Clockwork Heart (Part V)

I stared at my reflection in the looking glass. I had removed my shirt and I regarded a body wholly different from the one I had once had – or perhaps it was simply a matter of perspective. In the past I had studiously avoided my own reflection, finding it always wanting in some way. My face too pale, my nose too crooked, my smile faint and childlike, my shoulders sloping and rounded. Now, I was lean and stood straight, my back unbent. My jaw was square and my eyes bright with a new fire. And yet I was troubled. Compulsively, I placed my hand on the metal panel that protruded from the centre of my chest. The flesh around it was puckered and bruised, and the long stitched scar ran from either side of it, seeming to twist and contort my body somehow. When I touched the keyhole, it was like I fondled one of my own God-given orifices, and I felt an odd thrill of disgust, like a child playing in the bathtub before he has been schooled in modesty. I had visited Aisa twice more since I had come to her changed the first time and we had discussed her automaton, the mighty Theseus. The procedure was almost complete – I would return only once more and then my heart would be replaced in its entirety. I probed the keyhole again, considering. The golden key hung around my neck on its slender chain. It felt cool against my skin. I wore it always, for I had discovered already the truth of Aisa’s warning to keep the mechanism wound. I had felt the clutch inside me when the clockwork began to grind to a halt and seize up. It was like a metal vice compressing me, but from within, or the terrible grip of a great bronze fist. The pain was excruciating when it happened, but worse was the sensation of winding it up. I had to insert the key, and my whole body would shudder with revulsion at the hideous sensation of this alien object invading it. But of course, my chest cavity was already home to something wholly unnatural, and this was a mere reminder of the reality of my existence. And yet it was truly ghastly, and still as nothing compared to the agony of turning the key. If the clockwork beginning to stop was painful, then tightening it was the most hellish torment imaginable. I could not breathe, my head began to throb, my throat went dry and I saw black spots before my eyes. I was helpless. When Aisa had first demonstrated the technique it had not been this horrifying, but then that was just one small valve. Now most of my heart had been replaced by this monstrous mechanism. Stranger was the manner in which this debilitating process became necessary. At first I had assumed my new organ was much like a clock, and its machinery would wind down after a set time. In an effort to predict when I would next need to excuse myself from whatever company I shared – for of course, no one could know about my condition and I could never explain what had occurred and the terrible bargain I had made for my vitality – I took note of the time, carefully transcribing it in one of my notebooks, but it transpired there was no pattern to it at all. Rather, it seemed tied to the amount I exerted myself, which stood to reason. A heart – a human heart – beats at an irregular rate, faster when one exercises oneself, or when one becomes agitated or excited, slower when at rest. On days when I enjoyed energetic or exhilarating pursuits, it lasted only hours whereas on days when I was abed long into the daylight hours, I might not have need to employ the key at all.

The weeks had passed in a blur for me. Aisa had told me that with new strength came new appetites, and she had not spoken idly. My newfound exultation at my renewed constitution seemed a distant and cheerful dream, for I had found that the lustre of such diversion wore off rapidly. My senses were dulled with each passing day. I tired of rich meats and excessive drink, and found the sight of either nauseated me. Such was my fear of needing to wind up my heart again that I spent long hours in my chambers, redolent in bed, unwashed and festering. When I did leave my lodgings, it was generally in darkness, for the bright sunlight made me squint and gave me a headache. Perhaps I should have gone to Doctor Callow and asked for his help, but I feared what his examination might reveal. Surely he could never imagine I would have taken this business so far, if he had even known who he truly directed me towards on that fateful day. I was constantly drunk, or at least I surely drank enough to be. Beer, wine, gin, brandy, whatever I could buy. In low places I drank cheap spirits, and in grander settings I would buy only the finest liqueurs. I had become known across London as a gentleman of extravagance and exuberance. From high society to the gutters, I was known and, in my way, adored. I commanded audiences with my wit and had no end of propositions of various kinds. The figures from my old life became pale shadows; a reminder of the feeble creature I once was.

