“I shall miss your rattling bones.”
That was the second to last thing I ever said to the Mechanical Man. I like to think I saw the hint of a smile on his face, even though I know it was impossible. I had known him for such a short time, yet it was long enough to change the course of my life. I suspect he will signal the beginning of a new, modern era on the brink of the twentieth century in which science and human ingenuity will bring us untold wonders. Perhaps it is too soon to tell. Whatever the future holds, I stand ready to welcome it. He gave me a voice and the passion to challenge the fear and ignorance of the old world. For that, I will be forever grateful to Peter Dowling, the Mechanical Man.
It was April of 1878 when the modest village of Rothsfield was introduced to Peter Dowling. The event, for a time, made Rothsfield the talk of England. I lived on my father’s estate just outside of the village. Clifton Manor was humble compared to the homes of other members of the nobility, but I preferred it that way. It was here that I, Abigale Fairfax, grew up. My father, Lord William Fairfax, was a doting father and saw to my every need. My mother had passed in childbirth, along with the unborn child that would have been my younger brother Henry, when I was just a girl. Father had never remarried. My older brother Thomas was constantly restless and always looking for a way to improve the worth of our modest estate.
It was into this quiet and proper setting that Doctor Richard Blyth brought his greatest invention. Dr. Blyth was the sole doctor in Rothsfield, and a bit of a “tinkerer” as my father liked to say. Dr. Blyth had cared for Peter Dowling as he wasted away from consumption. Mr. Dowling was only seventeen when he knew with dire certainty that he would never see the start of his eighteenth year. His aunt was his only known relative and it was through her that the doctor obtained permission to perform an unprecedented and revolutionary medical procedure that he believed could preserve Mr. Dowling. The method was unheard of and became the source of the uproar in Rothsfield.
For nearly two weeks Dr. Blyth had denied all visitors, made only house calls, and promised an astounding revelation regarding Mr. Dowling. Finally he called a meeting at the Rothsfield Town Hall.He’d invited no small number of learned doctors and professors as a well as members of the general public. At the time, my father and I had little interest in attending, but Thomas was intrigued. He returned that evening brimming with excitement,barely managing to convey the details as he rushed to say them all at once. Finally we gathered that Dr. Blyth had revealed an extraordinary machine that housed a living, human brain. Thomas did his best to describe the machine and spoke of an intricate metal skeleton with a complicated web of gears and cogs that apparently allowed for movement. A pair of ingeniously constructed eyes allowed for sight and a voice box carefully constructed by Dr. Blyth himself, allowed for rudimentary speech.
“And the brain belonged to a Mr. Dowling of Rothsfield who was to have died of consumption,” Thomas finished his description at last.
“Such talk! It sounds as though he is developing a taste for the charlatan’s trade. Such fanciful tales should be left in the hands of deft writers,” father stated, dismissing the matter of Dr. Blyth entirely.
“A tale I would most assuredly read. Such vivid, yet ghastly, imaginings,” I offered in reply.
“I can hardly fathom the two of you. Such a pair, indeed. The greatest scientific marvel of-“ Thomas was unable to finish.
“Thomas, years ago your mother and I, God rest her, went down to town for The World’s Fair. We saw countless scientific marvels I’ll never forget. None of which; however, was an old man proffering up cheap clockworks,” father finished with a definitive tone and returned his attention to his ledgers.
“I promise you that is not the case,”though his enthusiasm may have been ebbing towards a certain type of desperation there remained a firm conviction in my brother’s voice. “It was real. The machine, or rather the brain inside, spoke on his own behalf, days after he should be dead.”
“Real or fabricated it remains hardly the sort of venture a respectable doctor should be engaged in,” my father stated.
“Father, he saved a life,” Thomas argued. “That young man yet lives because of Dr. Blyth’s efforts.”
“One could hardly call it life.”
“I think it’s fascinating,” I assured Thomas. “I rather regret that we remained aloof from your curiosity and missed such a spectacular marvel.”
“You may yet get your chance,” Thomas said slyly.
“What are you getting at?” father asked with raised eyebrows.
Thomas could barely contain his resurgent enthusiasm as he explained, “Dr. Blyth has shown his procedure to be successful but feels it prudent to continue with further examinations.Though he has created a living mechanical man, how will such a being fare when interacting with those of flesh and blood? What strain might thatput upon the mind?To that end, and wishing him ever success, I invited him to bring his experiment to dinner tomorrow night!”
“Was this invitation devised by your industrious mind or did the good doctor first propose such a scheme? Perhaps he seeks a noble patron for this sideshow of his. As for tomorrow evening,” Father continued, “you must be aware that we are already hosting Lord and Lady Bankes.”
