Authors: Delia Sherman
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On a foggy autumn morning, a horseless carriage chugged slowly along a fashionable London street. The carriage was of antique design, steam-driven instead of the more modern clockwork, with a tall chimney pipe that added its acrid mite to the smoky air. A burly footman sat on its box, peering through the gloom at the house numbers. As they passed a pleasant Georgian lodging-house, he hastily pulled the brake and the carriage came to a halt with a long hiss of escaping steam.
The door burst open and a young gentleman sprang out onto the pavement. He was perhaps twenty-two, tall and knobby, with longish light hair and small, round spectacles. His low-crowned hat was crammed to his ears and his coat was buttoned askew. His careless appearance suggested Bohemian tendencies. The carriage's obviously homemade shaded fog lights revealed a mechanical bent. Not an artisan, not with that coat. A gentleman mechanic, thenâpossibly an inventor.
The young woman who alit after him was more difficult to parse. She was younger than the gentlemanâbetween eighteen and twenty years of ageâand clearly on comfortable terms with him. One would have thought them brother and sister, had there been the slightest resemblance. As it was, she was dark where he was fair, tiny and compact where he was tall and loose-limbed, and her severe mulberry walking costume spoke of a lady's companion rather than a lady. She carried a practical-looking cane that she did not seem to need.
A sulfurous swirl of fog briefly enveloped the pair. When it cleared, they were climbing the lodging-house steps with their footman a few steps behind, bearing in his arms what looked to be a large and elaborate doll clad in china blue.
The young gentleman rang the bell. Above them, a curtain in the first-floor window twitched and a figure retreated into the room beyond.
The game was afoot.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Miss Tacy Gof was in a state of tension so extreme that time slowed almost to a standstill. The ride through the fog from Curzon Street to Pall Mall had taken an age of the world, and another had passed as they waited for an answer to Sir Arthur's ring. Tacy was on the point of reaching for the bell herself when the door snapped open to reveal a small, empty room sealed off from the house itself by a second door.
Sir Arthur stepped in and peered about. “A fog-exhaust!” He exclaimed. “See the fan above the door? I have been longing to see one ever since I read about them in the
!” Then, impatiently: “Come in, come in. There's room enough for all of us!”
There was, though it felt very cramped when the street door swung to, trapping them in a cloud of stinging air. The fan whirred, the air cleared, and the inner door opened, letting them into a hall illuminated by a Smith clockwork lamp.
A lady in black bombazine took one look at Sir Arthur's hat and misbuttoned coat and said, “First floor front, end of the hall.”
Sir Arthur sprang up the stairs like a dog on the scent, but Tacy turned, hesitating. “Angharad?”
The doll answered her, its voice tinkling and tuneful as a music box. “Away with you! James and I will follow.”
Gratefully, Tacy laid the cane she was holding in the doll's white kid hands and ran up the stairs, reaching the top just as the door to the first floor front opened, revealing quite the largest man she had ever seen. He loomed over Sir Arthurâwho was himself a tall manâand was easily twice his girth. Tacy judged him to be perhaps thirty, with a heavy, handsome countenance dominated by a hawklike nose and pale eyes that gave back the light of the Smith lamp like pearls.
Sir Arthur straightened his spine and his spectacles. “Mr. Mycroft Holmes? I am Sir Arthur Cwmlech, of Cwmlech Manor, and I am come to consult your Reasoning Machine on a matter of some importance.”
The pale gaze swept past him to the end of the hall, where a musical voice was demanding to be set down
, mind. Turning, Tacy saw the porcelain doll at the stair-head. Quite a picture she made, posed under the Smith with one white kid hand on her silver-topped cane and one white kid boot peeking through the elaborate drapery of her skirt.
“By all that's wonderful,” the big man breathed. “It's the Ghost in the Machine.”
Although the automaton was indeed haunted by the ghost of Sir Arthur's noble ancestress, she considered the name bestowed on her by the popular press a slight upon her dignity. Tacy had heard her curse an inventor who had addressed her thus in terms that might have distressed him very much, had he been able to understand Welsh. Tacy was relieved when Angharad contented herself with a haughty lift of her molded chin. “I am Mistress Angharad Cwmlech of Cwmlech Manor. And I believe I am as human as yourself.”
It was a mild enough rebuke, but Mr. Holmes appeared to feel it extremely. “Your pardon, Mistress Cwmlech. I meant no offense, no offense in the world. I am a firm supporter of mechanical rightsâalthough, of course, you are a special case. Your response to Mr. Justice Booby's denial of your right to testify brought tears to my eyes.”