But still, my senses were deadened to it all. On one night I might consume ten glasses. On the next, I would crave eleven or twelve. And so it continued, until I felt nothing where once I would have been reeling. I told myself that I was simply becoming used to my new lifestyle, but it was not enough to discourage me from seeking out new experiences. In my madness, I even sought out the foetid opium dens of the Limehouse district and lost myself in smoke and decadence. I was lost, utterly adrift, but I could not stop, for the everyday things, the gentle pleasures I had once enjoyed, were as bitter and unappetising as ashes. Whatever trace of the man I had once been was surely gone now.

I heard my doorknocker from below and was brought out of my black reverie. I looked myself in the eye, a man I barely recognised and searched for a shirt in amongst the detritus of my chambers. I found one I deemed sufficiently clean, though it was crumpled and stained even so. I buttoned it loosely and went down the narrow stairs to the door. I had no housekeeper, so I received the visitor on the doorstep myself, peeking blearily through the gap, my eyes narrowed against the uncomfortable glare of the sun. A large, red-faced man stared back at me. I knew him well, but I had never known him to call on me himself before. I opened the door all the way. “Mr Pym…” I said.

“Yes,” my future father-in-law replied. The look he gave me was not a favourable one and though he was always ruddy of complexion, he seemed especially enraged today. He wore his overcoat and top hat and wielded a stout cane, for he was badly affected with gout.

“Please,” I said, “won’t you come in, sir?”

“I will, James.” His tone told me he expected nothing less, and I doubt I could have barred the door against him. There was an inevitability about Mr Pym that terrified me. I moved to take his coat, but he brushed me away. “I do not intend to stay long,” he growled.

I led him up the stairs, him near-filling the hallway, and we proceeded to my small sitting room. To my shame, the place was as squalid as my bedchamber, with clothes, books and china piled up in every nook and niche, and the drapes pulled tightly shut over the windows so the ruin of my life was in permanent gloom. Mr Pym did not take a seat, but instead stood stout and glowering in the centre of the room. I slouched in a chair opposite him and waited for the tirade I knew was to come.

Pym was silent for a long moment. He then began to pick through the chaos, moving aside a sheaf of papers with the end of his cane. “I was told,” he said eventually, “that you had good prospects.”

“That is what they tell me, sir,” I allowed.

“Is it? A writer, that is what you are, is it not, James?”

“Yes.”

He kicked the pile of papers aside. “This is how you work? Is this your method?”

I looked down at the pages. They had been discarded weeks ago. I had not picked up a pen since. Perversely, despite my transformation, I felt my creative abilities draining away. Writing, once my greatest joy, was now as unfulfilling as all other stimuli. I could not bring myself to write so much as a verse.

“Well?”

I looked up at Pym again. “Why are you here, sir?”

His eyes widened and I could see veins standing out on his fat pink neck. He drove the end of his cane down onto the floorboards with a thump. The tenants below would be complaining again. “Do I not have a right to be here? You are engaged to my daughter. You are due to marry in just a few weeks, yet she claims not to have seen you for days. And I hear stories of you I can scarce believe. They say you drink and gamble all night long. They say you are seen alternately in foul dens of miscreants and vagabonds and wooing gentlemen over cigars in the most reputable clubs. They say you are a fiend and a scoundrel. They say you sleep away the day. They say you are not the man you were.”

I closed my eyes and rested my head on the back of the chair. My headache was fierce now. Just that sliver of light at the door had dizzied me, and I felt tired to my bones. The nightmares had continued too. My nights – or days, as often as not – were not restful, for I was haunted with visions of bronze goliaths dismembering me amidst ancient, sun-baked ruins.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself, boy?”

“I’m not a boy,” I said slowly, opening my eyes again. “I am a man.”

Pym looked like he was about to explode. “You…you…a man? A man does not neglect his responsibilities! A man does not fritter away his meagre savings on depravity! Do you really believe I would allow my daughter to marry a scoundrel who lives in filth?” As he said this, he sneered at my sitting room.

I cocked my head. His words would once have cowed me, but now I found them merely annoying. What an absurd, officious man he was, this father of my intended. I could almost laugh at him. “Marjory is not yours to give away, Pym,” I told him, “she will do as she wills.”

