This free story is posted to support the Crossed Genres project “Post a Story for Haiti.”
MY CLOCKWORK HEART
by Joely Sue Burkhart
A gentleman took note of Mary’s dishabille, peering down his long aristocratic nose with a cruel, sensual curl to his lip. Then he noticed the splatters on her nightgown: mud, no, surely not blood… and his top hat fell into the gutter.
Yet he did nothing to help her. No one did.
She ran through thick, suffocating fog from island to island of dirty gaslight, muttering out loud, “One more light. One more step.”
Even the street urchins who typically jostled for a passerby’s attention by waving the latest news could only stare at her with a knowing horror in their eyes. Too many women had ended this way, especially in this part of London. They would be shocked to know that she was Lady Aurum, wealthy enough to purchase each and every ragged shack on this crooked narrow lane. The only building that had managed to obtain her notice, however, had been the large abandoned factory in the deepest, darkest warren of streets just off the wharf. Her laboratory; her refuge.
Her heart gave a weak stutter. The knife had sliced deeply, surely more injury than a bloodletting doctor could ever hope to mend. She laughed, a wet cough of blood in her mouth. I have no more blood to let.
Her leaden arms were numb, but she kept her left fist buried hard in the gaping wound in her chest to staunch the flow. Perhaps she could use her fingers to manually pump the damaged organ if her heart ceased beating before she reached the laboratory.
Barefoot, she staggered onward. The loud clang of her left foot echoed eerily in the endless night. A particularly vicious case of gout had crippled her father, until she’d managed to construct a new golden foot for him. Then she’d contracted the same debilitating illness, giving her incentive to improve on the prototype.
Despite the failing weakness of her injured heart, the foot of delicate gears and gleaming metal still worked to balance her weight perfectly, arching and pushing against the treacherous cobblestones to propel her another pace closer to her sanctuary. If she died on this filthy street, she daren’t guess how long it might take for one of the poor to gain the courage to cut off that golden limb.
She shoved the door open so hard the wood rebounded on the wall. Her assistant, Mr. Moreland, whirled around with a copperwhirl in one hand and a magnifying glass in his other. “My lady! Anne, come quickly!”
With a swipe of his arm, he cleared the high table, heedless of his project. Mary glimpsed only bits of wire and cogs before the construct shattered on the floor. He scooped her into his arms and gently lay her on the table.
“Heart,” she gasped out through frozen lips.
With a comforting squeeze to her shoulder, he smiled. “Never fear, my lady; I know exactly what to do. How fortuitous that you were already experimenting on a replacement!”
The clockwork heart had been the natural progression of her work. After she’d accomplished foot replacements on her father and herself, she’d returned precious music to a violinist whose hand had been crushed in a carriage accident. His tearful gratitude and charm had been so considerable that she’d married that handsome young—but extremely poor—Italian. Not only had she returned his music, but she’d also gifted him with her heart.
She’d never intended to make the latter a physical exchange.
As calmly as though his mistress stumbled through the door every day requiring massive surgery to preserve her life, Mr. Moreland strode to the cabinets and began selecting the tools he would need. She heard the muted, frightened questions from Anne, the maid-of-all-works they were training to be an assistant, and his soothing response, although their words made little sense.
Fog still enfolded her, cold and heavy. Too heavy to breathe. Too cold to ever be warm again. Her heart beat out a ponderous dying waltz. She counted a slow twenty, chest aching with agony, until the next beat.
Tears trickled down her cheeks. Love had blinded her. Love had killed her.
Her heart gave one last desperate painful thump in her chest and she sank into the billowing fog.
At the knock on her door, Mary called, “Enter.”
Seated before her writing desk scattered with colored paper and lace, she turned to Mr. Moreland and only winced slightly. She’d been so terribly sore at first that she couldn’t sit upright or roll over unassisted, let alone walk. A few short months after her miraculous surgery, she could do all of the above and more, nearly as well and as quickly as she’d ever done.
“I’ve some troubling news, my lady.”
She arched her brows and set her pen down. “My husband plans to sell my research to the highest bidder.”
“How did… Yes. I’ve had several people contact me to inquire about our current projects. What should I tell them?”
With a careless shrug, she turned back to her writing table. “Tell them whatever you want.”
Mr. Moreland sat in the chair beside her desk. “When he reported you missing, I didn’t know what I should do. I didn’t know if you would survive the surgery, let alone the painful and difficult recovery. So I did nothing. I did nothing when everyone in Town gossiped about how much of your money he’d been spending. I did nothing when he moved his ladybird into your house, gave her your jewels, and introduced her as his fiancee. But please, my lady, don’t ask me to do nothing when he destroys your dream of a research facility where anyone with a damaged body may come for a new life and hope for an active future.”
