God may have parted seas and visited ruin upon Egypt, yet all of that quivered before his most devilish trick: drying up the taps at the Sword and Pony. Every glass stood empty. Truly a Biblical disaster.
Thus, I found myself retreating home at a reasonable hour – sober.
There was no stagger in my gait that night as I ambled down Whitehall. Not once did I get into a spirited conversation with a cabbie’s mechanized horse, nor were condescending Londoners asking, “You alright, sir?” as they plucked me from a gutter. In the place of a languorous haze I faced the gritty sight of industrial filth and soot.
If only there had been another public house within walking distance, I might have blurred that horrid clarity with a pint. Alas, for I would’ve preferred to believe that night, of all nights, a product of inebriated illusion. Turning on to our row of two-level homes, I wondered if my Lily would be pleased to have me home so soon.
We’d suffered our tribulations since we’d married two years ago. She was a bright, pretty girl, but my nightly outings with friends proved one of many points of consternation. Certainly our twenty year age gap and the accompanying difference in perspective added depth to the valley between us. She talked of seeing the rest of Europe, of new fashions, of scandalous ideas, all much to my dismay. My long-married friends faced no such troubles.
Her parents had asked me to tame her, and so I tried. Time and again I’d illuminated her as to society’s expectations. I was the businessman, I earned our keep, and I decided how and where it should be spent. She was expected to be a quiet, humble wife. That was all.
I found it amusing when she once threatened divorce in the midst of a heated discussion. Such an act would leave her destitute by law and a social pariah. She wouldn’t dare inflict such a thing upon her family.
Strangely enough, the recent weeks had shown a remarkable improvement in her mood. Perhaps she’d come to accept that a man needs to indulge himself with friendly drinks after a long day buried within White Star Airship Lines’ financial matters.
I gripped my house key and tucked my hat under my arm. Had luck or fate intervened then, I might have dropped the key in a sewer. Perhaps matters would have gone differently.
It was not to be. The lock clicked faithfully.
I recognized the squeaking of our automaton as I closed the door behind me. The human-shaped machine had been Lily’s twentieth birthday present several months ago. We’d grown tired of the living help. Our last maid-of-all-work had been a lazy, disrespectful sod, as had been the one before her. Utterly useless. They wanted honest pay for dishonest work.
Then we’d been suggested one of these new contraptions. Lily’s socialite friends had clucked endlessly about their qualities. These devices never tired, obeyed without question, and handled every chore without complaint: ironing, washing, cleaning, and other drudgery. The purchase expense had been considerable, but still less than paying an incompetent person for a year.
Weeks later, I had arrived home to find a tall crate in our foyer. The iron figure within was a dark creature, brutish in every sense, with many ungainly attachments specialized for each of its many duties. At a mere vocal command, the machine would take to whatever task it was ordered so long as we fed it a bit of coal and added a touch of oil for the joints. We’d found it a perfect solution in the following weeks.
Wondering where I’d left the oil can, I walked into the kitchen. Water boiled unattended atop the iron stove. How very odd. I checked the remaining downstairs rooms. All quiet and empty as a freshly dug grave.
And still I heard that dreadful squeaking. Cocking my head, I realized it was coming from above.
Up the steps I went, the boards groaning under my shoes. I followed the sound to the bedroom. The door stood half open. I leaned around the frame and peered inside.
My hat fell from the crook of my arm.
I’d insisted on modesty the few times Lily and I had ventured to make love. Hushed and masked by utter darkness, she laid as instructed beneath me in her billowy gown, soundless as a corpse, until I’d spent myself in the proper fashion. As she would rise to go cleanse her nethers, I’d lie there, ashamed of my human urges. What lay below her lace neckline was taboo to my eyes – all the more reason why I went to stone at what I saw before me.
Lily was brilliantly nude, astride the metal machine at the edge of our bed, a display of wanton carnality. Her golden hair floated in tangled ringlets as she writhed against the machine’s torso. Gas sconces silhouetted her impeccable, flowing curves. Sweat dribbled down every crevice of her lithe, pale body. The machine’s black iron glimmered with her moisture. Richly glowing embers spilled from its back, dancing on the floor at the foot of the bed.
