The Horologist

by KV Taylor

My watch stopped this evening, and so the end must be near. I snatch a few of the moments that remain to me — and how conscious I am of their deliberate passage, ticking or no — in case the effects of my opening it are not only terrible, but also swift. I should much prefer it that way, but I should also like to spare anyone else this fate. I know no other way of doing so; I can only pray you’ll believe this confession and put it to good use when I’m gone.

#

You’ll think it mad that I came to this town to escape a ghost — though whether due to personal incredulity toward matters supernatural or because the assumption that a town named after Bedlam could provide respite from anything strikes you as absurd, I won’t venture to guess. But I did, and with her usual inscrutability of reason my poor, dear Michaela didn’t follow.

The first New Bedlamite to enter my shop was one Mr. Richard Featherby, a well-looking young man in a modish suit. He didn’t come to business immediately, but stood leaning against a table, long, fine fingers tapping at his ebony walking stick, talking easily of nothing at all. A charming, urbane figure in a town strangely divided: half intellectuals of his stamp, half of the, shall we say, rougher element.

Eventually, he reached into his waistcoat pocket and retrieved an unfashionably fat gold watch. I saw then that his right forefinger was stained with India ink, and the cuff of his shirt had been worn thin, betraying his profession. “What do you say, LaFleur?” he asked. “She’s astonishing, isn’t she?”

I accepted it with appropriate gravity. The thing was an English verge watch from late in the last century, engraved with a very American Effingham Embree. It must’ve been relatively cheap at the time of purchase, but age had invested it with heirloom status. “She is indeed. And you say you never dropped or jarred her?”

“I wouldn’t dare. My patroness– thank God, the old girl lives back east!– she gave it to me as incentive to finish my book of poems. A little reminder that time is ticking away, and she still without her verses.” He smiled, an expression that seemed to scatter the halfhearted light from outdoors and replace it with a more golden radiance of his own. “I daresay the damned thing never worked, but I’d better take care with it, all the same.”

Michaela had been fond of poetry, and so out of habit I glanced about the neat little shop room for her. “About what do you write?”

“Oh, death, mostly,” he said cheerfully. “Death always sells.”

I couldn’t, within a polite interval, reconcile his incongruities of person and intent. But he had come to the right place, if that was his aim. The proverbial miasma of gloom about New Bedlam was the very thing that had attracted me.

Nevertheless, I felt I ought to change the subject. “Do you find it difficult to write when and how she likes?”

“Do you find it difficult to make a watch to the commissioner’s specifications?”

“Sometimes.”

“Well, why should my reply be any different? The town’s soggy with artists and writers, anyhow. Bound to be enough creative energy to go ’round. Isn’t that what brings us here?”

There was a keenness about his blue eyes that said this was not a rhetorical question. But one doesn’t like to, as they say, bring down the conversation.

“The very thing, Featherby.”

#

Cocaine injections are the most temporary of fixes, no matter what your physician recommends; intractable melancholy is only truly forgotten when one loses oneself in work.

Featherby’s watch was a rare window into old-fashioned horological methods, and I quickly became entranced by the maze of wheels and arbors. This was not remarkable in itself– many a night Michaela would find me hunched over my glass, staring into the universe in the microcosm of some new timepiece, and many a night since she’d been gone I’d eschewed the comfort of bed entirely in favor of the practice.

But something was different that night. Since the watch was an antique and gifted, I determined to restore the archaic verge escapement rather than replace it with something more efficient. Yet as I let down the fatigued mainspring, I found my usual focus unwinding with it. The barrel revealed, I felt as if I’d laid some prodigious mystery bare, and stared at it for long, secret moments in the silence of my shop.

It first came to me then. My vision was splashed with black, and then white-and-yellow spots, as if I’d taken faint. There appeared a red, shining puddle that spread further and further before my eyes, as if to swallow all the world, a full moon reflected ruddily in it. A pale hand, attached to a person hidden from my view, but possessed of a black-splotched forefinger, lay at one edge of the pool. A thin, lonely howl pierced me through to my very bones.