“That dream died,” she said as gently as she could, but he still flinched. His long slender fingers trembled on the table, but those marvelous hands had not shaken once when he’d been wrist-deep in her ribcage. “Don’t worry about me or our research, Mr. Moreland. I have more money than he can ever possibly spend, hidden and protected beyond his touch; more resources and stashed treasures than he can possibly find. Let them purchase this building and the cogs, wires,and springs within; they shall never be able to create a tenth of our magic.”
“How can you be so…so…” His brow furrowed, and she knew he was struggled to find a word that wouldn’t offend her.
“Callous?” She smiled. “I simply do not care.”
“You ought to be furious at Mr. de Luca. Your husband murdered you, my lady! I know you loved him. I expected you to weep and rage, scream with fury, something, anything but this utterly cold emptiness.”
Cocking her head, she considered his words. “What would crying or raging serve? I assure you that I am plotting the coldest, most perfect revenge for my dear beloved husband. I am angry, bitterly, viciously angry.” Even she noticed that the inflection of her voice remained unchanged. She tried to put more fire behind her words. “He shall pay most grievously for his crime against me.”
“Perhaps…Do you think…” Mr. Moreland hesitated, wetting his lips. “The clockwork heart is functioning well?”
“Oh, yes, indeed. It’s much stronger than my old heart. I feel it pumping quite energetically in my chest, filling me with strength and vigor. I dare say once my wound is fully healed that I shall be able to work for days and days without ever feeling tired. Think of all the wondrous things we might create if I feel no need to stop and rest.”
After I accomplish my revenge.
She stared down at the lacy card she’d crafted in the artificial, romantic shape of a heart. Sending sentimental cards to one’s true love was all the rage, and with St. Valentine’s Day less than a fortnight away, the silly tradition fit into her plans perfectly. Last year, her newly-wedded husband had given her a red paper heart bearing undying words of love, so it was only fitting that she send him a golden paper heart, of course with a slightly different message.
You may have taken my heart, but you failed to take my life.
She signed the card with a flourishing M.
“Please deliver this to Mr. de Luca at my old residence.”
“But my lady, what are you going to do? Surely you’re not going to let him steal our research out from beneath our very noses!”
“Of course not,” she retorted, but without any real ire. Inside, she felt only a smooth,calm lake of rational thought, perfectly, crystal clear. Perhaps Mr. Moreland was justified in being disturbed by her callousness, but she felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. Sentimentality didn’t—couldn’t—encumber her any longer. A year ago, the thought of losing her family townhouse or her grandmother’s jewels would have sent her into a terror. That was before my husband used a knife to carve my heart out of my chest.
Besides, the best jewels and artwork had been carefully stored under lock and key long before Mr. de Luca had ever come into her life. Despite his obvious thoughts to the contrary, she was very careful and very, very clever with her money and property. “What are you currently working on?”
Mr. Moreland relaxed, his shoulders easing as though he’d set down a great and mighty load. “I’ve been experimenting with various expandable materials to use in our replacement lungs.”
He’s afraid. The thought came to her like a switch, illuminating his shaking hands and sweaty brow. He’s afraid we’ll lose everything and then where shall he go?
However, he had utmost confidence in his mistress. “Well, we surely don’t want anyone to steal that research. Relocate our key materials and all our documentation to our alternative address on Fleet Street. Mr. de Luca has no knowledge of that location and our work shall be entirely safe there.”
“Will you at least contact your solicitor and let him know that you’re safe and well?”
“I already did,” she soothed. “Anne took a detailed letter for me weeks ago. I’m surprised she didn’t tell you to ease your worries.” At the mention of their assistant, Mr. Moreland’s cheeks turned a delicate pink. Once, it had amused Mary to tease him about his affections for the girl. “My solicitor is viciously intelligent and more cunning than anyone I’ve ever known in my life. My husband has absolutely no chance at all of securing additional funds. Why else do you think he’s trying to sell our research? Trust me, Brandon,” she whispered, deliberately using his Christian name.
He rose and began to bow. “With my life, my lady.”
Her answering smile made him jerk to a halt, and she swore something like fear flickered in his eyes. “Oh, I don’t require so very much, my dear friend.”
Mary pulled the fur-lined hood over her distinctive copper-colored hair and waited in the shadows with a good view of the ramshackle pub’s entry. The night was silent; not even a passing hack clattered by. The streetlights had been lit, one meager oasis flickering on the corner, but otherwise not a soul ventured into this dank fog.
Old habits died hard, for her husband had rushed inside the pub nearly a hour ago, casting nervous glances over his shoulder as though the very hounds of hell were on his heels. Rodolfo de Luca had been drunk the night he stumbled out of this very public house and suffered the tragic accident that had nearly ended his musical career. He’d only managed to make it a few blocks down the street before he’d passed out in the road and a carriage had run over his precious violinist’s hand.