As I watched from the dark hallway, she desperately clasped the receive button on the side of the thing’s head. “More speed,” she husked, nearly breathless. The thing pumped faster with an attachment I hadn’t seen advertised in any catalog. Her moans grew raspy, pitching ever higher as some deep craving within her struggled to be met.
Unseen, I turned and walked back down the steps. Behind me, the machine creaked ever faster. As I descended, Lily’s gasps grew in volume. At last, as I reached the front door, she erupted in a shuddering sigh the likes of which I’d never heard.
The lock clicked behind me, and I was alone on the quiet street.
I walked the city as a stunned man. Sometime later – at the hour she would have expected me – I returned home. She greeted me with a weak smile and a warm meal. I shook off my misery and played the role of husband. Then the meal was done, and the machine cleared the table. Our bedroom looked the same as it always did. She’d cleaned up well. I said nothing that first night.
The next evening, I attempted to partake in some pubbing as if nothing had transpired. The taps were flowing once more. However, long before my typical hour of inebriated surrender, my curiosity demanded satisfaction. I left my comrades-in-drink behind. Through my own curtains I peered like a burglar, stealing glances of my wife bent over our parlor sofa in throes of ecstasy. It was an hour before she was done.
I waited a few minutes and entered. She greeted me as she was adjusting her housedress. Out visiting with the neighbors, she had said, and she didn’t have time to prepare dinner. We ate hastily prepared sandwiches. The machine was washing clothes.
The following evening, I bypassed the pub altogether. The night after as well. For two months, that is how it went.
My companions wondered where I’d gone. Some would stop by the office and interrupt my work. They joked the pubs were near closing without my nightly donations. I made flimsy excuses. Eventually they became annoyed and left me to my own devices – and my wife seemed permanently impaled upon the device in question.
The machine’s stamina was endless. Night after night, she rode its obscene length as steam spat forth from between its joints. I hovered outside, a voyeur sneaking glimpses through his own window. My spirits sank. And when I ventured inside, Lily’s delicate perfumes did little to hide the reek of coal and oil that permeated her skin, her clothes, and her hair. With each inhalation my depression and revulsion deepened.
Lily grew all the more disinterested in me. She dropped all pretense of marital congeniality whenever we were alone. Our dinners together grew fewer. Whenever we did eat together, it was as cordial as an execution. More often than not, my meal waited cold and insipid while she slept upstairs, a satisfied smile across her lovely face. She never offered explanation. I never asked, for I knew the answer.
While she slept, I would stare at the damned machine as it laundered our clothes and scrubbed the floor. It felt nothing while I wallowed in misery. Here I was, a successful man of means, cuckolded by a piece of metal – a damned appliance. The thing had no more personality than an egg-beater, and yet it had somehow usurped my wife.
The last of my patience evaporated the day I purchased a holiday air tour of Europe. I knew it was her dream. I wanted us to have some time alone together, away from the routine of our lives. We’d barely spoken in weeks. Perhaps a change in scenery would help our fractured marriage.
I presented her with a gift – two first class tickets aboard the White Star Line’s newest airship, wrapped in a gorgeous, shimmery dress I’d had made for her. She stared at them for a moment. No words of gratitude followed.
Instead, she asked whether they would accept an automaton case aboard.
I nearly dropped the passes and the dress. Every scrap of my being wanted to lash out at her. Instead, I smiled and promised I would look into it, for an idea came to me in that very instant.
We departed two weeks later.
In passing I noticed the great ship’s luxury. Her captain joined us in the observation lounge. The cliffs of Dover slipped past as he pointed out landmarks to my wife and the other passengers. The setting sun made Lily look all the more striking in her dress.
I excused myself from their company. A sudden stomachache had befallen me, I claimed.
I crept down to the lower deck and slipped into the cargo hold.
Amongst the hold’s contents I hunted until locating the tall, padded crate. With shaking hands I pried open its hinged doors, revealing the silent, dark machine’s rear panel. At last, it and I were alone. I reached between its feet and extracted its folded maintenance kit.
I removed the panel with the kit’s screwdriver, working so fast I singed my palm with the wooden handle. The metal plate landed with a thud. I next took up a small hammer. With no small amount of pleasure and a growing smirk, I attacked the thing’s metal innards. My blows made short work of its piping. Copper and brass bowed and twisted. Fluids spilled free. Rubber gaskets fell and disappeared inside.
