The Solicitor took Father’s will from the hand of an automaton standing next to the desk. He waved the machine away and began reading. “To Euphemia Thorniwork, my Pheemie, my only daughter, I leave whatever money is in my bank account. She is of age, therefore she may receive the bequest without delay. It will contribute towards funding her intended mathematical study. Great things await her.”
Only Father had called me Pheemie. Tears pooled in my eyes at the sound of it spoken in another man’s voice.
The solicitor continued, “I have faith that she will devise a way of paying for the remainder. I also leave her one of my inventions that may facilitate the matter.” He looked up and removed his pince-nez. “That is all. Despite my urging, your father included no indication as to what that is.”
The following day, I tried to poach an egg for lunch. It appeared that, contrary to all Father had taught me about chemistry, it is possible to burn water. As I scraped the cinders into the bin, I was interrupted by a knock on the front door.
A figure stood outside, the shape and size of a man but constructed of bronze. It was dressed like a country gentleman, with a black band tied around the upper right arm. The face, with a slit for the mouth to enable the voice to project, was smooth. Engraved curlicues above its eyes imitated eyebrows. According to the copperplate letters engraved on its forehead in Father’s handwriting, its name was Claridge. Its green glass eyes fixed mine. “My master – your late father – required that I reside with you as your adviser.”
I took a step back. “Adviser? How can an automaton get me to Oxford University?”
“I have faith that we will devise a way of achieving it.”
My first instinct was to turn the thing away. I hesitated and the bronze man stuck its foot in the path of the door as I made to close it.
“My master created me to learn and grow from my surroundings.”
“I must consider this.”
“He also taught me to cook.”
“Can you poach an egg?”
“It is elementary.”
“Then come inside.” I shut the door behind it. “Where is your key?” I could not see the winding port situated in the head that all automatons required.
“I am powered by a form of battery.” It raised its shirt, revealing a glass panel in its abdomen, fitted with a small brass tap. Inside, two polished metal plates hung in clear liquid. It explained that its brain was a wax cylinder inside its head. “That is where my programming, which tells me how to see the world and how to react, is stored. All my knowledge, my learned behavior and my skills, are etched into logical circuits in the cylinder, ready to be accessed.”
I heard Father’s voice in my mind: “Pheemie! The beauty of numbers, the magic of the sphere!”
“Did my Father scratch science and mathematics into your cylinder?”
It was fortunate that no others would observe my engaging in chit chat with an automaton. Our neighbors were keen observers of social propriety.
It nodded. “After my master taught me literacy, he made me commit his library to memory.”
“All of it?”
“Yes. Of course, it includes many mathematical texts, but my preference is for chemistry. It is easiest to process.”
“I feel that his library connects me to him,” I blurted. “I know it is not in your programming to feel. I am sorry if I… the fact of the matter is that I am still…”
“A period of grieving is within logical parameters. I have computed that his passing was a loss to the world of science, and to you.”
While one could not hold discussions with machines, it might provide a useful method of retrieving information from the library. “You may stay.”
One afternoon two weeks later, Aunt Ada called without invitation, interrupting a discussion Claridge and I were having about the chemistry of raising agents in food. I had corrected him even though I knew he was right. After all, I was now his mistress. He served Earl Grey tea, with the Chelsea buns that he had made to illustrate a point about yeast.
I felt warmth in his metal hand as I took my cup from him. “Thank you. It is delicious,” I said. “You must have one yourself.” Ridiculous.
He took a pace backwards and stood motionless, arms by his side.
Aunt Ada bit a chunk out of a bun, then took a sip of tea. Her lips pursed into a non-mathematical shape as she put her cup down. “This always did taste like something one ought to dab behind one’s ears, not drink.”
“It was Father’s favorite.”
“On that, my poor brother and I disagreed. Also, while he may have considered it right for a young lady to live alone, I am now your next of kin and, I also disagree with that.”
It was not proper to discuss such matters in front of servants or automatons. I opened my mouth to ask Claridge to afford us some privacy but before I could speak, Aunt Ada continued, with no more apparent regard for his presence than she would have for a hatstand.
“I have concerns about your loneliness. I have made a decision about your future.”