Her hand. She felt her lips curve into that smile again that had so terrified her partner.
At last, here Mr. de Luca came now, wavering back and forth down the darkened street. A concerned friend called from the doorway, but he waved him off. The flash of his golden limb was unmistakable in the murk.
“Fine,” he muttered, rubbing a hand over his slack mouth. “I’m fine and dandy.”
As he neared her hiding place, she backed into the alley. It already stank of excrement and death. Nobody would pay any attention at all to a scuffle in the shadows, not in this part of town at this time of night. No, they’d simply rush on toward the safety of light and numbers on more populous streets, grateful some other poor sod was getting nicked while they made their escape.
She waited until he had nearly passed the alley. “Oh! Can it be the famous Italian violinist?”
Her airy, girlish voice made him stumble to a bleary halt. She stepped out and gripped his arm—just above the golden hand—like a besotted fan. “Why, it is! Mr. de Luca! I’ve so longed to meet you!”
He straightened and tugged at his disheveled, stained coat. “Now those are words to brighten any dreary night. Where did you hear me play?”
Tugging on his arm and laughing inanely, she rattled off some nonsense about the songs she’d heard him play. The fool staggered after her into the alley, enthralled with the idea of a silly young chit swooning at his great talent, when she knew for a fact that he hadn’t managed a concert in months. “Don’t you remember me, Rudy?”
He frowned at the use of his pet name that only his presumably dead wife had called him. Ducking his head, he tried to peer beneath her hood, but the shadows made it impossible. “That depends, bella. Who are you?”
“I’m your most adoring fan. Did you receive my Valentine’s Day card?”
Recoiling, he jerked against her grip, but her hands were as strong as her powerful new heart. “Dio, I have no idea of what you speak. I didn’t receive any ridiculous cards!”
“But Rudy,” she said in a voice more like her own, now deadened by cold metal, “whatever will I do without my heart?”
He fell against the grimy brick wall. Gasping, he stared at her, sweaty face round and pale like a weak, watery moon. “Mary?”
She cocked her head. “What’s that peculiar noise? Do you hear it?” Edging closer, she pretended to listen very hard. Even over his own frantic pant, she could hear the steadfast clicking of her new heart. “Tick tock, tick tock, says my new heart, as strong and steady as the Great Clock!”
He made a low sound, a choking, broken denial.
“Aren’t you going to apologize, Rudy?” Calmly, she pushed up the sleeve of his coat and unbuttoned the sleeve of his plain linen shirt. “At least stammer about how much you love me. Perhaps I’ll forgive you. I loved you, didn’t I? Surely I could forget this one small indiscretion.”
He flopped against the wall as though he thought to run but could no longer remember how to command his limbs. “I have debts, many, many debts! I was afraid to tell you!”
She nodded sagely and rolled the linen up to his elbow. “Obviously, it was much easier to murder me than to simply ask for a few thousand pounds. Sadly, dear Rudy, I would have given it to you had you asked. Now, I’m afraid there’s only one thing left to do.”
Staring down at her handiwork attached to his damaged limb, however, a flash of rage burned through her, sending her heart whirring into high speed. No wonder he hadn’t dared a concert since her death. The prototype was functional, but not intricate enough for a master violinist’s handiwork. “Where’s the final hand I crafted for you?”
“I sold it.” Crying noisily, he clung to her, his breath as fetid and noisome as the stench in the filthy alley. “I was desperate!”
She suppressed a shudder. She’d married this…this…creature. At one time I loved him. Didn’t I? “To whom?”
“A Frenchman named Leblanc. Please, Mary, forgive me. I was so scared. I didn’t think you’d help me.”
“Of course I’ll help you.” He didn’t seem to notice that her voice lacked inflection, nor that she gripped a knife in her free hand. “However, I’m afraid that I need to take back my gift.”
She didn’t try to hack through the bone, choosing instead to separate the joint at his elbow. Strengthened by her powerful heart, she easily clamped her left hand over his mouth and pinned him, flailing helplessly, against the wall while she reclaimed that golden hand.
His knees folded and she helped him slide down to sit against the wall. He tried to speak with those colorless lips, but he’d already lost too much blood. Tucking her skirts, she squatted down so she could look into his eyes.
“Such a pity,” she said as kindly as she could. She didn’t understand why his eyes rolled frantically, white with terror. “I’m afraid a footpad took advantage of your inebriation and you sadly bled to death just paces away from help. If you’d chosen a pub in a better part of town, perhaps someone would have assisted you, but I wouldn’t have counted on it. Nobody helped me as I ran dying down the streets.”
She bent closer, listening to the frantic and pitifully weak beats of his heart, staggering helplessly as her wounded organ had delivered her unto death’s door.
Yet my heart beats on steady and strong, never failing, never dying.