When I opened my eyes the walls seemed to sigh and bow inward, until I felt I might suffocate. I fumbled for my cigarette case, always in a particular spot near my left hand when I worked, and came up instead with the wooden handle of my flat graver.

For reasons obscure even to me, I engraved an image of the moon on the inside of Featherby’s watch, facing its primitive movement, where it would likely remain unseen until its mainspring again gave up the ghost. Every facet of the so-called man in the moon was recalled, and curling ornamentation, medieval grotesqueries wove madly about the circle. Each detail was a testament to an artistry the master goldsmith of my adolescence would not have believed.

The vision troubled me no more.

I fitted and replaced the gears that had been worn by recoil, wound the new mainspring, all in a numb haze. And when I closed the watch up again, having achieved in one night more than I might’ve in several days of good work in most circumstances, the sun had risen on the new day.

#

More Bedlamites came after Featherby. Mr. Winston, the bizarre, lanky painter who wished to commission an entirely new and violently modern watch. Mr. Adler, a German expatriate philosopher desiring that I should engrave him an Emerson quotation while doing the usual repairs.

The first of these projects could not begin immediately, as I required a special movement from my ébauche supplier, but the latter I finished quickly. When I began, staring once more into the mechanical, mathematical breakdown of time in the gear train, I fell into the trance again.

Lost in Mr. Adler’s watch, I saw a crooked, barren tree, a fine sheen of spring rain soaking its branches. Perhaps an odd phantasm, but the branch to which my mystical attention was drawn was a gnarled thing, ruined and twisted and black in the night. I felt almost as if it threatened, with ropy fingers that longed for my throat.

I thought these visions the dark fancy of a man whose life had been unnaturally disturbed by Death, and who must acquaint himself with the specter in order to go on living with it. Again I purged the terrifying scene, which clung like an oily film to my mind, by engraving bits and pieces of this horrific tree into the innards of the watch, hidden. It had the same effect as it had with Featherby’s: the purge was so complete that I scarcely thought of it again.

A consummation for which I thanked God then, but which devastates and mortifies me now.

#

Some weeks after our first meeting, by which time our acquaintance had grown substantially, I happened upon Featherby at the little inn where I took most of my meals. He invited me to a concert: “There’s someone I’d like to show you. You’re looking a proper New Bedlamite, anyhow, old fellow. Ought to take some air now and then, or you’ll end up as morbid as the rest of us.”

Not wishing to return to Mr. Winston’s watch — the parts had recently arrived, but I dreaded another vision — I gladly followed Featherby to his concert. The venue was a large home, of the oddly luxurious Bohemian stamp that one sees cropping up in cities with a thriving artistic life. On the one hand out of place in our half-ramshackle town, but on the other perfectly natural.

We found the parlor full of quite the oddest mix of class and character. Shabby homespun rubbed shoulders with imported silk, and diamonds glittered at ladies’ collars as readily as worn lace. A space was set up with a remarkable Pleyel grand piano, one chair, and two lyre-shaped music stands. I was unsurprised when, once the small crowd seemed by some general acquiescence to settle into their chairs, three persons emerged.

The violinist was a stunning woman, so stunning that one almost didn’t begrudge her the lurid red color and brazen cut of her dress. The cellist was equally — and similarly — stunning, a man possessed of a languid, yet piercing gaze. The pianist seemed nearly invisible in their wake in simple, well-cut dove gray. She had a cold face, a splendid high forehead, and a mass of lovely chestnut curls, but these facts were quickly noted and dismissed.

The piece was not familiar, but modern and divine, all the same. I confess that for the first few moments I could think of nothing but Michaela, lost in the plaintive descant of the violin and the swell of the cello. Perhaps then I even missed the torment of her ghost, the reaction was so violent and unexpected.