“I have Claridge.”
“An inanimate object. You would do better to get yourself a lapdog.” She helped herself to another bun.
“The dog that is master of chemistry and mathematics would be a rare creature. And I doubt it could cook. You seem to approve of Claridge’s output – that is the third you have taken.”
“Such impertinence does you no credit,” she spluttered, through a mouthful of bun, “but you bring me to my next point. In particular, it is ill-advised for you to spend so much time in the company of automata. The mechanical influence is taxing to a young woman’s brain. I see the start of it – thanking a soul-less machine! Would you thank the kettle for boiling the water?”
“No, but I would thank Claridge for heating the kettle. Father taught me to be polite to servants.”
She rolled her eyes. “My poor brother’s teaching. Mathematics! Of What practical use is it? Far better that he should have taught you elocution, and deportment.”
“I am determined to make my life studying mathematics, for its own sake.”
Aunt Ada folded her arms. “Your legacy will not last longer than a few weeks.”
“I will teach, to support myself.”
Her nostrils flared. “You do not listen.” She banged her hand down on the table. The cups jumped and tea spilled out. Claridge moved forward and dabbed at the mess with a cloth.
Aunt Ada flapped a hand at him. “Leave us. I am sure that there are matters to be attended to in the kitchen. I cannot abide such fussing.” He left the room, closing the door behind him.
She leaned across the table towards me. “I have made allowances for your state of mind, since you are in mourning. As, of course, am I.” She produced a handkerchief from the sleeve of her black silk dress and gave the corner of one eye a dainty dab, as though she had just remembered the fact. “I think only of your welfare. It is time for you to forget playing the bluestocking. Mr. Milton the druggist has enquired after you, again. I think he will ask you to walk out with him. Now, what say you?”
My stomach turned at the thought of keeping company with sweaty-faced Reginald Milton, of his hot, fishy breath. But unless I could fund my continuing academic career, penury would force me to make a match, with him or someone like him.
“You seem unimpressed. You may be right. Some might consider a druggist to be a tradesman. But you need not remain a spinster all your life. I will effect some other introductions.” She retrieved a copy of the London Daily Post from her bag. “You will find accounts in the society pages of the sort of gatherings you should attend. I will contrive to obtain invitations for you.” She handed me the newspaper.
As Claridge was seeing her out, she paused. “Ensure that you do not speak of mathematics to young men. They do not like their wife to be more intelligent than they.”
He shut the door after her.
“It is beyond belief that she is Father’s sister,” I said, even though it was not right to deride a human in front of an automaton. “She is as unlike him as it is possible to be.”
“It would be inappropriate for me to voice an opinion on your aunt’s personality. However, the evidence would appear to suggest that you are correct.”
I felt my hands shake. I spoke again, my mouth dry. “Is it really so improper to be fascinated by numbers? To wish to immerse myself in their world?”
“It would be a waste of a mind such as yours to do otherwise.”
“I wish that you had told her that.”
“She would not have listened. ‘Would you ask the advice of a teapot?’”
Our exchanges were becoming something approaching conversation. I had conflicting feelings about this, but Aunt Ada would have been appalled. I told him of her plans. “I have no wish to spend the rest of my life shackled to such a man as she will find, or to spend my life scratching an existence as a penniless spinster. But what choice do I have? I cannot afford to study. “
“Then, what I have to tell you is timeous. I have heard something that is most interesting.” He picked up the Post and scanned the front page. “Yes, it is reported here. ‘Second Gold Rush. People flocking to the Klondike. Riches for the taking.’ We will go there, you and I. Make our fortune. Status. Comfort. Tuition fees.”
“Claridge, you are presumptuous,” I said. “I may extend you courtesy, but that does not mean that you may assume some misguided parity between us.”
“I understand, and extend my apologies.”
I paused. “Please continue. About the news item. How could we mine gold?”
Green light glowed behind his eyes. “We need not struggle to the goldfields. The ones who make the most money are those who supply the miners with their needs. Consider how much more they could extract after blasting their way through the permafrost. We will make and sell explosives.”
“Claridge, the very idea! We will blow ourselves to high heaven.”
