I did not sleep, not truly. But what I remember is fragmented, like a dream, and what I saw I could not make sense of. It was as if I floated outside my body – literally, for I recall looking down at myself, strapped to that gurney while Aisa began her work. I felt nothing. I was an insubstantial as a spirit and, for a time, I thought I was dead. But I was not dead. And I was not inured to pain. As I watched her carve my flesh with her knife, opening my chest like a casket, sawing bones and pawing through pulsing red and brown viscera with a near-childlike glee, I screamed. Not my ethereal being, watching, but the real me, that lay on her table. I saw the pain etched in my own face. I was smaller on the outside than I expected. A thin, pale man, plain of face with feeble, slack-muscled limbs. As the blood poured from the wound my beautiful hostess had made, I roared my lungs out. My voice was higher than it sounded to me. I felt no emotion as I saw my body butchered in this fashion. Just as the pain never reached the spectral form I had become, so too were my emotions deadened it seemed. I was sundered entirely from all mortal concerns. I stared at myself, at the weeping gash in my chest as I – the I that was not me, not then – cried and gnashed my teeth, struggling pathetically against my bonds. Aisa ignored it. She delved inside me with scalpel and knife and rooted like a pig searching for truffles. And then I saw it: my own heart. She pulled it out a little way, and I saw it, throbbing and bloody, a purplish-red thing, little more than a lump of meat. And I saw too that it was small, sunken, unhealthy. It was obvious it did not have the strength to sustain a human body, even one as wasted and weak as mine. She did not cut it yet, but instead moved to the clockwork heart on the bench and began to disassemble it. She removed the valve she had pointed to before this waking nightmare had begun and returned to my body. Without any incision, she began to make the exchange. Her long fingers were nimble, and I saw that never was any part of me separate, not until the clockwork valve was in place. I saw it, blurry and indistinct through my eyes-that-were-not-eyes, and beheld the full horror of the change being wrought by this strange woman I did not know, whose motives I could not vouch for, whose skills seemed otherworldly. I saw a part of me, fleshy and natural, discarded like spoiled meat, and replaced with a thing of metal; a creation of gears and levers, attached by dark science to me, put inside me, never to be removed, except by the will of this mysterious queen of mechanisms. The screams that sounded from a throat I could not feel now at last found their way through whatever thread kept my ghostly form attached to the man on the gurney, and I too cried out, reaching out to try to stop this grizzly business from proceeding any further. No sound came out, and no hand was before me. I was as insubstantial as the wind. I hoped that I was dead, and that my ruined body was simply motivated by some impulse of the nerves triggered by this foul surgery. I hoped I would not wake. My mind shattered, dispersed into the foetid air of that windowless workshop, and all was dark and confused thereafter.
I awoke, lying on the metal gurney. It was cold beneath my sin. I felt oddly refreshed, as after a long sleep, but I ached. My muscles screamed in agony as I tried to move, as if I had physically exerted myself in the recent past. The sensation was unfamiliar to me. I lay motionless for long moments, trying to collect myself back together, trying to remember where I was and why. The ceiling was whitewashed, and I stared into it, wondering at what could have happened. A face hovered into my field of vision. A beautiful face, with dark hair and full, red lips. Aisa. The name returned. I started and then I was cognisant of another pain. My chest. I gasped, for the pain was excruciating. I looked down at myself and saw a great stitched wound running from the middle of my abdomen almost to my throat. The skin around it was swollen and bruised, but in the middle was something strange; something I did not recognise or understand. I reached to touch it tentatively, fascinated. It was a metal plate, in steel with golden filigree worked on the surface and, in the centre, a keyhole, as might be found on a small cabinet or chest. My fingers brushed it and I flinched, not from any pain, but at the sensation it elicited. It was a part of me. Like my own flesh. I could feel it.
“What…what is this? What have you done to me?”
“What you asked,” Aisa said.
“Then…it is finished?”
She laughed her lustrous laugh and I looked up at her. Truly she was a goddess in form, but there was something ghastly about her beauty now. I had seen her bent over my rent body. I had seen the joy in her eyes as she cut me open. I understood why her dress was red. The gurney, the floor around it, her bare hands, were awash with blood. My blood.
“It is not finished,” she explained, “not yet. I have only replaced one of the damaged parts. When I saw your heart, I knew there was still much work to do. You must return.”
“Return?” I had no wish whatsoever to do that. I only wanted to leave, to return to my ordinary life. Most of all, my desire was to somehow go back, to an earlier time, just this morning, and tell my naïve self not to come to this place, not to accept any offer a beautiful foreign woman might make no matter how tempting it may seem at the time.
Aisa traced a bloody finger along the scar I now bore, and I shuddered at her touch. I was no longer bound, but I had no strength left to move. I was still at her mercy. “I told you I could not do this all at once. It is too dangerous. You must wait.”
“Wait…? I don’t…”
“A fortnight. No more. Much longer and the incision will heal. I do not wish to have to open you up with the knife again. But your body must have time to recover. It has undergone a traumatic procedure.”
