled statues of a long-lost civilization. These were the strange, foreign lands that had filled his dreams at night—lands where anything was possible.
But even still, he could not figure out where the Star of Victory was hidden. There was no X marking the buried treasure, no latitude and longitude to steer toward.
A loud, particularly violent whack inside the house jarred George, causing the map to slip from his hands and float gently down to the floor. It sounded far too close to be Frobisher, chopping away at the magnolia tree outside. Another thunk froze him in place. But only for a moment. On instinct, he threw himself into the cold, dark chimney.
Not that George was hiding, of course. He was planning an ambush, like any brave lord would.
Masked in the shadows, he listened as the stairs creaked and groaned. Someone was in the house, and from the sound of the footsteps, George sensed that the person was hunting for something (or someone). The footsteps were unhurried but deliberate… and they were getting closer.
Soon they paused just outside the library.
Squeezing his knees to his chest, George held his breath as the door creaked slowly open, and bit his tongue to keep from crying out. As long as he kept quiet, he would be safe. If the intruder was a thief looking to steal silver forks or jewelry, he had picked the wrong house on Dorset Square, George thought unkindly.
The footsteps started, then stopped again, this time inside the library.
The map, George realized. His most prized possession. His last hope. A hole opened in his stomach. He had left it lying in plain sight, right in the middle of the empty room.
Without a second thought, George burst from the fireplace with the force of lava spewing from a volcano. His flailing arms and legs dislodged a cloud of soot, and black ash bloomed around him. He grabbed for a weapon, any weapon, until his fingers closed around the fireplace poker. Brandishing the object like a sword, he stabbed wildly in every direction.
His throat burned. His eyes watered. “Begone!” he commanded between coughs.
When he could see again, George found himself alone in the library, holding not the poker, which had been sold, but the fireplace brush. The map was gone.
Still holding the brush like a sword, George raced out of the room—but in his rush, he forgot to skip over the rotted floorboard outside the dining room. His foot plunged through oak, and he crashed forward onto his knees. The brush spun out of his grip. By the time he retrieved it, the intruder was towering over him, blocking out all the light.
The thief was well dressed, in a top hat, dark red coat, white pants, and riding boots. An abundance of thick, shiny red curls peeked from beneath his hat. Up close, he did not look like a thief, or a criminal, or a murderer. He looked quite… respectable.
Relief washed over George; his grip on the brush relaxed a fraction. Respectable people didn’t break into houses and steal things. Then he spotted a rolled-up paper in the man’s hand.
The blood pulsing through his veins turned to ice. It was his grandfather’s map.
George propped himself up on one elbow and pointed his brush at the man’s chest. He hoped the thief wouldn’t see the brush trembling. “Drop that paper as you leave, thief!”
The thief cocked his head, looking down at George as if he were a puppy that he could not decide whether to pet or kick. The corners of his lips lifted into a smile as he lifted his boot to smash George’s head. George flung up his arm to protect his face, but the blow didn’t fall.
Instead, the garden doors flew open with a bang.
George uncovered his face just in time to see Frobisher, his teeth bared in a silent roar, swing a whiplike magnolia branch at the back of the man’s head—but the thief nimbly dodged Frobisher’s attack. As Frobisher stumbled forward, the man sidestepped behind him and raised his fists high in the air, then slammed them down like a battering ram on Frobisher’s back.
Frobisher dropped to the floor, his limbs sprawled out awkwardly.
“Frobisher, no!” With shaking arms and legs, George crawled to his motionless manservant and shielded Frobisher’s body with his own.
The thief, map in hand, opened the front door to leave. When he glanced behind him at the scattered destruction in No. 8’s foyer, he flashed his crooked yellow teeth in a triumphant sneer.
Then a dark creature zoomed toward the open door, heading straight for the intruder. It was the same bird that had been perched earlier on the windowsill. George recognized its oil-dark feathers and the curious sharpness of its beak.
The thief turned his head just as the bird reached him. In one motion, the animal tore the top hat off the thief’s head and drew a ragged red line down his face with its talon. Screaming and slapping furiously at the dark wings beating his face, the man staggered blindly back into the house.
Brush in hand, George rushed forward and grabbed for the map while the man grappled with the bird. When the thief tried to thwack George out of the way, George defended himself, parrying the blows with his brush. Finally, the bird dove for the thief’s face again, walloping him with the vicious thumping of its wings. In the scuffle, George yanked the map from the intruder’s hand.
Then the thief was driven by the bird, still flapping and clawing, out onto the stoop. He closed his fist around the creature’s neck and flung it back through the doorway, where it hit the floor like a stone, landing with a terrible thump near the magnolia branch. Still gasping for breath, George threw himself against the front door to close it before the thief could reenter. He locked it with a satisfying click.