“I have the knowledge. And here is a notion that has just occurred to me: one must speculate, to accumulate.”
A future breeding cannon fodder for the Empire loomed in my mind. I used my last five pounds to pay for chemicals, apparatus, and outward airship fares.
With much sweating and puffing, the carter’s men heaved our equipment onto the back of the wagon. The leader took off his bowler hat and fanned his face with it. He shoved a scrap of crumpled paper and a pencil stub into my hand. “Sign here.”
I did so. “We will meet you at the airfield.” I gave them the few coins I had in my reticule and shut the door behind us.
Claridge strode down the street to the tram stop. As I scuttled along after him, I paused and flinched. Supposing we should meet Aunt Ada coming towards us? As we turned the corner, the tram clattered towards the stop. The driver pulled the two horses to a standstill and we stepped on. I pictured Aunt Ada, a faceless young man in tow, knocking on our front door and I heard the sound echoing in the empty house.
“Goodbye, Miss Ada,” Claridge said, as I took my seat. He turned to me. “You may exhale, Euphemia.”
As the airship could not rise high enough to cross the Alaskan coastal mountains, it would take us no farther than Skagway, Alaska. This was the start of the White Pass Trail leading to the headwaters of the Yukon River. Claridge was certain that there would be as much commerce from the miners starting on the trail as there would be from those reaching its end.
I was obliged to stow him in the hold, as though he were no more than animated baggage. The attendant directed me to a space between a man-sized automaton, dressed in prospector’s clothes, “Inverarity 10.0.1” engraved on the forehead, and a female with white hair, dressed in black: “Grandmama 2.1”. A child-sized automaton, dressed in a sailor suit, farther along the row, clicked and whirred as cogs turned ever more slowly and mechanisms ran down. The attendant clamped Claridge’s feet to the floor. We left the hold and he showed me to my seat.
“All alone. You travellin’ for business? Nobody would come here for pleasure.”
“I seek to make my fortune, at the start of the White Pass Trail.”
He frowned. A shadow flitted across my mind. “Should I have chosen the Chilkoot Trail?”
He shrugged. “Makes no difference. One’s hell. The other’s damnation.”
He left. I crept back to the bowels of the airship. Row after row of metallic faces stared into nothing, their clockwork motors unwound, their bodies frozen in the positions they had last adopted. I found Claridge.
“I fear you will find the journey tedious, on your own,” I said. “Not even the chance of conversation with your fellows.”
“I will use the time to compute the quantities of components and the processes required to make the fulminate of mercury detonator and the guncotton. We will be ready to begin production as soon as we arrive.”
I mounted a stairway and returned to my seat. Restraining cables fell away from the airship and it lifted. With the hiss of steam and the roar of motors, our flight to Canada had begun.
The cold of evening filled the air as we stepped out of the airship. The mud, set into solid ridges, dug into my feet through the soles of my boots as I picked my way along, trying to find our store. Claridge trudged along next to me pushing a handcart carrying as much of our equipment as it could accommodate.
“The agent told me it was next to a draper,” I said. “Perhaps we can buy extra cotton wool there, if ours sells out.”
“When it sells out. You should always retain a positive attitude.”
Father would have said the same. I felt my throat tighten. We reached the end of the block. “Surely, this cannot be right,” I said. Tufts of grass poked through the clods of mud thrown up against the door. Claridge dropped the handle of the cart and looked at the document the agent had given us. “I fear that it is.”
The half-rotten wooden step shifted under my foot. Claridge pushed the door and it creaked open, scraping across the floorboards. The odor of damp wood, mold and musty earth filled my head as I stepped inside. Shelves lined the walls. The filthy window glass let through just enough light for me to avoid falling over a rickety table. A wooden bench stood to one side. I looked at the empty stove and shivered.
Claridge flung the window open. “It will suffice. We can put the carboys on these shelves.” He leaned on the table. “This will take the weight of the apparatus. I fear you must put your bedding on the floor.” He brought in the bolts of cotton wool, the massive glass carboys filled with acid and the jar of mercury. “I will retrieve the remainder of our cargo from the airfield and see about firewood and a padlock for the door.”