A warm flood of gleeful emotion pumped through Mary’s veins, until she arrived at the temporary Fleet Street factory and found Mr. Moreland weeping. She dropped the blood-stained hand on the worktable. “Whatever is wrong?”
“Anne,” he whispered in a raw, broken voice. “She left us. She said she was afraid. She accused me of creating a monster.”
Me, Mary thought. A little smile flicked on her lips. “No matter, my dear friend. There are many other bright and dutiful assistants who’ll leap at the chance to join us.”
“But I loved her. I thought…”
She knew he’d daydreamed about possibly marrying the girl, but she’d never guessed he would be so distraught.
“I never thought it would hurt so very much to lose her.”
Mary knew exactly what pain he was suffering, because she’d endured the same agony at her husband’s hand. The workings of her golden heart quickened. “I can help you.”
Mr. Moreland turned his pale, lined face up to hers. “Please, my lady, I’ll do anything. Do you know where she went? Perhaps she merely waited for me to profess my feelings and left in despair because she thought I didn’t care for her. I didn’t even send her a Valentine’s Day card, flowers, or candy. Nothing! What was I thinking?”
Without answering, Mary strode to the cabinet against the wall. Her excellent partner kept their supplies in impeccable order: rows of golden hands and feet gleamed like priceless jewels, but the crowning glory was the a brand-new heart on the top shelf.
One never knows when another poor heartbroken soul will stumble through my doors.
She took the heart off the shelf and turned around.
“No,” he gasped, lurching to his feet. “My lady, no, please—”
“She’s never coming back, you know.” Calmly, Mary retrieved her surgical bag and arranged the equipment beside the examination table. “You never saw her clearly. If you hadn’t taken an interest in her, I never would have considered her as an assistant. She’s too sentimental. Like you.”
He let out a soft breath and grasped at his chest, as though she’d already plunged a tool into his sternum. “My lady, I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you. I thought we got along well, you and I.”
“We have,” she replied agreeably, keeping her back to him and her head low. She concentrated on softening her voice, allowing her words to quiver in the air between them as though great emotion wracked her control. “I trust you like no other, Brandon. I can’t imagine completing my work without your assistance. I need you. Without you, I would merely be a forgotten skeleton rotting in the gutter.”
Lightly, he touched her shoulder, that familiar gesture of amicable comfort he’d offered all these years of partnership. “I can’t imagine ever leaving your service, my lady.”
She whirled and held the cloth over his nose and mouth. His eyes widened and he grasped her wrist, but he was too well mannered to use force against a lady. Exactly as I expected.
“I’m going to take away your pain,” she said gently as he sank against the table. It didn’t take much effort to coax him to lie down on the surface. Despite the anesthesia, his eyes shone wet and dark and large as she raised the scalpel. “No one shall ever break your heart again, dearest.”
Walking arm-in-arm with Mr. Moreland down the beautiful tree-lined Avenue des Champs-Élysées toward their hotel, Mary made the appropriate noises of wonder at the best Paris had to offer. She’d donned the latest French fashions and even her cold metal heart had found pleasure in dressing her partner in an elegant dove-grey frock coat that turned his eyes to molten quicksilver.
I should have made him a sterling silver heart to match his eyes.
They timed their arrival at the Hôtel de Crillon perfectly: their quarry walked toward them across the black-and-white marbled floor of the grand entry. Laughing gaily to draw his notice, she bent down and dragged her ruffled skirt up, pretending to adjust her slipper, while making sure to give the gentleman a glimpse of her golden ankle.
Eyes wide, Monsieur Leblanc jerked to a halt.
Heart pounding with anticipation, she peer up at him through lowered lashes and smiled. “What a gorgeous clockwork hand you have.”
7 thoughts on “My Clockwork Heart”
Where did you get the idea for this? This was so cool!
I reviewed it on my book review blog, if you’d like to read it: http://freakingbookworm.com/2010/01/my-clockwork-heart/
I’d love to read more of your stuff! This was a spectacularly chilling piece. It’s going to be one of those stories that sticks with me for a very long time. Thank you for sharing this, Joely!
Thank you so much, Elizabeth! The idea was inspired by a horror anthology call centered around Valentine’s Day. Plus I’ve had steampunk on my mind for awhile. Glad you enjoyed it!
Where do you find anthology calls? I’m trying to focus on my writing and one of my goals is to start submitting short stories.
Elizabeth, this is where I typically see anthology calls: Cindi Myers Market News. Also, Ralan’s has a ton of places!
Hola, mi nombre es Sabrina y estube buscando por internet, fue entonces que encontre tu blog, el cual me gusto mucho, el cual es bastante agradable para leer. Regreso la proxima semana para leerte de nuevo. Saludos Sabrina
Thanks for stopping by, Sabrina!
Thanks, Joely. I’ve added them both to my Google Reader. Now if only I could get myself on a daily writing schedule… (;