I could well believe it. I touched the keyhole in my chest again and grimaced at the sensation as my fingertips prodded it. How was it possible that I could feel through a thing of metal? This was some mysticism of the Orient. Some fell, unclean, heathen power. “You haven’t told me what this is, madam.”
She smiled. “It is your life. And your death, unless you are careful.” She caressed it gently and I felt a shiver run down my spine. “The valve that I have put inside you is clockwork. Like any clock, it must be wound. Otherwise it will run down. If that happens, you will die. The valve will close, and the blood will gather in the blockage. Your heart – already weak – will swell and burst, but not before a great deal of damage is done. It will not be a clean death, James.”
I swallowed. My throat too felt ravaged. I had been screaming then. What I’d seen was no dream. “How…how do I…how…”
She reached past me and then held before me a small golden key. An ordinary enough thing it seemed, such as might be used to wind a carriage clock, but I beheld it with revulsion. To demonstrate, she placed it in the hole on my breast, and turned it slightly. I felt a clenching within me, somewhere deep in my chest. I cried out in horror. She turned again, and there was another twist as if a screw were being tightened inside my body. It was like an itch I could not scratch. Sweat poured from my brow and the muscles in my throat strained. I was trying to escape my own repellent form, attempting to flee my mortal shell as I had when I was under whatever spell had been cast upon me.
“You must keep the valve wound up at all times,” Aisa said, ignoring my reaction. She took out the key and showed it to me again, holding it just inches from the tip of my nose. I stared at it hypnotically, attracted and disgusted by it in equal measure, for I knew that my continued existence depended on this tiny thing. “I will give you a chain,” the dark woman continued, “so you may wear it around your neck.” She stared into my eyes and moved the key for emphasis. “Do not lose this. If you do, you will die. When you feel your chest beginning to tighten, when you feel pain, you must wind it up again. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I whispered.
“Good. I have called a hansom cab for you. That will convey you back to your home. You are in no fit state to walk.” She stood up and walked back to her benches. The heart was still there – the clockwork heart – but missing the valve. That was inside me now. A part of me. I shuddered again. But there would be more. I knew that. Eventually, all of that device, both beautiful and horrible like Aisa herself, would sit within my chest. Would sustain me, in place of my own heart of flesh and blood.
“You will need to rest for a few days,” she said, turning around, “but then you will begin to notice changes.”
“You will become stronger. Your body was weakened by that ineffective valve. The blood will move better now. You will become healthier. But only a little. Until the whole heart is replaced, you will still be less capable than other men.”
And I knew then that she had me, for what man does not long to be as strong and hale as his peers? Who wishes to be a weakling, forever pitied? And I knew that I was an object of pity. I always had been. That was why I had isolated myself, why I had stayed away from sport and japes. Yes, I feared for my health, but it was also embarrassment at my infirmity and feebleness. But if I could have a heart of metal, powered by a key, I could be as other men. I could know what it was to have strength.
I licked my lips nervously. “A fortnight, you said?”
Her eyes glinted in the lamplight. There was something feral in her face. Something hungry. “Two weeks, James Tilstock, and we will take out another faulty part and put in a better one.” Her hand rested on the clockwork heart.
“How long until…until it is done? All of it, I mean?”
“Five more operations, I think. If this first turns out well.”
“Might it not?” I was alarmed.
“I do not think we need worry about that, but there is a chance you will not take to the artificial valve. You may grow weaker instead of stronger. You will get sick.”
“What should I do if that happens? Come back to you? Will you remove it?”
“It cannot be removed, James,” she said. Her voice held no emotion. I had been expecting regret, perhaps a note of apology. But nothing. She might have been reading from a newspaper. “I cannot put your true heart back together now. If this fails, you will die. Go to Callow, for he can give you something to ease the pain. I will be able to do nothing for you.”
I nodded jerkily. “Very well.”
“Do not be afraid.” She walked towards me again and placed a hand against my cheek. “I believe you have a strength that is beyond the physical. I believe this will work.”
“Good. That’s…that’s good.” I started to sit up. Agony coursed through me again, and Aisa assisted me until I was upright.
“Rest, James. Go home. You will feel fine in a few days. In fact, you will feel better than you ever have before.”
I could not pretend a thrill was not elicited by that promise. Was it enough to overcome this horror? I could not have said, but some part of me – perhaps the new part of me – knew I would return in a fortnight. Something occurred to me suddenly. “We did not discuss payment.” I knew surgeons commanded great fees for their services, and the surgery she had performed was of a more intricate kind than any done in London or, I fancied, anywhere beyond.
She placed her hand on my cheek again and leaned close to my ear. I felt her hot breath on my skin. “James, my darling, I already have my payment.” I wanted to ask what she meant by that, but before I could she placed the golden key in my hand, now suspended on a fine chain in the same material. She closed my fingers around it. “Do not lose this,” she said again, staring into my eyes.
“I won’t,” I told her. My voice was hoarse.
“Good. Your cab awaits you outside my door. Goodbye, James Tilstock. I shall see you again soon. Of that, I am quite certain.”