His face turned scarlet as he gaped at me, and his chins wobbled over his collar which was always stained with sweat. “How dare you speak to me in this manner?”

“Leave,” I said calmly. “You are no longer welcome in my home.”

“Your home?” he roared. “Your foetid lair! Your unwholesome hovel! I would not stay here a moment longer anyhow. The smell quite revolts me, and your ticking clock makes my head hurt. You need to employ a better clockmaker – it’s not even sounding in time.” He loomed over me. “And if you ever come near my daughter again, James Tilstock, I will strike your head off your shoulders with this cane!” He brandished it at my threateningly.

I smiled. “Show yourself out, won’t you, Pym?”

He looked as if he was about to shout again, but instead he just shook his head in disgust and stormed out of the room. I heard the front door bang behind him below. I reclined in my chair, considering his words. I had felt nothing when he had invoked the name of my fiancée. His warning did not concern me either, even if I did still fear his wrath. I steepled my fingers before me and mused on my fate and my future. It wasn’t until several minutes later that I realised I had no clock in this room, and that what Pym had heard was the tick-tock of my heart. I had simply become used to it now and barely noticed the sound. I wondered if I should be concerned.

*

It was night. With time to reflect on my conversation with Pym earlier in the day, I began to regret my callousness. It was true I had neglected Marjory for I had seen her only twice since I had taken her out shortly after beginning my new life. I wished to see her again. My heart – mostly mechanical though it now was – ached for her. Or perhaps it was another part of me that longed to see her. For, as my appetite for stimulation had grown and festered, so too had my carnal desire. I was almost bestial with it, though I had no outlet, not unless I wished to sacrifice all morality and at last give in to absolute mortification of the soul. I had not yet reached that point, but I desired to be married so that I might placate my animal urges. Insulting Pym was not conducive to the furtherance of that goal, and I must make amends with Marjory. That was how I found myself clambering over the wall of the garden of the Pyms’ home. It was a large, attractive house in a respectable street, and I must appear quite the burglar as I scrambled over ivy-choked stone and dropped down onto the lawn lightly. How strange to be doing such a thing. The house rose up across the lawn, a great dark shape in the starless night beneath the smog of London. No lights were on, even in the servants’ rooms. I approached the back door gingerly. It was sheer madness to be here, but I daren’t not venture outside in daylight in my current state. I stole past low hedges, hearing the ticking of my clockwork heart in my ears. How must it sound to others? Surely it could not be so loud as it seemed resounding in my own head, but I couldn’t be sure.

Marjory’s window was above me. A drainpipe was affixed to the wall beside me, and I perceived even in the darkness that I could climb it and thus step directly onto the windowsill. Then I would bang on the glass to awaken her. She would be alarmed, but I could hardly enter through the front door – her father had directly threatened me with beheading! I laughed to think of myself gaining access to my beloved’s home in this manner, but such feats no longer presented a challenge to me. I leapt at the drainpipe and found it could bear my weight easily. I began to shin up, hand over hand, hauling myself towards the object of my desire. I was breathing hard, for it was difficult work, but I had attained my goal in just a short time. I looked across and, to my surprise, saw that the sash of Marjory’s window was slightly open. It was a warm night. Rather than wake her, I could simply sneak in and rouse her more gently. Best not to alarm my lady.

I placed one foot on the sill and then bent down to lift the window. The glass rattled and the frame creaked. I cringed at the noise, but persevered. No sound came from within. When the gap was large enough I moved my other foot over so I now perched on the narrow sill. Quickly, I ducked through and landed, catlike, in Marjory’s chambers. I could not help but grin at my own ingenuity.

“Who’s there?” a timid voice called out from the direction of the bed.

I straightened. “Marjory?” I whispered.

There was a gasp, and then a lamp was turned and the room was filled with yellowish light from a smoking paraffin flame. Marjory lay with the coverlet pulled up to her chin, staring at me with wide eyes. Her hair was covered by a lacy bonnet and she wore a long-sleeved nightgown. I was still dressed in my rumpled shirt and black trousers, and my hair was unkempt. I hoped I cut a kind of dashing figure, but my beloved regarded me with only terror. “James?” she said, sounding bewildered.

