MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
AN UNEXPECTED LETTER
Arabella eased her bedroom door open and crept into the dark hallway. All about her the house lay silent, servants and masters alike tucked safe in their beds. Only the gentle tick of the tall clock in the parlor disturbed the night.
Shielding the candle with one hand, Arabella slipped down the hallway, her bare feet making no sound on the cool boards. She kept close to the walls, where the floor was best supported and the boards did not creak, but now and again she took a long, slow step to avoid a spot she had learned was likely to squeak.
Down the stairs and across the width of the house she crept, until she reached the drawing-room. In the corner farthest from the fireplace stood the harpsichord, and the silent figure that sat at its keyboard.
Brenchley’s Automaton Harpsichord Player.
Nearly life-sized and dressed in the height of fashion from eight years ago, when it had originally been manufactured, the automaton sat with jointed ivory fingers poised over the instrument’s keys. Its face was finely crafted of smooth, polished birch for a lifelike appearance, the eyes with their painted lashes demurely downcast. A little dust had accumulated in its décolletage, but in the shifting light of Arabella’s little candle it almost seemed to be breathing.
Arabella had always been the only person in the family who shared her father’s passion for automata. The many hours they had spent together in the drawing-room of the manor house at Woodthrush Woods, winding and oiling and polishing his collection, were among her most treasured memories. He had even shared with her his knowledge of the machines’ workings, though Mother had heartily disapproved of such an unladylike pursuit.
The harpsichord player had arrived at Marlowe Hall, their residence in England, not long after they had emigrated—or, as Arabella considered it, been exiled—from Mars. It had been accompanied by a note from Father, reminding them that it was one of his most beloved possessions and saying that he hoped it would provide pleasant entertainment. But Arabella, knowing that Father understood as well as she did how little interest the rest of the family had in automata, had taken it as a sort of peace offering, or apology, from him specifically to her—a moving, nearly living representative and reminder that, although unimaginably distant, he still loved her.
But, alas, all his great expense and careful packing had gone for naught, for when it had been uncrated it refused to play a note. Mother, never well-disposed toward her husband’s expensive pastime, had been none too secretly relieved.
That had been nearly eight months ago. Eight months of frilly dresses and stultifying conversation, and unceasing oppressive damp, and more than any thing else the constant inescapable heaviness. Upon first arriving on Earth, to her shame Arabella had found herself so unaccustomed to the planet’s gravity that she had no alternative but to be carried from the ship in a sedan-chair. She had barely been able to stand for weeks, and even now she felt heavy, awkward, and clumsy, distrustful of her body and of her instincts. Plates and pitchers seemed always to crash to the floor in her vicinity, and even the simple act of throwing and catching a ball was beyond her.
Not that she was allowed to perform any sort of bodily activity whatsoever, other than walking and occasionally dancing. Every one on Earth, it seemed, shared Mother’s attitudes concerning the proper behavior of an English lady, and the slightest display of audacity, curiosity, adventure, or initiative was met with severe disapproval. So she had been reduced, even as she had on Mars, to skulking about by night—but here she lacked the companionship of Michael and Khema.
On Mars, Michael, her only brother, had been her constant companion, studying with her by day and racing her across the dunes by night. And Khema, their Martian nanny or itkhalya, had been to the two of them nurse, protector, and tutor in all things Martian. How she missed them both.
Setting her candle down, Arabella seated herself on the floor behind the automaton and lifted its skirts, in a fashion that would have been most improper if it were human. Beneath the suffocating layers of muslin and linen the automaton’s ingenious mechanisms gleamed in the candlelight, brass and ivory and mahogany each adding their own colors to a silent symphony of light and shadow. Here was the mainspring, there the escapement, there the drum. The drum was the key to the whole mechanism; its pins and flanges told the device where to place its fingers, when to nod, when to appear to breathe. From the drum, dozens of brass fingers transmitted instructions to the rest of the device through a series of levers, rods, springs, and wires.
Arabella breathed in the familiar scents of metal, whale-oil, and beeswax before proceeding. She had begun attempting to repair the device about two months ago, carefully concealing her work from her mother, the servants, and even her sisters. She had investigated its mysteries, puzzled out its workings, and finally found the displaced cog that had stilled the mechanism. But having solved that puzzle, Arabella had continued working with the machine, and in the last few weeks she had even begun making a few cautious modifications. The pins in the drum could be unscrewed, she had learned, and placed in new locations to change the automaton’s behavior.
At the moment her project was to teach it to play “God Save the King,” as the poor mad fellow could certainly use the Lord’s help. She had the first few measures working nearly to her satisfaction and was just about to start on “Send him victorious.” Laying the folded hearth-rug atop the harpsichord’s strings to muffle the sound, she wound the automaton’s mainspring and began to work, using a nail-file, cuticle-knife, and tweezers to reposition the delicate pins.
She was not concerned that her modifications might be discovered between her working sessions. It was only out of deference to Mr. Ashby, the absent paterfamilias, that her mother even allowed it to remain in the drawing-room. The servants found the device disquieting and refused to do more than dust it occasionally. And as for Fanny and Chloë, Arabella’s sisters were both too young to be allowed to touch the delicate mechanism.