I was returned to my lodgings. The climb to my chambers was agony, and when I entered I made straight for the bedroom. I was hungry, but I needed rest more. As refreshed as I had felt back in that ghoulish workshop, now I was gripped by an exhaustion more complete than any I had felt before. I collapsed, still fully clothed, atop my sheets and feel into a dreamless sleep at once. I did not wake for three days, and when I did, I was a different man.
The sun was shining through the windows of the Pyms’ drawing room. It was unseasonably warm, and London had a different cast to it than the soot-grimed filth to which I was accustomed. Good smells seemed stronger and foul ones muted. Food tasted better and joy was more easily found. Less than a week had passed since I had risen from my long sleep, ravenous, but already the change in my demeanour was marked. Before I had never had the constitution for heavy meals, but the first morning of my waking I had gone to an inn and ordered as much red meat and thick bread as I could afford. And I drank. Beer, at first, then wine. I lived more in that day than I had in all my prior years. I laughed and joshed with strangers, and danced a jig in the street when I returned home many hours later. Friends I had seen told me I had a new colour to my cheeks, and a new twinkle in my eye. I was reborn. I was strong.
I reclined easily in the chair by the little table, fiddling with my cane. I still carried it, though I had not had need of it for days. It was a comfortable affection, but I fancied I might discard it soon. Marjory entered the room and smiled widely at me. I stood, near bounding to my feet and she let out a gasp. “James?”
“Marjory, my love.” I walked towards her and made an elegant bow. She stared at me. I took her hand and kissed it, and she gasped again.
“James, whatever has gotten into you?”
“Love, my intended. A love of life, and all things in it, but most of all you.”
She trilled a laugh and covered her mouth with her hand. She was dressed demurely in her usual fashion, with her hair bound up behind her head. Her face was broad but pretty, and though I had gazed upon the lady Aisa – who now in my memories was no longer associated with any fear – and knew that Marjory was no real beauty, such was my enthusiasm for all I encountered that I longed for nothing more than to adore her, to take her in my arms and kiss her. I did so, lifting her off her feet and spinning her around, then planting a chaste kiss on her lips.
“James!” She was scandalised, and I could only laugh. She joined me. Her cheeks were aflame. “My father is only next door! What would he say?”
“Are we not to be man and wife, fair Marjory? We shall kiss then, for certain! Why, it will be quite required of us. It is tradition, you know.”
“Of course, but…” She giggled again and walked to the table. She tottered a little giddily. “I don’t know what has come over you, James. You seem a changed man.”
“I am,” I told her happily, “I have been given a new lease of life.” I sat down opposite her and took her hand.
“Whatever has happened?” she asked.
I could not tell her. She would never believe it anyway. No sane person could and Marjory, my darling Marjory, was that if nothing else. “I…had a dream.”
“Yes.” It was true enough, in a manner of speaking. “A dream of the future. A dream of progress and industry. A dream of hope. And it revitalised me. It made me strong. Marjory, my love, I feel stronger than ever. I feel like I could do anything.”
“This is most unlike you, James.” She whispered, as if this were some scandalous secret. We were like schoolchildren plotting some mischief. I let out a great laugh and she joined me. We must have looked a pair of fools.
“We must go out,” I said when I had recovered, “it is a beautiful day.”
She looked out of the window. “Do you really think so? It looks like rain…”
“Not a bit of it. The sun is shining. We must take in the city. Let us walk in the park. Let us promenade and be leisurely. I will take you out for luncheon. Then perhaps we will go to the theatre this afternoon. Would you like that?”
“You don’t like the theatre! You find it too taxing! You’ve always said so…”
“Once that was true, beloved, but not now. Now I wish to experience life. I wish to live.”
“But what of the expense?”
“Money is only paper and coins. It is only promises and lies. What use is it if not being spent? Decoration only, and a poor one at that. Not festive in the slightest. No, let us enjoy this world while we still can. While we are young and free and strong.”
“All this talk of strength,” Marjory murmured. She was stroking my hand. “I did not think I should marry a strong man. Not in the physical sense.”
“But you shall, Marjory. You shall.”
“I did not fall in love with a man who was strong in that way. I fell in love with you for your heart, not your arms.”
“My heart,” I told her, “is the strongest part of all.” My laughter filled the room again, booming and robust. Marjory stared at me, but managed a smile at my mirth. Her eyes stayed the same though. I did not care. I wanted to live, and I knew that I would. I could feel the cold metal of the key hanging from the chain around my neck, hidden beneath my shirt and, below that, the steel plate with the hole in which that key fitted and, below that, deep within me, I could feel in tandem with my own heartbeat, the tick-tick-tick of the clockwork valve that had transformed me. I was hungry for this newfound zest for life. I wished to experience all things – all the food and drink and entertainment and sights and sounds of the world – and I knew that was only possible if I continued down this road I had begun to travel. In just a few days, I knew with the certainty of the grave, I would return to Aisa and receive the next piece of my clockwork heart. The clock chimed on the mantle. I smiled to myself.