Switching tools, I jammed the screwdriver hard into the delicate gears of its midsection and pried and pressed until they were all askew. Finished with what I could see, I reached up, felt around, and stabbed the screwdriver blade high inside the thing’s neck. I know not what I struck – possibly its mechanical ears, perhaps its logical calculator – but the shower of bolts and gears that followed my retreating hand was most satisfying.
I replaced the toolkit after resealing the panel. There was a moment in the cargo bay in which the only sound was my blood pounding, my fury rising. Surrendering to it, I kicked the thing savagely in its iron spine. It rocked back and forth, heavy and silent and dead. Bits tumbled about inside.
This machine had broken and murdered my marriage. I had merely returned the favor.
With a grin, I shut the crate. I felt lighter than the helium that kept the great ship aloft. Giddy, I burst from the hold. The swinging hatch struck a redheaded crewman, knocking him down, sending his cap flying.
“Sorry, my friend,” I said, helping him back on his feet. “Just making a little surprise for the wife.” He stared, but said nothing as I dusted off his hat, placed it in his hands, and made my way towards the stairs.
I returned to the promenade. Everyone save Lily greeted me warmly. My stomach felt much better, thank you, and I was finally able to enjoy the view.
I had won.
That night – for the first time in nearly three months – I drank myself into oblivion. Wonderful predictions danced through my mind as I downed glass after glass in the dining room. I wanted that thing to fall apart before her very eyes when she turned it on – and I wanted to be there to watch. I’d become an expert at watching. I deserved a change of subject.
When we arrived in Nice, Lily would open her crate to find the machine had been mortally damaged in transit. Cargo handlers weren’t the most careful of people. Accidents happened. Adding to the dilemma, I’d ‘mistakenly’ canceled our insurance policy on the appliance. Finally, the only savings we’d had I’d already spent on our wonderful holiday. We simply couldn’t afford to buy another machine, not for a long time – possibly never, dear me!
Lily would not be pleased – but she would be mine again. Completely. Far away from home we could work things out without distractions.
For the moment, I simply imbibed whatever was put before me. I’m certain I made a horse’s ass of myself. I don’t recall much after dessert besides angry glances and low whispers from the other passengers. The only memory of any clarity was Lily helping me to our cabin and into bed, cursing me the entire way.
In the night’s darkest hour, I awoke to a furious pounding upon my stateroom door. Alcohol coursed through me. Still garbed in my dinner suit, I felt my way to the door and pulled it open.
The ship’s Captain stood outside, flanked by a pair of crew. “Sir, it’s about your wife.”
I gestured at the bed behind me, finger crooked, my arm swaying like a pendulum. “She’s right-” I looked over my shoulder and the words perished upon my lips. Lily was gone. I turned back to the door, squinting into the passageway’s bright electric light. “Where is she?”
“There’s been a situation.”
“A situation? That’s rather broad.”
The captain looked at the other two crew members. I noticed that one of the crewmen was a bit uneven on his feet. His hands shook and he refused to look me in the eyes, his cap pulled down low.
“Please follow us,” the captain said.
We walked down the corridor and into the bowels of the ship. The vessel seemed so much more oppressive at night, a tangle of dark passages and shadowy corners more appropriate to a king’s maze. At last we entered an especially cramped space . It was only when the captain engaged the lights that I realized where we were standing.
The cargo hold. Rows of crates and parcels loomed as dark shapes under the dimmed night lighting. My next inhalation rankled my senses. A harsh metallic stink hung in the air, akin to a butcher shop’s tang.
Slowly, the captain led the way through the walls of boxes until he paused at a corner. He pointed around the bend as if he was unwilling to go himself. Beyond the turn, I glimpsed the automaton crate’s gaping door. A great weight sunk into my stomach.
“I’m very sorry, sir.” The captain gestured at the shaken airman who’d accompanied us. “Airman Abernathy heard a loud banging and came to investigate. He found her as you see.”
I slowly walked around the corner.
The dress. That’s how I recognized her. That smooth, lovely fabric I’d selected. What once was pure silver was now a torn, crushed rag mottled with blood.