Stuck Out There, the thief cursed—maybe the man wasn’t very proper after all. George dared a glance out the window. Luckily, the ruckus had drawn the attention of the neighbors. The sour-faced butler from No. 5 and the gossipy maids from No. 7 were on their porches, casting alarmed glances at No. 8. The thief wouldn’t dare force his way inside again with so many eyes on him.
“You haven’t seen the last of me,” the thief said, his voice rough as gravel.
Then he darted down the front path and was gone.
George sank down to the floor next to Frobisher, utterly exhausted. He gently shook Frobisher by his shoulder. When the manservant coughed, fluttering his eyes open to give George a weak but reassuring wink, George breathed a sigh of relief.
The intruder’s hat lay next to Frobisher. It reeked of perfumed macassar oil: the same oil George’s father once used to make his hair shine. George kicked the hat away.
Frobisher sat up slowly, rubbing his shoulders where the intruder had struck him. He waved away George’s help. With tender care, he reached for the bird, which lay unmoving on the stone floor.
George felt a surge of pity for the creature as Frobisher took the heap of black feathers in his hands, stroking it lightly. It had helped him retrieve the map. Was it dead? (Exhibit #11?) He leaned in for a closer look. A shudder whipped through him at the sight of its lifeless black eyes and its neck, which was twisted at an odd angle. But then, miraculously, the bird chirped.
Or rather—it clicked.
With a jerk of its wings, the creature came to life. It lifted its head despite the injury to its neck, then hopped to its feet in Frobisher’s palm.
“Would you like to keep it, Frobisher?” George said when he saw the manservant’s face light up.
“Ssss,” the bird hissed. It spread its ragged wings, and George noticed its silver talons.
His face still glowing in delight, Frobisher nodded toward the bird, as if he wanted George to pet it. George laid the map carefully in his lap and reached out, hand shaking slightly, to place a finger against the creature’s side. It was cool under his fingertips.
He pulled his hand back. The bird was not made of feathers, flesh, or bone.
It was mechanical.
George had never seen anything like it. The bird’s jet-black eyes were not dead but unblinking, made of some metallic stone that rolled in its sockets.
As George stared, stunned, the bird recovered itself. Before George could react, the creature hopped onto his knee, pinched the map in its silver beak, and catapulted several feet into the air as if launched by a spring. With one sweep of its dark wings, the bird sailed out of the broken window—taking George’s most precious possession with it.
Soaring once again over the green lawn of Dorset Square, the mechanical bird alighted on the second-story windowsill of No. 5.
Having recovered himself, George watched helplessly as the white lace curtains fluttered inside the house and a girl about George’s age appeared to greet the mechanical bird. The bird seemed to look back at No. 8 with a smug shuddering of its wings, map still in its beak, before it disappeared inside. The girl banged the window shut after it.
A girl? He had never seen a girl inside No. 5.
“I’ll take care of this, Frobisher. Go to bed. You’ve had a nasty blow, and you need to rest.”
Frobisher, who was now wobbling upon his feet, looked knowingly at George with watery eyes. He patted George on the back and lumbered up the steps to his room.
Only when he opened the door did George remember how exposed, how vulnerable, how alone he would be Out There, where he hadn’t been for two years. His heart began to hammer in his chest. The sun had dipped below the rooftops, and the sky above Dorset Square had dimmed to the color of a dirty sock. A squirrel raced by, causing him to leap back.
His father’s voice taunted him in his head: spine of a snail, brains of a bowl of porridge.
“Buck up,” George whispered to himself. It wasn’t that he was scared to leave the house. His isolation was for everyone else’s safety, not his own. So far, Frobisher was the only person who was even moderately immune to his bad luck. If George began to meet more people, who knew how many of them might die? He didn’t want to be responsible for the next plague or Great Fire.
George combed his fingers through his hair, straightened his jacket, and inched onto the stoop, shutting the door behind him. In front of him, gas lanterns smoldered in the streetlamps. The evening breeze felt too harsh against his cheeks, and the smell of grass burned in his nose. But no carriages came tumbling apart, nor did any houses burst into flames, so he took a step toward narrow No. 5 across the square, and another, and another, until he was down the rotting garden path and out onto the street.
Breathing heavily, he covered the distance between No. 8 and No. 5 in thirty-five tense paces, his annoyance increasing with each step.
What nerve, George thought, glaring up at the second-story window where the abominable bird had taken refuge. As he got closer, he noticed uneasily that several of the windows were nailed shut. Others had extra locks and were crisscrossed with thin metal chains. He had always assumed that the house was shut up tightly to keep intruders out. But what if it was to keep someone in? Surely no one but a lunatic would keep a mechanical bird for a pet. And surely no one but George, the unluckiest boy in London, would have a dangerous lunatic for a neighbor. Still, he forced himself to keep going, because someone inside No. 5 had his map.
Lifting the heavy brass knocker, George rapped one, two, three times.
- Praise for The Inventors at No. 8:
- On Sale
- Mar 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers