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Rated: E · Short Story · Steampunk · #2087385
A young clocksmith decides to answer a call for help.
The Curious Matter of Clockwork Manor
Part I

In the spirit of absolute honesty, I shall begin by stating that the adventures you are about to read are not my own. The true protagonist of our tale has many talents, but condensing his thoughts into a comprehensible narrative form is not among them. I hope I may then be forgiven my encroachment.

The events here chronicled took place in the year of Eighteen-Hundred and Ninety-Five. You may recall that it was the year of the inaugural launch of the Royal Mail’s new dirigible fleet. With those twelve airships, enabled as such to surmount both the highest mountain and the widest sea, it seemed that the supreme vastness of the world was dissolving away into nothingness.

But leaving aside the all the grand adventures and capital the air fleet represented, we shall instead sharpen our focus to the city of London, to a small but respectable lodging in the heart of Mayfair.

One of the benefits of selecting a career in writing is that one can always claim a pretense of working. I was deeply engrossed in one of these productive fits of inactivity when he burst into our shared flat in a state of chaotic disarray.

There was something about Ben Bradley that always put me in mind of a ferret. He did have a pointed face and an occasionally-twitchy demeanor, and his eyes were a sharp and inquisitive brown. It was remarkable that he ever had any energy at all; his days were largely spent in the workroom of a clock shop that had been in his family for three generations, and his nights were fully devoted to his meticulous little experiments in our flat. I admit that I have been rather sharp with Ben in the past about the issue of excessive clatter during hours at which all decent Englishmen should be asleep.

"Charlie!" he exclaimed, flinging aside his straw hat and topcoat. "Oh, Charlie – you'll never guess!"

"No, I daresay I couldn't," I replied groggily. "D'you have any idea what time it is?"

Ben fumbled briefly for one of his many pocket-watches. "Three-o'clock in the afternoon, of course!"

"What, again? Where does the time go?"

"No idea!" Ben said impatiently. "But really, Charlie, you'll never believe what's happened!"

"My dear fellow," I said, extricating myself from the sofa. "You always come home with that look of wild-eyed incredulity, and it's only after a lengthy preamble that I discover that the fuss is really just another switched lemur encampment at your father's shop."

"Swiss lever escapement!" Ben said sharply. "It's a fascinating design, really! It interacts more directly with the balance wheel, you see, thus causing less strain on the–"

"And while we're on the subject of clockwork, is there anything to be done about that contraption?"

I gestured to the corner, where a heap of cogs and pistons clanked and whooshed with inscrutable intent from atop Ben's worktable.

"How do you mean?" he said.

"It's been awfully clickety all day. Makes it a challenge to concentrate."

Ben's brow furrowed; all his frantic enthusiasm had collected and concentrated into his eyes.

"Really?" he said pensively. "That's peculiar. Perhaps there's a misalignment with a central cam – no! Look, man, I'm telling you something's happened!"

"So you keep saying, but with no further explanation. Do get to the point."

Ben began scrambling across the flat, gathering a calliper here or a spanner there and flinging everything into a leather satchel.

"If we actually are in the mid-afternoon as you suggest," I said, "I presume you were at the shop?"

Ben was impatiently perusing a selection of jewelers' lenses.

"At the shop, yes. I was trying to make sense of the most bizarre little mantel clock. I suspect its maker sets his prices by the quantity of components rather than the quality of the mechanism, for there was–"

"Pardon me for interrupting, Ben, but does the clock actually figure in to your big news?"

"What? Er, no, I suppose it doesn't. So I was in the shop, examining... well, any old thing, really, when a pair of policemen walked in."

"Oh, Ben – you weren't nicked again!"

"Of course not!" said Ben indignantly. "And I really don't think even that one time should count."

"Shouldn't count? The constable found you dismantling an electric carriage in plain ruddy daylight! There were gears and axles strewn across the street! And the poor cabbie – you're lucky he didn't bring you up on charges!"

There was a sheepish glow in Ben's cheeks. "It was only – I just – I mean, I had to know how it worked, you see. But I fixed it! Better than new, even!"

I sighed; it would be unproductive to parade him through that whole affair again, I knew.

"So what did the policemen want, old boy?" I said.

"The...? Oh! They were looking for clockmakers. The best in the city, they said – and someone had recommended Bradley & Co. as the genuine A-1!"

"What the deuce would the police want with clockmakers, I wonder?"

"That's what my father said!" Ben resumed his frenetic packing. "But eventually he agreed to leave my brother in charge of the shop and pop over to Savile Row. So we followed the constables to the department–"

"Hang on," I said. "The 'we' here being you and your father? Why did he have you along?"

There was no mistaking the expression that crept across Ben's face like sunrise on a clear morning. It was undeniably pride.

"He told the policemen straightaway that if the best clocks in the city were at Bradley & Co., then the best clockmaker was me!"

"I say! Well done, you! Of course, you'd better be the best after all the tinkering that goes on around here. But then, what exactly did they want with the best of the best?"

Ben beamed again. "To help Dr. Plumpocket, of course!"

I felt rather like I'd stumbled onto a punchline before hearing the rest of the joke. The name was familiar, of course; even a professional idler like myself would know the name of the single wealthiest man in Britain.

"The industrialist?" I said. "Why would he be interested in clocks?"

Ben stopped trying to cram one more ratchet into his overstuffed satchel and stared at me with his very best impression of a codfish.

"Surely you know Peabody Plumpocket!" he exclaimed. "Inventor of the triple-piston steam compressor? And the automated postal network? Why, his whole house runs on clockwork, by Jove!"

"Steady on, man, steady on! No need to get overexcited. So the chap's a bit of a dab hand with gears and springs. Is he looking for an apprentice?"

"Well, no. Apparently he sent a letter to the Times – the Chief Inspector showed us a copy. Something went wrong with Plumpocket's house, and now he and his family are trapped inside!"

I frowned. "Then wouldn't a locksmith be more on the mark?"

"I doubt a locksmith could get past anything Dr. Peabody Plumpocket designs," scoffed Ben. "Besides, the Chief Inspector said someone may have already died trying."

"I'm terribly sorry, Ben, old fellow – but it sounded an awful lot like you just said 'died'."

"I... I did."

"And if I may make an inference, you intend to try and disarm this world-renowned, incredibly dangerous clockwork house yourself?"

"Well... yes, I suppose I do."

"Then egad, man! What must your blood be made of? Are you not the least bit terrified?"

The room fell silent. Even the jumbled mechanism in the corner seemed eerily subdued. When Ben spoke at last, it was with a calm, confident voice that was wholly incongruous to his fidgety nature:

"Yes, Charlie, I'm afraid. You know me – I'm not adventurous. I have no desire to go tromping through any wild jungles or chasing down brigands. But this is Clockwork Manor we're talking about! This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the pinnacle of human ingenuity firsthand! I've waited my whole life for a moment like this.

"But more importantly, there is a man's life at stake. A man, a daughter, and a son. They need help, Charlie. They need help – and by God, I just might be able to help them. How can I refuse that? Where is the point in learning how the world ticks if you won't lift a finger to keep it ticking?"

Ordinarily, I'm not a man easily moved – but I tell you, reader, that in this moment I felt a great surge of pride and admiration for my friend. It was almost impossible to believe that this was timid, twitchy, ferret-faced Ben Bradley making an impassioned and surprisingly-eloquent speech about marching forward into certain danger!

"What can I say, old boy," I said with a sigh. "There's a noble streak in you I've never appreciated before. And it sounds like you've thought this through."

With a final effort, Ben managed to fasten the clasp on his satchel. "I hope I have," he said.

"Is there anything I can do? Short of coming along and being a general nuisance, I mean."

"I don't think so, Charlie, but thank you. Oh! Perhaps you could write some of this down when I return – it might make for an interesting story!"

"Just try your damnedest to make it back," I said. "I don't know how I could possibly go on without another lodger splitting the rent."

"Always the sensible one!" Ben laughed. "Very well, then. If your father still refuses to foot your bill–"

"Emphatically he does!" said I.

"–then I shall return straightaway, with notes of my exploits. But in the meantime – crikey! Sorry, Charlie, but I must dash! I promised I would meet Captain Durward at the Manor at 4-o'clock!"

"Captain who?"

Ben dove behind the sofa to retrieve his straw hat and rough leather topcoat. "Durward! Former dragoon, I think. The Chief Inspector said he might come in handy!"

"They're giving you a valet? I must say, that's very interesting. Do you suppose he would–"

"Finish that thought later, Charlie!" said Ben as he bustled out the door. "And I'll take notes, I promise – for the story, I mean! Good-bye!"

And with that, he was gone – speeding off to whatever adventures providence held in store.

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