For many pleasant hours Arabella worked, repeatedly making small changes, rolling the drum back with her hand, then letting it play. She would not be satisfied with a mere music-box rendition of the tune; she wanted a performance, with all the life and spirit of a human player. And so she adjusted the movements of the automaton’s body, the tilt of its head, and the subtle motions of its pretended breath as well as the precise timing and rhythm of its notes.
She would pay for her indulgence on the morrow, when her French tutor would stamp his cane each time she yawned—though even when well-slept, she gave him less heed than he felt he deserved. Why bother studying French? England had been at war with Bonaparte since Arabella was a little girl, and showed no sign of ever ceasing to be so.
But for now none of that was of any consequence.
When she worked on the automaton, she felt close to her father.
* * *
The sky was already lightening in the east, and a few birds were beginning to greet the sun with their chirruping song, as Arabella heaved the hearth-rug out of the harpsichord and spread it back in its accustomed place. Perhaps some day she would have an opportunity to hear the automaton perform without its heavy, muting encumbrance.
She looked around, inspecting the drawing-room with a critical eye. Had she left any thing out of place? No, she had not. With a satisfied nod she turned and began to make her way back to her bedroom.
But before she even reached the stairs, her ear was caught by a drumming sound from without.
Hoofbeats. The sound of a single horse, running hard. Approaching rapidly.
Who could possibly be out riding at this hour?
Quickly extinguishing the candle, Arabella scurried up the stairs in the dawn light and hid herself in the shadows at the top of the steps. Shortly thereafter, a fist hammered on the front door. Arabella peered down through the banister at the front door, consumed with curiosity.
Only a few moments passed before Cole, the butler, came to open the door. He, too, must have heard the rider’s hoofbeats.
The man at the door was a post-rider, red-eyed and filthy with dust. From his leather satchel he drew out a thin letter, a single sheet, much travel-worn and bearing numerous post-marks.
It was heavily bordered in black. Arabella suppressed a gasp.
A black-bordered letter meant death, and was sadly familiar. Even in the comparatively short space of time since her arrival on Earth, no fewer than five such letters had arrived in this small community, each bearing news of the loss of a brother or father or uncle to Bonaparte’s monstrous greed. But Arabella had no relatives in the army or navy, and had no expectation of her family receiving such a letter.
“Three pounds five shillings sixpence,” the post-rider said, dipping his head in acknowledgement of the outrageousness of the postage. “It’s an express, all the way from Mars.”
At that Arabella was forced to bite her knuckle to prevent herself from crying aloud.
Shaking his head, Cole placed the letter on a silver tray and directed the rider to the servants’ quarters, where he would receive his payment and some refreshment before being sent on his way. As Cole began to climb the stairs Arabella scurried back to her room, her heart pounding.
* * *
Arabella paced in her bedroom, sick with worry. Her hands worked at her handkerchief as she went, twisting and straining the delicate fabric until it threatened to tear asunder.
A black-bordered letter. An express. No one would send such dire news by such an expensive means unless it concerned a member of the family. She forced herself to hope that it might be an error, or news of some distant relative of whose existence she had not even been aware … but as the silence went on and on, that hope diminished swiftly.
Who was it who had passed? Father, or Michael? Which would be worse? She loved them both so dearly. Michael and she were practically twins, and he had many more years ahead of him, so his loss would surely be the greater tragedy. But Father … the man who had shared with her his love of automata, who had sat her on his knee and taught her the names of the stars, who had quietly encouraged her to dare, to try, to risk, despite Mother’s objections … to lose him would be terrible, terrible indeed.
Every fiber of her being insisted that she run to her mother’s room, burst through the door, and demand an answer. But that would be unladylike, and, as Mother had repeatedly admonished, unladylike behavior was entirely unacceptable under even the most pressing circumstances. And so she paced, and pulled her handkerchief to shreds, and tried not to cry.
And then, startling though not a surprise, a knock came on the door. It was Nellie, her mother’s handmaid. “Mrs. Ashby requests your presence, Miss Ashby.”
“Thank you, Nellie.”
Trembling, Arabella followed Nellie to her mother’s dressing-room, where Fanny and Chloë, already present, were gathered in a miserable huddle with their mother. The black-bordered letter lay open on her mother’s writing-desk, surrounded by the scattered fragments of the seal, which was of black wax.
Arabella stood rooted, just inside the door, her eyes darting from the letter to her mother and sisters. It was as though it were a lukhosh, or some other dreadful poisonous creature, that had already struck them down and was now lying in wait for her. She wondered whether she was expected to pick it up and read it.
She ached to know what the letter contained. She wanted nothing more than to flee the room.
Nellie cleared her throat. “Ma’am?” Mother raised her head, her eyes flowing with tears. Noticing Arabella, she gently patted the settee by her side. The girls shifted to make room for her.
Arabella sat. Each of her sisters clutched one of her hands, offering comfort despite their own misery.
“The news is … it is … it is Mr. Ashby,” Mother said. She held her head up straight, though her chin trembled. “Your father has passed on.”
“Father…?” Arabella whispered.
And even though the distance between planets was so unimaginably vast … even though the news must be months old … even though it had been more than eight months since she had seen him with her own eyes … somehow, some intangible connection had still remained between her and her father, and at that moment she felt that connection part, tearing like rotted silk.
And she too collapsed in sobs.
Copyright © 2016 by David D. Levine