I handed him some coins. He headed down the steps. I ran after him and grabbed his arm. “Those were our last few cents,” I said. “It is hopeless.”
He turned back. “Nonsense. Your father commended you to me for your determination, many times. What would he have said if you gave up without trying?”
“Claridge, stop,” I snapped. “Father is never far from my mind. But we must return to London.”
“I will return to London – once we have made our fortune. But when you leave here, it will be for Huxley College, Oxford.”
“Your faith is misplaced. Did you not hear the agent say that prospectors must carry a year’s supplies? They will not want to add ours to their burden.”
“I heard him well. And I know equally that we will achieve our aims. I saw no other stores selling explosives. I have already computed how much we can produce, and how much a miner will need. While I am out, calculate how much we can charge per grain of each of our products.”
There was comfort in numbers. My jaw unclenched and I felt my heart rate slow. “I will. But we must charge a fair price.”
“I would expect nothing less of you.” He trudged away down the muddy street.
I opened my valise, took out my leather apron and brass goggles, put them on and started weighing and measuring.
Towards the end of September, the days grew colder and the evenings came earlier. We had been in Skagway for one month. The sky hung grey, frowning, over the town. It would not be long until the first snow fell. Prospectors were coming back with microscopic amounts of gold dust. I looked out into the empty street.
“The rush is over,” I said. “We must leave, before winter hits in earnest.”
Claridge’s voice softened. “I have dragged you half across the world for no more than a game of chance. I truly believed that, in a few weeks, we would make our fortune.”
“Do not distress yourself. At least you removed me from Aunt Ada’s matchmaking.”
“Things may come good. It is just that I have not yet worked out how. It is like completing a jigsaw puzzle without the picture. And where some pieces are upside down”
I shrugged. “They might be worse. We have fifty grains of gold dust. That will cover what I paid for the fares. We have made no profit, but also no loss.”
Claridge stayed behind to begin packing up what remained of our stock. Perhaps we would get a few pence, on sale or return, from the chemical supplier in London. I walked through a veil of fog to the airfield. The ticket office was open, but flights were delayed until the sky cleared. I reserved places on the next one out, the following morning.
“Three grains of gold’s the fare for an automaton,” the clerk said. He weighed it out and handed the bag back.
A man standing on the other side of the hall called to me. “Ma’am? Some of us are starting a friendly poker game. Just to pass the time. Care to join us?”
It would be something new, something not considered suitable for ladies back at home. It would not take long to learn. How prescient of Claridge to speak of a game of chance.
“Yes,” I said, “but I cannot play. Will you teach me?”
“With pleasure.” He shook my hand. “Jake, to my friends. I can see that’s what you and I are going to be.”
Huge stoves, crammed full with wood, stood at each end of the saloon. The windows were closed and lamps flared against the white-washed walls. Two men, sitting at a round wooden table, looked up as we approached. “Boys, this is our new British lady friend,” Jake said. “Meet Dan.” He nodded to the man with a whisky bottle on the table in front of him. “And Bob.” A man with a cigar clamped between his teeth stood up and gave a slight bow.
“I am Miss Thorniwork.”
“You’re a long way from home,” Bob said. “All alone, without your bronze buddy.”
Jake shook his head.
I took my seat.
“This is called Seven-Card Stud,” Jake said. “We’ll use matchsticks, until you get the reckoning of it.”
This was a game that I could win. Apart from the random fall of the cards, mathematics was involved. There would be a good chance of getting dealt the cards I needed, providing nobody else held them. I must make the others call with worse hands than mine and fold better hands than mine.
Dan won. Bob won. I made each mistake only once. It was all controlled by probability and odds, and remembering which cards had been played. I won a hand. And another.
“You’re a natural, Miss T,” Jake said. “Now, how about we make things more interesting?” He tipped a heap of gold nuggets onto the table. The other two men did the same. There was more gold glowing in the lamp light than I had seen in my entire time in Skagway. “Now you,” Jake said.
I put my bag of gold dust on the table. “I believe it is my turn to deal.”
As I won the last gold nugget, the saloon door burst open. The floor shook as Claridge pounded across the room. “Where have you been? I have long finished packing. I have been looking everywhere.”
I stood up. “My apologies, Claridge. I did not see the time.”
