Though I went as fast as I was able, I cursed my ailing body, for the progress of the retreating lamps soon outpaced me and I was left stumbling in darkness, watching the light flee before me like a dwindling thread of hope. I knew at least that the corridor was long and straight and so I went forth, feeling on the floor with my cane for any heretofore unseen obstacles in my path. It was by this method that I found the next door, for the end of my cane thumped against the timbers. I was startled by the sudden and unexpected obstruction, but gathered my wits and reached out, confirming that it was merely another door. It was wider than the last, and split in two, so it might open like the gates of a palace. I fumbled for handle or knocker, but found none. Once more, I found myself bereft and blind. I had no desire at all to retrace my steps in the absolute darkness of this long hall and besides I was already out of breath from my long walk here and desperate flight within this strange house. And if I were to reach the front door, what then? I would be even less likely to force my way out, weak as I was. No other choice was left to me then but to remain where I was, awaiting the attention of whatever denizen of this fell pit secretly observed my progress. I had divined already that I was somehow expected, for there was nothing I had touched that could have triggered the clockwork mechanisms that had brought me this far. The only thing upon which I had placed my hand at all was the knocker on the front door, and surely that could not be the only requirement for admittance, for anyone could have just stumbled inside unawares. No, I knew I was being watched.
Again, I cannot say how long I stood waiting, the laboured thump-thump-thump of my heart once more my only company. I was long past second thoughts – onto third-, fourth- and fifth- you might say in fact, and I could not imagine who or what might await me when I finally gained entrance to this dread abode. I wished for nothing more than the breath of air on my face, or afternoon tea in my own chambers, or the musical laugh of my beloved Marjory. Ordinary things of an ordinary life. Did it matter that I perhaps had only a few years left to enjoy those simple pleasures? Was not a short life of wholesome joy better than a long life at the cost of dealing with whatever degeneracy I found in this black house in this smoky corner of London?
I heard the sound of ticking. My heart quickened. More turning cogs, somewhere high above me, and the squeal of metal housings sliding into place. A dim slash of light appeared just a few feet before me, vertically bisecting my black world: it was the doors beginning to open. They parted inwards, and as yellow light flooded over me, I saw they were richly painted with gold and red patterns, and images I could not interpret; strange twisted faces, writhing limbs and everywhere the jagged pattern of a cogwheel’s teeth repeated. I quailed before the entrance, trying to discern what lay on the other side, but my minutes in darkness had left me blinking in the sudden illumination and I could only stumble forward helplessly, pawing out with my cane again and then found myself in an octagonal chamber, not large or small, with a low ceiling and lit by the same kind of paraffin lamps as the corridor. With a whirr of machinery, the doors closed behind me, and the thud as they sealed themselves had to it an air of grim finality.
My eyes began to adjust and I looked around curiously. The room was lavishly furnished, with silken drapes in many colours hanging from the walls and embroidered cushions on the floor. A door, much like the one I had entered by, was set into the opposite wall. There were no chairs, but a low table was placed to one side, varnished to a deep brown shine and set out with ornaments and trinkets. There were no windows and no fireplace. It was warm, but not unpleasantly so. I moved around the room slowly, examining the furnishings and decorations. I had not travelled far in my life, but I knew something of the world, and I recognised artefacts of the Near-East and the Orient. Strange, exotic objects whose use I could not guess at, but whose value was obvious even to my untutored eye. A bronze statue of some heathen demigod with many flailing arms stared at me from a sideboard, and I saw urns of Grecian make and, on one wall, a tapestry I judged to be Ottoman in origin. The floor, I noticed, was richly carpeted, and the patterns on it had the regular geometry of Mohammedean art. Whoever used this room had a fine aesthetic taste, and the resources to indulge it as they saw fit.
My ears had now become attuned to the familiar sound of clockwork in this place and I looked up as it filled the otherwise silent air again. I was thus not surprised when the door opposite the one I had entered by began to creak open in the same manner, but once again was seized with foreboding. Should I proceed onwards? I judged that nothing else I might find would surprise me now, having come from a frugal hallway lit by unseen mechanisms into this place of foreign splendour, and yet my body stiffened, refusing to allow me to advance. I could not continue, but I could not leave. Two heavy doors now stood between me and freedom, sealed by intricate artifice, their workings doubtless beyond my meagre understanding of engineering. I realised I had foolishly allowed myself to become a prisoner.