Even so, as the first movement progressed, an oddly sentimental Allegro, I found myself watching the little dove-colored pianist. At first she appeared merely competent, for her playing displayed the same frigidity as her expression. But not two minutes in, those gelid eyes seemed to spark beneath drooping lashes. Elegant fingers tripped over keys with increasing sensibility, and the soft, bow-shaped mouth smiled sadly now and again. I saw some Heavenly truth there, as if the music had revealed her to me, and perhaps to me alone.

In the deep moment of silence preceding the second movement, I decided that she was quite the loveliest creature in town. Nothing to match Michaela, who had been golden, beyond angelic, but not at all unpleasant to look at; indeed, finer than the shocking violinist.

Featherby said, into my ear, “Isn’t she lovely?”

Though faintly embarrassed, I intended to reply that she was, until I noticed that his eyes lingered not on the pianist, but the violinist.

“Her name’s Maria Brandt. That’s her brother, Charles.”

“And the other?” I ventured.

But the second movement began before he could reply.

#

Charles Mercer — for Maria Brandt was Mrs. Brandt — proved distressingly impervious to his sister’s outrageous flirtation with Featherby. I stood on the edge of their circle, alternately averting my eyes and flushing when they made certain I couldn’t.

“Maria, you must see LaFleur’s workshop. The man’s a marvel; he holds the mysteries of time in his damnably artistic hands,” Featherby said.

Mrs. Brandt’s eyelashes fluttered. “You ought to take me some time, Ricky.”

“Wouldn’t I just love to!”

Mercer fixed me with a look that caused my palms to sweat. He had precisely the long eyelashes and bright green eyes that no doubt made his sister so bewitching to Featherby; however, the effect was quite something else when employed by a man. He said, “I’ve long wanted to commission a new watch. But one doesn’t expect a master horologist in these queer little towns.”

“No,” I agreed, shifting from one foot to the other. “But I suppose that gives me the monopoly.”

Mercer seemed incapable of smiling; his exquisite, cruel mouth could only smirk. “I think it’ll be all the rage to own a LaFleur.”

Featherby laughed. “It will if you wear one, Charles!”

Mercer, however, was no longer paying attention. He spared a disapproving glare for a stooping, shabby Bedlamite who appeared to have designs our singularly well-heeled circle. Still, he continued to smirk.

Mrs. Brandt and Featherby continued to lock eyes in the most obscene way imaginable.

But I was still too grateful for any distraction to make my excuses and escape. And chief among these distractions proved my perpetual vigil for the little dove-gray Angelic. We found her at last when we made to leave, on the porch with Mrs. Brandt. The silver buttons of the lovely pianist’s coat flickered in the light of the full moon, as did her eyes. They caught mine, and she seemed to crush into my lungs as a frigid blast of air.

She smiled. “Why Ricky, who have you brought us?”

Featherby kissed her gloved hand, then gestured that I ought to take it. He said, “George LaFleur, meet our brightest and most beautiful composer, Mrs. Fanny Blackwood.”

I shook the hand, still recovering.

“Oh,” she said, “I’ve meant to come and see you myself.”

“Have you?”

Mrs. Brandt laughed, and Featherby soon joined her.

I regretted my own dullness sharply, but Mrs. Blackwood only said, “Yes; my husband’s old watch. It was his greatest treasure. It’s stopped since — since last winter.”

Mrs. Brandt smiled no longer, and instead placed a lithe arm about her friend’s shoulders.

I divined from this that Mr. Blackwood was no more. Mrs. Blackwood’s noble countenance gave no hint of grief, but I began to understand the sorrow of her smiles then. She had the air of one very well brought up; it was not coldness that I’d seen in her before, only extreme delicacy.

I pressed the hand still in mine and hoped this would communicate my understanding. A smile fluttered again over the pink bow lips, and my heart beat more freely than it had in some years. Not due to some childish imagining of instant, profound affection, of course, but from a sudden consciousness of a certain bond of sympathy between us.

Our counterparts began to whisper to one another, and I released her hand. She withdrew it with appropriate alacrity, but certainly not eagerness. “Did you enjoy the music, Mr. LaFleur?”

“Immensely. It was one of your compositions?”