“Marjory, my love.” I crossed to the bed and sat down upon it, beside her. “I’m sorry. I have not been attentive. I have treated you most shamefully. I want to make it up to you.”

“James,” she said, still in a whisper, “this is my bedchamber.”

“I know,” I laughed.

“How did you get in?”

“Through the window. I thought you would be sleeping.”

“I was. I…I woke…what’s that sound?”

I shrank back. “What sound?”

“Like a clock’s ticking. It’s louder when you’re close, James.”

“It’s nothing. My pocket watch. I shall take it to be mended tomorrow.”

“It’s too loud for that. It’s…”

“It’s nothing,” I said, beginning to get angry. “If you are to be an obedient wife, you must know when to be silent, Marjory.”

“You always said you never wanted an obedient wife. You told me you wished for a partner.”

“I did not come here to talk of such things, Marjory.”

“Then why did you come here?”

“To be with you. To love you.” I reached for her, but she shied away from me, pulling the coverlet up further. “What is this?” I asked. “I’m to be your husband, lest you forget…”

“My father…my father said I’m not to marry you. He said you had given in to some form of madness. He said you were a lech and a drunk.”

“Nonsense.”

“But you are different, James. These past weeks, you’ve changed. You’re…not the man I fell in love with…”

“Of course I am.” I tried to keep my tone level, but I was growing frustrated with the silly girl. I had come to see her in the dead of night, to demonstrate my love, and she was treating me as some sort of criminal. “I love you, Marjory.”

“Do you?”

I frowned. “You know that I do.”

“Then why are you acting in this way? Why have you come into my home like this? This is not an act of love, James.”

“Then what else is it?” I grabbed at her bedding and pulled it away from her. She snatched her hands away and cried out as she was exposed. As I’d assumed, her gown covered her from head to toe. Nonetheless, she seemed scandalised and screwed her eyes shut. “You’re being absurd. We are lovers. We should express our love as man and wife.”

“We’re not man and wife, James! Not yet!”

“So? What are men’s laws against this stirring within us?” Demure and waifish as she was, my lust did rage for this woman. I wanted her, as I had never wanted anything before. I hungered. This was the one indulgence I had not sought out in my altered state, the one thing I had held sacrosanct. But now, presented with this opportunity, I saw no good reason to refrain. She loved me and I loved her, and what could be more natural than that? I leant down to kiss her, but she pulled away and scrambled out of the bed. She backed away from me until she stood flat against the wall. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed, and I felt desire surge within me as I beheld her breasts heaving beneath her nightclothes.

“Do you not want me?” I asked.

“I don’t know who you are, James.”

“I am your beloved.”

“No. Not anymore. I don’t know what’s happened to you.”

“I have become who I was always meant to be.” Rage replaced desire. I wilted, but the incessant ticking of my heart did not slow. I was shuddering with the power coursing through me. My fists clawed at the bedclothes and my mind filled with images of the metal giants that stalked my nightmares. It seemed such a simple thing to rip another person into pieces, and who was this slattern to defy me after all?

“James, I want you to leave. For the love you claim to bear for me, please do as I ask.”

I stood up from the bed. “Do you think I need you?” I asked her, wishing only to savage her with cutting words. “Do you think you are the only woman who can slake this thirst?”

She shook her head. She was still pressed against the wall, and tears ran down her cheeks. “Whatever evil is inside you, you must try to fight it, James. You must try to remember the gentle man you once were. The man I loved.”

“That man is dead,” I said, leaning in close to her. “He is not coming back.” I threw up the window with a bang and without looking backwards stepped out into the night. I loathed Marjory at that moment. Loathed her for denying me what was surely my right. And I would not be deterred from getting what I desired by the weak morality of a man who had ceased to exist. I knew places where I could ease this longing. Dark and dreadful places. Places I would once have feared to go, but which were now my natural habitat. Laughing, I fled into the night as I reached the ground. Behind me, lights came on in the Pyms’ home.

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This entry was posted in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror, Magical Realism, Novella. Bookmark the permalink.

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