“Indeed I am, but then it will be all for the better. It is a perfect opportunity to see the machine interact with people in a small and comfortable setting. And I daresay the Bankes would be hard-pressed to find such an astounding and quaint diversion.”
“A mechanical Lazarus is not the sort of entertainment that is appropriate for dinner.”
I must confess that by this point my brother had rather won me over to his side and more than piqued my curiosity. I decided to come to his aid, “Oh, please Father, what a unique experience it would be,” I interjected. “And we’ve known Dr. Blythe ever so long, if we invite him to dinner we can at the very least ensure that he has not begun to lose all wit and reason.”
Father sighed, “Very well, I suppose we can abandon plans for a proper dinner. However, I have one condition.”
I knew what he was going to request, and I couldn’t help but frown.
“Abigale, no faces. Phillip will be accompanying his parents and I would like you to at least acknowledge his attentions to you.”
Thomas was grinning, “Have we grown so very desperate then?”
I glared at Thomas though father seemed to ignore him, “It is not a terrible match. While so many others are selling or renting their estates to merchants and foreigners,Lord Bankes is one of the few doing quite well for himself and even gaining influence in the House of Lords.”
“As you wish, I shall attempt an exchange with Phillip. I promise he shall receive whole words and perhaps even complete sentences from me.”
Father considered me for a moment, “It is all I ask, and as much as I feared.”
“I suspect we shall hardly notice dear Phillip whilst the Mechanical Man is seated at our table,” Thomas finished excitedly as father returned to his reading.
It might be prudent to explain a little about myself before I describe the dreadful affair that was our dinner. I am opinionated and a little stubborn, which my father often tells me is a terrible combination for a woman. Of course, every time he tells me that he finishes with a smile and says “just like your mother.” So it is with great pride that I share my opinions and argue incessantly when others disagree. Thomas insists there will never be a man suitably braveenough to wed me.
“Perhaps I should like to be a spinster,” I tell him.
“Ah, you’ve learned to spin?”
“Certainly not, but how hard can it be?”
“Oh dear. I shall write the convent straight away.”
Father has tried to his best, but truthfully, I have yet to meet a man of standing that I should like to spend the rest of my life with. Inevitably, they all tend to be arrogant men who believe a name is enough to ensure one’s praise. They often open their mouth but rarely does anything of interest or importance ever escape. I’ve had better conversations with Mr. Harlow, our carriage driver and he has never had a bit of schooling. Social standing leaves much to be desired.
I realize all of this is no excuse for poor behavior at a dinner party, but I do not suffer fools, and while the Bankes may have only a lordship they certainly reign as kings of the fools. The Bankes arrived first and were shown to the parlor by our butler, Mr. Pitt. We politely exchanged greetings and then through subtle maneuverings, that I confess I was not alert enough to catch, I found myself most regrettably engaged by Phillip.
“Ah, Lady Fairfax you are as lovely as… a… well… in the spring…as a,” he floundered verbally as he surveyed my features, “well as lovely as ever I suppose. Quite. Yes,” he paused again waiting for the response he had not earned. “I had the most exhilarating hunt this past month. Everyone said I rode brilliantly and that my hounds were the best bred they had ever seen. The dastardly fox had nearly gone to ground but my lads flushed him back out and straight back into my sights. Bang on!”
Unfortunately he continued on in this manner for some time until we heard the rest of the conversation had made its way to our surprise dinner guests.
“I hope it’s no trouble,” my father said, “but we will be having two other guests tonight. Thomas took it upon himself to invite Doctor Blyth, and evidently he will be bringing his… creation.”
“Ah yes,” Lord Bankes said with interest, “I’ve heard of the thing. Quite the contraption as I understand it.”
“Ghastly business if you ask me,” his wife added, “working with corpses like that…”
“I heard the corpse was very much alive,” I pointed out.
“Was, indeed. So much the worse, then.”
“I suspect Mary Shelley would have been rather intrigued had she lived to see it,” I said.
“I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with her, dear,” Lady Bankes replied.
“An author. Rather imaginative.”
“Oh, I see. I avoid books myself. They weaken the mind, and age a girl so.”
“Yes, a bad habit of mine. Certainly would not want intelligence stripping me of my youthful bloom.”
“We are trying to get her to quit,” Thomas added with his subtle smirk.
Phillip nodded. “Good man, Thomas. A man must protect his sister after all even from her own willfulness,” he sagely explained.
Moments later, Mr. Pitt announced Dr. Blyth and Mr. Dowling. All eyes turned to the machine as it entered the parlor.
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