“No. Schumann.”

“Robert,” I provided.

She raised dark eyebrows slightly. “Clara.”

One can imagine my mortification. But before I could make amends, a fifth person burst upon our party like a flash of lightning. He stood well over six feet, had extraordinary russet-colored mutton chop whiskers, and seemed rather too large for his tweed suit. He also had a fierce red face, and a cruel gaze fixed viciously upon Featherby.

“Oh, Brandt, old fellow!” Featherby very nearly laughed, Mrs. Brandt still shamelessly clinging to his arm. “I suppose you’ve come for your wife. Well, that’s all right, if she’ll have you.”

Brandt, in as shocking a display as I’d seen that evening, grabbed for the woman. I hardly knew how to react; I’m ashamed to admit I could only stare. (His fingernails were appalling, you see– thick, pointed, and yellow.)

Mrs. Brandt moved with the elegance of a born dancer, avoiding the calloused hand, but taking up a place at his side. “Good night, Fanny, Ricky. Lovely to meet you, Mr. LaFleur. I look forward to my indoctrination into the mysteries of time in your shop.”

She was off the porch stairs before we could respond, which was just as well, as the hostility of the situation left one quite dumb. I looked up, and Brandt fixed me with that angry gaze. His eyes were the oddest shade, nearer to amber than brown.

A sound then, like a growl deep in his chest, and the brute was gone after his wife.

“What can she have been thinking to marry such a fathead?” Featherby mused, as I made a valiant attempt to swallow my heart.

“Love is so strange,” Mrs. Blackwood said, fingering a string of lustrous pearls about her throat. “We’re all of us powerless against it, but more so without it.”

This feminine gentleness touched me. I was fully recovered and prepared to offer that we should walk her home. Unfortunately, Charles Mercer chose that moment to appear, dashing in top-hat and duster, and take her off on his arm. I might’ve sworn he looked over his shoulder for one last, wicked grin, as if to accuse me of some vulgar aspiration.

Or perhaps to flaunt his own.

So I walked with Featherby to his house, listening in a morose silence to his chatter on the subject of the Lovely Mrs. Brandt, and left him at his front door.

#

I walked alone then, wondering at the sinister shadows that distorted the familiar lines and angles of New Bedlam into impossible shapes. They reminded me of my moments of clockwork terror, a thought I didn’t like to entertain in that particular neighborhood. Half of the homes had the look of abandoned husks, and were rather more menacing than comfortingly gloomy.

I was halfway to my humble shop-cum-apartment when a high, thin howl rose in the night, and my hackles with it. All-too-familiar, particularly considering the unpleasant bent of my thoughts.

Some mad instinct took hold of me, and I turned and ran back the way I’d come. A small crowd had already assembled in front of Featherby’s neat little house, a few elderly neighbors in night caps and dressing gowns. I pushed my way through them.

And then I leaned against the wooden railing of his front steps and stared, choking.

He lay face down on the ground, his feet still on the bottom stair as if he’d been in the act of fleeing. I saw not if he breathed; I didn’t need to. His jacket evidenced four long, thick, parallel tears down the back, and the ragged leavings of the shirt stained dark crimson. A pool of blood had formed on the flagstone walkway near his head, and expanded at an alarming rate.

I shut my eyes against the gruesome sight, but it lived behind my eyelids. In black and white and red, Richard Featherby’s draining corpse.

When I opened my eyes, someone had rolled him onto his back, and empty eyes stared at the stars. One of his arms was flung into the blood — which one could see now had come from a ghastly black wound at the throat — and it lay there lifeless. Black India ink splotches on the white fingers, and the reflection of the moon in his blood.

Someone said, “Looks like a wild animal did for him.”

My gaze flicked upward. A dozen or so New Bedlamites gaped at the macabre spectacle in varying states of shock, boredom, fascination, and, in one case, disgust.

Charles Mercer, who had arrived I knew not how or when, sneered over the dead man. I might’ve sworn his lips formed the words, “That will teach her.”