The doors fully opened, and I willed myself to move forward, taking but one shaking step, when a figure swept into the room. I reeled, stunned at her appearance, for she was like no one I had ever seen. Tall and beautiful, golden-skinned, with tilted eyes and high cheekbones. Her eyes and hair were black as night, and she wore the latter loose so that it fell in tumbling waves across her shoulders. She was dressed in the manner of a fashionable lady of the city, with a full skirt and a buttoned coat that clasped high on her throat. The sleeves were long and brocaded with lace. But the colour was one I had never seen in the streets of London, in any salon or marketplace. It was blood red, from hem to collar, and each detail – each clasp and button, each bow and tie – was the same. Her lips, too, were painted alike. She smiled at me, her eyes dancing in the light of the lamps. “Welcome,” she said, and I was unable to place her accent.
“I…I…” What could I say to such a creature? I was gripped by as much terror as I had been in the dark corridor, although it was perhaps of a different kind. I confess freely that I have little knowledge of the carnal world. My constitution is unsuited to vigour of any description and it has been my wont to steer clear of women as a species for fear of harm coming to me. I have spent my life in the company of men, holding myself above bawdy jests and sinful revelry, preferring to admire the gentler sex from afar. There was nothing gentle about this woman. I had thought Marjory beautiful, but now I saw she was plain and dowdy, demure and pale. Next to this woman, she was like a sputtering candle beside the light of the blazing sun.
“You are James Tilstock. My name is Aisa.”
I stared at her. “How do you know me, madam?”
“Doctor Callow and I have been friends for many years. He sent word you might be coming.”
I was astonished. I could not envisage old Callow having an association with someone like this. I could less imagine how he might have kept her secret. Surely she would turn heads all over the city. Any man could be hers if she so desired. Such a woman would be famed the world over. How had I never made her acquaintance before, especially as we had a mutual friend? I felt an unfamiliar emotion stir in me. Envy. Callow had kept this person – this Aisa – hidden from me. He had kept her for himself. It made me unreasonably angry to think I had been denied the pleasure of gazing upon her all my life.
“You should not be alarmed,” Aisa told me, bringing me from my unaccustomed rage. “I watched your approach to my home.”
“With lenses and mirrors.” She waved a hand dismissively. “A simple trick.”
Simple for her, perhaps. It was apparent she lived here alone, and that she was the ‘she’ of which Callow had spoken. “You…can you help me?” I asked.
“Perhaps.” She smiled, and my knees trembled at the terrible sight. She walked across the room. The fabric of her red dress rustled as she moved and I perceived that, though it covered her completely, the outline of her body was obvious beneath the folds of cotton and silk. I could feel myself beginning to sweat. I felt physically sick as she approached me. “I can see you are ill,” she told me in a low voice, “but I must examine you more closely to see what must be done.”
“Ex…examine me? You…are a physician…?”
She laughed throatily and placed her hand on my arm. It was all I could do not to recoil from her touch. “No physician. I am a woman, as you can plainly see, Mr Tilstock. What college would have me? But I have an abiding interest in human anatomy. I have made extensive studies of physiology and medicine. It is my passion.”
“And…can you help me?” I tried to focus my mind of what was important. I came here to seek a cure of some description for my ailment. Doctor Callow told me this woman could help me. I must not be distracted from my goal. I wished to live, so that I might write and marry Marjory. But these things, these good, honest things of my life, were like shadows at that moment and I could think of nothing but the goddess before me.
“As I said, perhaps. Follow me. I must better understand the nature of your infirmity.” She led me out of the room, through the door she had come in by, and now we entered a space quite unlike the intimate and lavish chamber. It was a workshop of sorts, a large room with walls of bare brick and wooden benches along one wall. At its centre, inexplicably, was a bed or gurney, as might be found in a sanatorium or lunatic asylum: metal, with worn leather bindings attached. I quailed at the sight of it, but my attention was caught by the devices that lined the benches. I peered at them in fascination, my fear forgotten. They were machines, intricate golden creations of the finest clockwork I had ever seen. They were birds and beasts, and odd contraptions that mimicked no natural form I knew of. Their details were ornate and delicate. I looked closely at a small bird like a chaffinch, with eyes of glowing jewels and feathers of beaten silver etched in perfect detail. Inside its hollow ribcage, I could see in place of bones and organs a tightly packed assemblage of cogs, gears and springs. Aisa leant past me with a smile, her breast brushing my arm just slightly, and turned the key I had not noticed in the simulacrum’s back. As she wound it, the mechanism tightened and then began to tick softly upon her release. The little bird seemed to come to life. He was perched on a rod of steel and as his metal innards jerked into motion, he flapped his wings and almost seemed to ruffle his plumage. He looked up, as if with a start, and opened his golden beak. A bright, cheery sound emanated from his throat, like birdsong but not quite, and then, to my further astonishment, he beat his wings again and launched himself skyward. He flew around the room, accompanied throughout by the tick-tock of his workings, then came back to rest on his perch. Another trill and then the clock wound down and he slumped, as lifeless as before.