I said her name aloud, but her ears could no longer hear me. The mechanical beast had thrown itself upon her. Against the bulkhead she’d been pinned, helpless under the machine’s solid, relentless form. She’d had nowhere to run. And the machine kept pressing forward, driving against her, until–
The captain stepped alongside me, but still kept his head turned from the scene. He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I’m so sorry, sir. Dear God. I’ve never seen such a thing.”
I turned to him, and to the airmen he’d brought with him. They’d each pulled off their hats in respect.
With a shock I recognized Airman Abernathy as the redheaded boy I’d knocked over fleeing the hold. His eyes met mine, and in them I saw fear and condemnation, as if he was staring at a monster.
I slumped against the nearest crate. “I thought it… how could… I made it so wouldn’t… it wasn’t supposed to turn on…” Words tumbled forth as my drunken head swirled. “It wasn’t supposed to… I didn’t intend to do this…”
Then I realized what I was saying.
The crew members stared in unabashed horror. The captain advanced upon me, his sympathetic voice now souring with disgust.
“Sir,” he said, eyes narrowed, “what do you mean, you didn’t intend this?”
“Did you do this?”
“I didn’t mean to–”
Months later, I was convicted of murdering my wife.
The prosecutor claimed I had willingly broken the machine, knowing it would do her harm. My well-paid yet ineffective attorney failed to prove otherwise. The outraged citizen peers were convinced that, had I not tampered with the device, my Lily would still be alive. And they were right.
In desperation, my attorney attempted a madness defense, saying no man could possibly remain himself when presented with such a situation. I was a victim of Lily’s own crime against nature.
The court would have none of it.
Even a prison’s stone walls proved ill-suited for keeping news at bay.
Outrage at my wife’s acts had coursed through the nation. It was an abomination. Men from the lowest footman to the highest echelon of society found me a laughingstock. However, beneath the disrespectful chuckles and snide commentary lurked a deeper pit of utter revulsion and discontent.
There were reports of serving machines reduced to pieces in the street. Their sales fell drastically as men – most likely the men who had laughed at my situation – refused to buy them for their wives. Their ladies were more than capable of handling the chores on their own, and if the women didn’t approve, what could they have done? They had no real rights before the law. The periodicals ran page-long editorials about morality and marital duty and the need for men to keep control of their wives.
It became the final issue among many, igniting a vicious backlash. The women’s suffrage and advancement movements erupted in a tempest. The thousands of miserable wives who had apparently suffered long in silence included several whose spouses now stood in the Houses of Parliament. Many others were involved in industry and commerce, some of them the true minds behind their husbands’ business entities. By law they were not warranted any of the credit.
Their silence had not equaled blindness.
They exercised their influence. It seems many of their husbands had indulged in their own abominable relationships, and their wives were rather eager to speak of them. Change the common law, they said, or we sacrifice our status to destroy your public standing.
And so the laws changed.
Now, on this lovely spring morning in the prison, I set to paper my last words. A pair of guards flank me. My manacles clink heavy with each swipe of the pen, nearly as weighty as my thoughts The gallows platform towers dark outside the barred window, its skeletal shadow stretching across my desk.
The crowd has gathered already. Their murmur builds as my ink dries.
Over the spectators I catch another sound: a high squeaking accompanying rhythmic metallic clunks. The noise pulls at me, so very familiar. The crowd’s volume peaks. I turn in my chair, squinting into the dawn sun streaking through the window.
“Well, ‘ere he comes,” the elder of the two guards says.
His comrade smirks. “Good ‘ol Iron Jack.”
I watch a new silhouette stride across the platform, shaped like a man, its mechanical cadence revealing its true nature. A brother to my own broken machine. Until the last, the beasts surprise me with their abilities, serving yet another of humanity’s lusts.
The younger guard grunts. “At least someone found a proper use for those damned things.”
The other guard nods. He catches my expression.
“You,” he snaps at me, “finish your damned business.” With a thick hand he twists me around. “Our ‘angman never sleeps, but we could sure do wi’ some. And stop that wicked laughin’.”
Mark Rossmore crafts stories through both words and music. The past three years have seen nearly two dozen of his fiction and aviation non-fiction pieces published. As Escape the Clouds, he creates vivid, character-driven steampunk music via a flash fiction approach to songwriting. Check out his newest album Until the End at http://www.EscapetheClouds.com .
© 2011 All rights reserved Mark Rossmore.