#

Two days later Mrs. Fanny Blackwood came to my shop.

Again she wore gray. Her hair was less arranged and more beautiful, and I imagined a sadness about her eyes to match my own at the loss of our mutual friend. She struck me as so very fine that afternoon that I thought I must’ve underestimated her on our last meeting.

She brought with her a stunning chronometer, which when opened provided a full and complete view of a Hunt & Roskell piece.

“I see why he was so fond of it,” I said.

“He bought it abroad– in–“

“London,” I supplied, meeting her gaze.

She smiled.

I looked away. Part of me wished to refuse her, in the superstitious fear that it had not been an awful coincidence. But the request was so heartfelt, and I so wanted to please her. “It’s in good hands, Mrs. Blackwood. I’m particularly able with a detent mechanism.”

“I should be very much obliged if you could do it, er, within a week or two.” She fingered her pearls, not quite nervously, but there was something distracted about the action. “I don’t like to be parted–“

Again, I found the courage to look at her. This time, I did not need to imagine her sadness, though this was not for Ricky Featherby.

I suppressed his memory quickly. I wanted only to guard my conversation; to accidentally call up that ghastly affair would be unforgivable. The rest of New Bedlam’s failure to acknowledge it as impossibly suspicious and fearsome was infuriating, but one doesn’t trouble a woman with anything so disagreeable. So I only said, “You needn’t explain. I understand you completely.”

“I believe you do, Mr. LaFleur.”

I must admit to a shameful urge to explain myself, a product of my agitated emotional state, but I held my tongue. Her gaze took in the workshop, lingering upon the finest of the silent antique clocks in my collection, and then moved to my workbench.

I would have begged her not to, as Mr. Winston’s unfinished casing lay there. But I found myself frozen to the spot, clutching the unfortunate Mr. Blackwood’s chronometer, and wondering what extraordinary manner of man he must’ve been.

Or perhaps he’d simply fallen into the way of a superior woman and been loved in spite of himself. Perhaps he’d been like me.

Mrs. Blackwood looked over her shoulder after a moment. “Your engraving is beautiful–and strange. Very clever and imaginative.”

“I was considered rather fanciful in my apprenticeship.” Modesty forced me to add, “Though it was not necessarily a compliment.”

She only smiled, and I knew she had meant to be kind. I was sure that if I understood her, she must, then, understand me.

Then she went out, and I was left watching her retreat with an unnamed dread in my heart. Or, perhaps, in my hand.

#

Mrs. Blackwood’s watch gave me a vision less terrible than expected. I saw red liquid, but more on the order of claret than blood, and a pretty piece of crystal to hold it. I won’t say I felt nothing terrible in it, for it chilled my marrow for reasons inexplicable. The sweetest smell of white flowers accompanied the vision, but was somehow disturbing rather than comforting. Still, compared to the others, this vision seemed prosaic. I engraved a wine goblet within the perfect thing, a sacrilege that couldn’t be helped, as the compulsion overcame almost every other feeling and thought within me, and was free of it.

With this encouraging development, I finished Mr. Winston’s watch in several days — a feat unheard of. At first it was all satisfaction: the filing, the collecting and fitting of parts, &c. But once I began to align the escapement, and the click of perfectly married metal cogs against the pallets began to sound in my brain, it happened. The trance was heavier then, and full of visions of fire and a wicked a face out of the Thousand and One Nights Michaela used to love so. When I woke from it, the wick of my lamp had nearly burnt down and I had a monstrous headache. But I made my engraving of the fiery specter and was rid of the vision.

It rained that night, a fine sprinkling of the kind calculated to whet, but not satisfy the thirst of sprouting greenery. Being rather fond of such weather, I didn’t hesitate to walk toward the inn as usual. But soon a strange sickness welled up within me, a sense of nauseous familiarity that I pretended not to recognize. It drew me, I know not how, toward the edge of town, and the woods beyond, yet I fought it and won.