“By Jove,” I whispered, still staring at the chaffinch “that is a wonder indeed! How did you come by such a thing?”
“I made it, Mr Tilstock.”
“Made it? But you said you were a doctor…of a sort…”
“The science of the body is my passion, but my work is the creation of things such as these. I am a clockmaker by profession, as my father was before me.”
“This is no clock.”
“No,” she acknowledged, “but the principle is much the same. A living body beats with a rhythm of its own. One has only to replicate that with clockwork, and a semblance of life can be breathed into inert components.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “But to move in such a way, to flap and fly and wink…to sing! The complexity must be beyond anything else that exists!”
“Indeed it is so, Mr Tilstock. There is no finer crafter of timepieces in the world than I. I fabricate the components and assemble them myself, here. It is knowledge passed to me by my father, and passed to him from his, all the way back to the dawn of civilisation. My ancestors were artificers for the kings of ancient Athens.”
“But clockwork was unknown in antiquity.” I almost wished to chide her for her ignorance, but it seemed to me she was not some untutored girl to be corrected.
I was glad I had erred thus on the side of caution, for she gave another full-bodied laugh. “Do you think the mathematicians and philosophers of classical Greece could not puzzle out a few toothed wheels, springs and lengths of rod? They, who passed down the mysteries of geometry and astronomy? In this part of the world, the knowledge of such things was lost for centuries, yes, and much that was forgotten was reinvented as if new. But, in some secret corners of the globe, there were those who remembered the arts of their forebears. My work, and the work of those who came before me, has its root in man’s earliest mechanical inventions.” She ran a loving finger down the back of the clockwork finch and, for just a moment, it appeared as though the creature was preening at her touch.
I looked at the other creations on the bench. “These are all the same?”
“Each is unique, but yes, they are similar in principle. If the mechanism is wound, they will move. Some will even speak, after a fashion. They will live.”
“Wondrous,” I agreed, “but I fear we have strayed from the topic at hand. You spoke of…of examination?” I eyed the gurney again.
“We have not strayed,” Aisa said. She walked to the end of the room, where a great black wardrobe the size and heft of a coffin stood against one wall. She had only to place her hand to the doors and the tick-tock of clockwork sounded again, and they opened with a whine of gears. I recoiled from what was within, for there was the looming shape of a great figure like a man, a towering homunculus of bronze and gold. There was a strange beauty to him, for his face was like a pharaoh’s death mask, and his musculature like a Roman sculpture. But within his chest I could see the wheels that would bring him to life like the little bird and his arms and legs were articulated on rods and springs. Even his fingers were jointed with thin but substantial copper wires, and I was filled with dread at the thought of this brazen giant lurching into motion, powered by a ticking that never stopped, reaching for me with those great, grasping hands. He wore no clothes, and his anatomy was accurate even down to the manhood that hung between his legs. I averted my gaze, instead concentrating on his face, but that was somehow even more disturbing, for sightless glassy eyes stared back at me.
“This is Theseus,” Aisa said, “my greatest work.”
“He is…impressive…” I allowed.
“A mere automata,” she shrugged, “and yet unfinished. It will be a long time before he is complete.”
“And what then?” I asked.
“And then…he will be complete. Nothing more. I do this for love.”
“You said…you said your passion was physiology. Medicine.”
“So it is, Mr Tilstock. Observe.” She reached around Theseus’s chest and activated an unseen clasp. His trunk fell open like the doors of his box, revealing inside a cage of wrought metal, in which were ensconced organs of incredibly lifelike detail, but each constructed – as with all her creations – of beaten brass, etched gold and clockwork. I could see lungs like leather bellows, a stomach of nested shells so it might contract and expand, a brass tube leading to coiled intestines in his abdomen, each bulge a marvel of smithcraft. His skeleton was steel, and in place of blood and air he was maintained only by cogs and springs, all bound up to create the most complex piece of machinery I had ever seen. It was as if she had birthed a living man and cast him in metals. Only one who understood intimately the mechanisms of clockwork and the human body both could have crafted this. Truly, I was in the presence of a rare personage.
“God in Heaven,” was all I could say to this incredible sight.