Daniel sneered. “Tell this uppity gadget to get lost. We’re gonna play a while longer.”
I shook my head and swept the nuggets into my reticule. “He, and I, are leaving. It has been a pleasure, but I know enough to quit while I am ahead.” I swept out into the street, Claridge behind me.
I skipped and danced along, like a child. “There, Aunt Ada!” I shouted into the fog. “Do you see the practical use of mathematics? I have enough to support my studies for years. I shall be the first female professor of mathematics at Huxley College.” I stopped as we reached our doorway and took Claridge’s hand, warm in the freezing air. “Poker is simply a matter of what cards they think I have. And what they think I think they have.”
“And what they think you think they think you have, I suppose,” Claridge said. “It is unseemly to shout and dance in the street. But I feel that, under the circumstances, it was right to give you your head.” We stepped inside the store. Claridge raised a floorboard, I put the reticule underneath it and he nailed it shut again.
On the following morning, the fog lifted. We would have to make several trips with the handcart to transport all our belongings “We will take the gold last,” Claridge said. “The less it is in plain sight, the better. Go and book in. I will follow in a short while, with the cart. I wish to conduct one final experiment with the nitric and muriatic acids.”
As I left the ticket office, Claridge dragged himself towards me, pushing the half-loaded handcart. “It was…heavy. I must make yet another return trip for the glassware.” His voice crackled and, although had he had no need for air, he appeared to be gasping.
The ground crew hauled at cables, walking the airship, attached to a movable mooring mast, out into the field. I gestured to a porter “Please place the contents of this cart in the hold.”
Claridge stood while the man followed my instructions. “I regret that I cannot help,” he said.
I pushed the cart back to the store. Claridge limped behind me, with a ratcheting sound of wood creaking against metal. As I mounted the steps, the door swung open. Smashed glass covered the floor like crystals of ice. There was a gap where someone had ripped up the boards. The gold was gone.
My lungs seized mid-breath. I sank to my knees. “All is lost.”
“It is not. They have left one empty carboy intact.”
“What use is that? They have taken the gold. We cannot start again.”
Claridge bent over me, gears whining, and touched my shoulder. I felt a tremor in his hand. “The gold is still here.” He stood up and raised his shirt. Amber fluid filled his battery. The once-shining metal electrodes were dull and pitted, releasing streams of bubbles. “It is a mixture of nitric and muriatic acids. The alchemists called it aqua regia. Royal water. Because it will dissolve gold. And… here is ours.”
He nodded. “Drain the aqua regia into the intact carboy. Do not let it touch your skin.”
I did as he instructed.
“Take it, and get onto the airship. Recover the gold, once you are home. The method may be found in ‘Textbook of Chemistry’. Third shelf, fourth from the left. Page 645.”
“Aqua regia dissolves other metals, besides gold. Your electrodes. We must replace them.”
“There are no replacements. My components are unique. You must lift the carboy onto the cart. Hurry, the airship will not wait.”
“There will be more flights. There must be a way to repair you.”
“No. My systems are no longer viable. Even if we obtained the components, your father left no instructions. Those men departed empty handed. You must go, before they return.” He blinked, his eyelids rattling. “You are crying, but do not be distressed.” The light behind his eyes dimmed. “I am only a machine.”
“No, you are more. You are not Claridge 1.0. You are the only Claridge. You feel pain. Emotions. Desires. Curiosity. You have a mind. You live.”
His internal mechanisms clicked as they switched off.
“It is only my programming, replicating how pain might be perceived.”
“Not so. I will not believe it.” I clutched his hand. Cold, like the bronze from which it was made.
“And I cannot believe otherwise. For if it is true, and I do have a soul, will it not wander for all eternity in that place of darkness, cut off from life?”
“Claridge. My brother. You told me you were not programmed for feeling, but to process. Did Father also program you to lay down your life for me?”
“No. Pheemie,” he whispered. “But. Using my logical circuits. I know it is what he would have wanted.”
Judith Field lives in London. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. Judith is a pharmacist, medical writer, editor and indexer. Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared in a variety of publications, in the USA, UK and Australia and her non-fiction has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the UK.