When I staggered, wet and shivering though not with cold, into the inn, I was immediately given information that seemed to explain all: Mr. Adler, the expatriated German with the affection for Transcendentalism and the fatigued mainspring, had been found hanging by the neck from an old, mostly dead tree at the edge of the woods.

#

The distinctness, the reality of seconds and minutes seems to wax and wane to my mind. There are days when I feel they’re true divisions, accurate measures by which to quantify our days and nights. And then there are days when I feel how very arbitrary they are, and think they must be merely a human construction, an attempt to master a thing over which we have no power at all.

Or, if we do, power we can’t control.

I keep the various clocks I’ve collected and restored over the years silent. Michaela couldn’t abide the ticking, the cacophonic chorus. I’ve often had occasion to wish that I had, by stopping them, stopped time itself. Perhaps that’s why I’ve left them in that state even now.

No one in New Bedlam ever questioned that a master horologist should have a shop full of stopped clocks.

I stood staring at them, recovering from an increasingly familiar bout of sickness, when the door to my shop blew open and a dark personage swooped inside. I turned to greet him, but faltered when I recognized the handsome face.

Charles Mercer came to shake my hand, eyeing me as if preparing a critique of my tailor. I might’ve returned the favor, if I hadn’t already known he would be impeccably made up. My only solace was that I was, too.

“Well, LaFleur, what do you say to my commission?” he asked.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Fanny tells me you’re quite the original thinker.”

I magnanimously ignored his using such familiar terms to refer to Mrs. Blackwood.

He continued, “You could get me up something special, I think, for a case?” And there ended my artistic license, as he launched into an extremely particular description of the type of watch he expected, how thick it ought to be, what it ought to tell him, and his views on the detached lever mechanism.

When he’d finished, my sickness had abated completely — which could not leave me with any confidence, but at least allowed me to square my shoulders. I took down his specifications, in spite of having no idea of actually creating the thing, or anything ever again, just then.

But then he said, “Is that Fanny’s watch?”

I glanced at the table. “Chronometer.”

His smooth brow furrowed.

“Detent escapement,” I said. “It’s a chronometer.”

His lips pressed into a thin line, and he arched his eyebrows. This seemed a warning of some sort.

Only then did I reply to his question with the affirmative.

“I’ll take it to her,” he said.

“I couldn’t allow it.”

The eyebrows rose still higher. “Oh?”

“It wouldn’t be responsible.”

A pause, wherein Charles Mercer stared at me very hard, and I somehow stared back. Perhaps it was thinking of his sparing Mrs. Fanny Blackwood the return trip to my shop for which I’d been waiting this long week. Sparing her and playing the gallant by returning her most beloved property, at that. You understand my concern for the sweet, sad creature, of course. How could one such as her know that as lovely as Mercer seemed on the outside, he was so obviously depraved within?

Eventually, Mercer said, “I’m sure she’ll commend your sense of honor, LaFleur. I’m sure we all do.”

I took the chronometer in hand protectively. “I daresay this town could do with an extra measure of honor. No one seems to mind even the most suspicious occurrence. I call it cowardice.”

“News travels quickly. They’ve not even put it out, yet.”

I looked up, my heart falling into my shoes.

“You’ve not heard.” Mercer’s detestably lovely smirk appeared. “Michael Winston perished only this afternoon in a house fire. Infernally hot and fast, they say. It’s quite the mystery, even with all those inflammable oil paintings about the house.”

The chronometer seemed to burn in my hand. I closed my eyes and said, through my teeth, “Perhaps the wild animal that attacked Featherby dabbles in arson, as well.”

“Don’t take it so hard. Life is full of dreadful, ugly things, you know. People grow complacent and fail to exercise proper precautions, and that’s what comes of it.” He pulled out his old watch and made a face. “I’d better be off. I saw them pulling a surviving painting out of the smoking wreck; now he’s dead it’ll be worth a fortune.”

I swallowed very hard to enable myself to ask, “What was the subject?”

“Some demon or another– dreadful oriental-looking thing. The man had no taste at all.”