Aisa turned away from her clockwork man. “Sit,” she said, gesturing to the gurney.
My attention was still on Theseus as I did as I was told. He still filled me with fear, but now it was mingled with awe. He was more than an automaton. I could almost imagine him truly being alive. Surely he had sufficient organs for the task. And what a creature he would be! Tireless and strong beyond reckoning, a titan of the ancient world brought back to life, a veritable Talos, standing guard over an antique land.
“Take off your coat.” I obeyed unthinkingly, still looking at Theseus. “And your waistcoat.” My fingers worked the buttons automatically. “And now your shirt.”
My hands went to my collar and I stopped. I looked at Aisa. “My shirt…?”
“I must examine you, Mr Tilstock.” I had not been cognisant of her proximity, but she stood very close to me. So close that her breath stirred my hair. My hands felt clammy as I fumbled at my top button. “Your shirt, Mr Tilstock,” she repeated.
Nervously, I began to unbutton it, self-consciously pulling it from my trousers and revealing my sunken, pale chest. She placed her hand delicately against my breast and I flinched. My flesh had never been touched intimately by any woman save perhaps my mother. Even Marjory, chaste and true, had not been so close to me. My breath quickened and my heart beat very fast. Aisa held my gaze as she moved her hand over my skin, leaving goose pimples in her wake. One of her fingers brushed against my nipple and I almost yelped in surprise. She smiled at me, and I forgot everything but her liquid black eyes.
“Yes,” she whispered, “it is your heart. It is weak.”
I nodded mutely. Doctor Callow had said as much. I didn’t know how she could tell from just a touch, but nothing she could do would surprise me now.
“I believe I can save your life, Mr Tilstock.”
“How?” I asked her hoarsely.
“As I would save any machine – and the human body is, in truth, nothing more than a very complicated machine, albeit of flesh and blood – by replacing the faulty part.”
“Replace…replace my heart?”
“Yes, dear James.” She left my side and returned to Theseus. Another unclasping, and she opened up his steel ribcage to reveal the jewel of her creation. There, nestled in between the lungs, was a heart. It looked like a human heart such as I had seen in medical illustrations, but like the rest of the clockwork giant, it was a thing of design and craft, not natural, wholesome growth. She removed it carefully and held it before her. Like the lungs, it was constructed with leather bellows, and springs connected each of its rounded chambers. Visible through fissures in its beaten metal walls, tiny cogwheels were packed in tightly. I could imagine it pulsing, pumping, moving just as the little finch had, and making just the same sound. Was that my fate then, to have a heart that ticked rather than beat?
I was gripped with a new horror at the thought of part of me being replaced by this machine. “No,” I said, “no, it isn’t possible. You cannot remove a man’s heart.”
“I cannot,” she agreed, “at least, not all at once. This will not be a simple operation. I must do it piece by piece, for your body may not take to the invasion of a foreign object. You may unknowingly try to fight it off, and cause even more harm to yourself.” She looked at me quizzically, sizing me up like a butcher does a slab of pork on his block. “It is this part that is weakest,” she said, pointing to one of the valves protruding from the clockwork heart, “and so we shall begin there.”
“I…I am not sure this is wise, madam…”
“Is it wise to die?” she asked me, crossing to the gurney and putting her hand against my cheek. “Is it wise to leave poor Marjory alone in the world? To fall ill as your father and grandfather did before you, when you might have prevented it? You must seize life, James. You must spit in the eye of Thanatos another day.”
I stared at her. I did want to live. I had been waiting to die for so long now that it had become a part of me. Perhaps I was just reluctant to lose the comfort of that bone-deep knowledge. Perhaps I simply feared the unknown. Perhaps I did not truly want to be well. After all, what was there to fear? Aisa was strange, yes, but her skill was obvious. She had knowledge and wisdom that others lacked. She could help me. I felt I stood on the cusp of a great scientific leap forward. Must not those who seek to advance the cause of medicine take risks? This should be the beginning of a new life indeed! I should be brave, not cowardly!
“What must I do?” I asked her.
“Nothing.” She walked to a bench and retrieved a wooden box. She opened it and I saw within a row of blades and scalpels, as finely-crafted as her clockwork creations. She also took out a jar sealed with resin or wax. She cracked the seal and a heady scent wafted around the room. I felt my eyelids begin to droop. “All you need do, James, is sleep. When you wake, you will be a new man.”
The pungent aroma drove all thoughts from my mind. The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was the clockwork heart sitting by her box of tools. I swear I heard it tick.