Sir Arthur's nervous cough brought Mycroft Holmes's wandering attention back to the issue at hand. “Ah, yes. A matter of some importance, you say? Then, by all means, come in.” He strode down the hall to where Angharad stood, swaying slightly, and gravely offered her his arm. “Mistress Cwmlechâif you will permit me?”
With equal gravity, she accepted his help, though she must reach shoulder-high to do so.
, Tacy thought, as she followed Sir Arthur into Mr. Holmes's chambers,
to behave, when every moment is precious, as though time means nothing
. Although perhaps it did not, to a ghost.
The sitting room was a large and airy apartment in the Aesthetic style, hung with Bird and Gear paper from Morris & Co. Green velvet curtains were drawn against the fog and exquisite automata were ranged like statues between glass-fronted cases of curiosities. Tacy's eye was caught by a fist-sized bag constructed from sheets of rubber in one of the cases. “That's never a Peterson's Mechanical Heart!”
“It is,” Mr. Holmes said. “You are very observant, Missâ”
“Gof.” Having attracted their host's attention, Tacy found that she'd been more comfortable without it.
“You are Welsh,” he said, his pale eyes fixing her like a bug on a pin. “A countrywoman, and a blacksmith's daughter, or perhaps sister.” He lifted her hand and examined it. “A mechanicÂ â¦ and unmarried. Sir Arthur's apprentice, then, given your tender years.”
Startled, Tacy reclaimed her hand. “How did youâ? Oh.” She touched the iron-and-bronze brooch pinned to her lapel. “This, my old boots, and the stuff of my jacket, is it?”
“And the calluses on forefinger and thumb, the stigmata of our trade.” Mr. Holmes displayed his own plump hands, callused precisely as he had described, then waved hospitably towards a cushioned settee, where Angharad sat, her feet dangling some inches above the carpeted floor. “Pray, be seated.”
Sir Arthur took the nearest chair and Tacy perched by Angharad, trying not to fidget. Earlier, they had agreed that the story was Sir Arthur's to tell. Tacy would listen, observe, answer questions if asked, and otherwise keep her tongue firmly behind her teeth.
Mr. Holmes settled himself in a Morris chair facing them.
Sir Arthur began, “It's my Illogic Engine, you see. Iâ”
The big man lifted a restraining hand. “One moment, if you please.” He raised his voice slightly. “Reasoning Machine, engage.”
The automaton beside the mantelpiece turned its head and stepped forward.
Never had Tacy seenâor even imaginedâa machine so very nearly natural in its gait and movements as Mr. Holmes's Reasoning Machine. Its face was a fine-drawn version of his own countenanceâthe nose a shade more aquiline, the cheeks narrower, the jaw more sharply cut, the dark hair more abundant. It was almost as tall as the inventor, but much thinner, and its eyes were the same silvery grey. It almost might have been Mr. Holmes's younger brother.
“Exquisite!” Sir Arthur breathed. Angharad reached over and squeezed Tacy's hand painfully.
Mr. Holmes steepled his fingers before his chest. “Order,” he said. “Interrogate. Subject: Robbery.”
Lowering itself into a wing chair, the Reasoning Machine assumed an attitude the exact mirror of its creator's. “What exactly has been stolen?” The resonant voice was neither metallic nor artificially musical; it would have sounded perfectly natural had it not been so utterly devoid of expression. Tacy shivered.
Sir Arthur leaned forwards, blue eyes intent behind his silver spectacles. “My latest invention, the Illogic Engine.”
“What is an Illogic Engine?”
“Ah. Well.” Sir Arthur sat back, ready to lecture. “Simply stated, the Illogic Engine is a variation on the Logic Engine that drives intellects such as your own. It is designed to endow mechanicals with those aspects of human intelligence that exist independent of reason.”
The Reasoning Machine's fine brows lifted in a parody of surprise. “Engines are, by definition, logical. An Illogic Engine, therefore, cannot exist.”
“It does, then,” Tacy snapped before she could stop herself. “And functions very well, look you, for a prototype.”
After the mechanical's even bass, her voice sounded high and shrill. She fell silent, blushing uncomfortably, though no one seemed to have noticed her outburst.
“Where were you when the theft occurred?” the flat voice went on.
“At a concert. Lord Wolford organized the party. Miss Gof and Mistress Cwmlech accompanied meâand our footman, James, of course. Mistress Cwmlech is unable to climb steps or walk far without assistance.”
“And the other servants?”
Sir Arthur glanced at Tacy, who answered in a self-conscious murmur. “The butler, the cook, the kitchen-maid, and the parlor-maid were all in the house.” She hesitated. “Also three guard mechanicals in the garden and one in the mews.”