When I opened my eyes, he’d turned to leave. I stopped him by saying, “Mercer. You haven’t asked me about my clocks. Why they’re stopped. No one has.”

He looked over his shoulder, and this time he flashed a set of dazzlingly white teeth in an approximation of a genuine smile. “That’s just what I mean, LaFleur. One doesn’t ask questions in New Bedlam. One might get answers.”

And then he went out the door without so much as a “good day.”

I began his watch immediately.

#

Mrs. Blackwood came for her husband’s chronometer the day after and told me I did beautiful work. I begged her to return, and she promised she would, but our interview was rushed. She appeared over-tired and preoccupied, as if her repressed sadness had overwhelmed her since last we’d met. She barely left off toying with her necklace, this time. I expressed as much concern as was seemly, yet was soon left alone to wonder on the strange literary symbolism of pearls.

And to work, of course. Charles Mercer’s watch was to be a masterpiece; I poured myself into it, heart and soul. I embellished the casing with swooping lines and curves, disturbed currents in a golden sea, his initials hidden cleverly within. I fine-tuned each gear-tooth, oiled each arbor, jeweled each pivot point with such care. I was carried away, black spots in my vision melting into and then separating from the shining red of the rubies, until it took me completely.

In the name of delicacy, I cannot repeat what I saw entirely. Suffice it to say that it ended with Charles Mercer in a shocking state of, well, disarray, shall we say, locked into the arms of a certain woman in a similar condition. His face was buried in her neck, and a massive hat pin buried deeply, and effectively, in his back by a ring-laden hand. The air seemed still, too silent, and for a long time the vision was perfectly immobile. And then, as if to complete the blasphemy of the tableau, I heard distant, hollow church bells ringing.

I shudder, I blush to write such things, only I feel it necessary to convey the complete disorder of my nerves when I emerged from this hellish vision. Perhaps the worst of it was that I could not, no matter how I told myself I must, no matter how the vision plagued me, bring myself to commit even the smallest part of it to engraving. I was sick several times that evening, perhaps from the sheer obscenity of the nightmare laid before me, perhaps because I couldn’t purge it properly. But each time I took my graver in hand, I became so agitated I could not work.

The watch was done, though. And Mercer quite adored it when I presented it to him that Saturday evening.

#

The next morning I was on my way to the gray little church, only slightly late due to a dark, dreamless sleep the night before, when I heard the bells from my vision. There was a certain hollowness to them that was unmistakable and quite unlike the sound of them on any other Sunday. I felt a sinking sensation within me, though not the same violent illness, and paused in my stride.

It had never happened so quickly, before.

I closed my eyes, there in the middle of the little street, and heard a door closing.

“Oh, LaFleur,” a voice that should not have been there said.

I opened my eyes to see Mr. Charles Mercer, gloves and loosely tied cravat slightly awry, emerging from a house that was decidedly not his own. Someone — I caught only a glimpse of a filmy dressing gown and a bejeweled hand — closed the door behind him.

I flushed and avoided his eyes, but he strode down the stairs as if he had no idea of having done anything wrong. “I suppose you’re going to church?” he asked.

“Yes,” I tried to say. I fear it may only have been a kind of animal grunt, however. My head spun in a firestorm of confusion and mortification.

“I had better come with you. Sunday mornings make one feel too wicked for words.” He finished pulling on his gloves and started toward the church.

And so I went with him. Wondering all along why what I had seen had not come to pass — for I knew the signs well enough by then to recognize that this had been the assigned moment of his doom — and what it could possibly mean.

#

The self-control I exhibited to make up the following experiment was nearly the death of me. It required that I remain tormented by images of death and destruction, but I paid the price in search of the truth: I did not purge my clockwork prognostications through engraving for the rest of the week, and finished three pieces in the mean time.

None of my macabre visions came to pass.

The analogy of God as a watchmaker, though it might appeal to my human vanity, I’ve unfailingly found lacking. Watches, once made, do not change to suit their environment as is needful. Indeed they change for the worse with wear; and how can the idea of human creation being analogous to divine creation fail to offend?

Even so, there is more in human creation, in watchmaking than I imagined before I set foot within the limits of New Bedlam. Perhaps the analogy is not so faulty. Perhaps the evolution of creatures in this world, and the evolution of the world itself, as Mr. Darwin clarified, is simply the fatiguing of our mainspring. Perhaps more than a simple winding, it requires a hand to open it up and repair, refurbish, replace its parts every so often, as well, when its movements run off their intended course.

I might not commit these words to paper, of course, if my place in Hell were not already assigned. In such straits, one is bereft of reason for demurral.

In that much, at least, my situation might be called liberating.

#

The discovery left me inconsolable. If I were not simply foretelling the end of my fellow townspeople, there was only one alternative. One I could not test by engraving again, but will no doubt be as certain to you as it was to me then.

And there was one loose end, one vision engraved but unmanifested, that stalked my every thought. I began to hear the click-work, the turning of the gears, the unwinding of the spring, even when there was no timepiece near — when every moment became consumed with how to undo what I had done to Mrs. Fanny Blackwood’s chronometer. I had hope still that it wouldn’t come to the same end as the others; there had been irregularities with each, misinterpretations. And truly, what horrible fate could a wine glass portend?

But I had to take every possible precaution. Perhaps if I destroyed the thing, whatever strange curse I had accidentally wrought would be broken. There was no other avenue available, and so it was incumbent upon me to try.

I started off toward her house in the very early morning. It was not an hour in which one called uninvited on women one hardly knew — a testament to the agitation of my nerves, the urgency of my purpose, that I went even then.

When I turned onto King Street, I knew. The sickness overcame me, but I tripped along as quickly as I could, dreading the sign that I knew would lead me to her. Her, the dear creature! Someone else’s wife, someone else’s loss, someone so like me — or, perhaps, like Michaela. It came soon enough, in a lonely stretch of silent clapboard homes: the smell of exotic white flowers, like rare tea from the East.

The door hung open. I closed my eyes and steadied myself against the banister, and a scream issued from within.

When I opened my eyes, Mrs. Maria Brandt had burst through the open door and flung herself into my arms. She proceeded to drench my waistcoat in tears and rouge.

“It’s awful — she’s done it! Oh God, she always said she would, but we never believed! Her pearls, her beautiful wedding pearls –” These and other impossible exclamations escaped the viciously red lips and were deposited into my lapel as if for safekeeping.

I watched the overflowing flowerbox on Fanny Blackwood’s front window, the way the white blossoms undulated in the faint breeze, and held Mrs. Brandt. Halfway hoping her husband would come along and see, but knowing I could not be so lucky.

No, my luck was quite out, as the universe had taken such pains to show me.

When she had finished, we went inside together. Mrs. Blackwood lay on her couch, face a peaceful ivory mask, one hand hanging near the floor. A gold watch-chain was still wrapped tightly about it, and attached to it, settled face-up and open on the Persian rug, was Mr. Blackwood’s ticking Hunt & Roskell amidst an ominous profusion of loose pearls. A goblet of wine rested on the side table, mostly drained, but for one last pearl in the bottom with the dregs.

A singularly Shakespearean, poetic way to deliver poison, worthy of an artist such as Mrs. Blackwood. The difference being, of course, that the pearl had not been placed there by her husband. But for him.

For all that, it was quite beautiful.

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I know not what vision will occur to me when I let down my own mainspring, nor do I care. I look forward to it ardently, no matter what mental or physical tortures it might bring. When I put aside this confession, I go directly to work, and pray I’ll lose myself in it for the last time.

I deserve this fate for being proud, for being vain, for being stupid. But Fanny Blackwood and Richard Featherby, at least, did not. And with that, I cannot live.

I might have hope that I’ll see Michaela soon. But she will not have gone where I go all-too-soon.

Signed,

George Francis LaFleur

New Bedlam, 1851


“The Horologist” was originally published in The New Bedlam Project, July 2010

©2013 KV Taylor

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