Escapement, or The Contemporary Coppelius

An essay by Euphemia Thorniwork, as provided by Judith Field
Art by Ariel Alian Wilson


London, November 1888

Two days after Uncle Eric’s funeral, there was another murder in Whitechapel. I am ashamed to admit that I felt relief at the knowledge that he could not have been the Ripper. I had hardly dared consider it, but I had been forced to ask myself why he would never allow me to accompany him when he went to his workshop, in a cellar somewhere in east London.

I sat in the parlour, reading aloud from The London Daily Post to my mother. “… and Her Majesty has urged the police to do all they can to protect these unfortunate women.” I spared her the stomach-turning description of the butchery. At least the poor victims were strangled first.

The doorbell rang. Mother grasped the arms of her wheelchair and pushed herself upright. “No more flowers, I hope, Euphemia!” She dabbed her eyes with a black-edged handkerchief. “Everyone has been most kind, but the house resembles The Royal Botanic Gardens.” I patted her hand and proceeded to answer the door.

I caught movement on the stairs in the corner of my eye. It was my silver tabby, Loki. Mother had named him after a mischief-making character in some opera. He wound himself round my legs, his tail swishing against the skirt of my black dress. I felt my shoulders droop. Never again would Uncle Eric lean over the banister and call me to see his latest construction. He had come to live with us ten years ago, after the carriage accident that killed my father and crippled my mother. He was a watchmaker but his delight was constructing musical automatons–a piano-playing bear, a dancing clown. He had been working on a fluttering, singing bird, the voice created by a tiny bellows, but during his peregrinations to find feathers for it, he caught typhoid and died.

I opened the door. Two men heaved a wooden crate, about six feet long, off a cart and banged it onto the pavement next to a Saratoga trunk. One of them took an envelope out of his trouser pocket. “Miss Thorniwork?” I nodded. He took off his bowler hat and fanned his face with it. “Sign here.” He shoved the envelope, a scrap of crumpled paper, and a pencil stub into my hand. With much sweating and puffing, the men deposited the trunk and the crate in the hall. I gave them the few coins I had in my reticule and shut the door.

Mother wheeled herself into the hall.

I opened the envelope. “This appears to be a letter from Uncle Eric. ‘Dear Pheemie’–”

“Must you ask people to call you that … housemaid’s name?” Mother said.

“Would you prefer Effie?” I said. “‘If you are reading this, I must be dead. Consequently, my gift to you wears a black hatband for form’s sake. In the trunk are my notes; they will show how I constructed the gift and the alloy from which the trunk is made. I am sure you will find a way to unlock it. In the crate is a toy that may amuse you. Once a week be sure to wind, until you feel the spring come to a stop.'” I looked up. “There’s a bit for you, here, Mother. ‘Agnes–remember Coppelia?’ Who is she?”

“Really, you are an uncultured girl. Coppelia is a ballet, about Doctor Coppelius, who created a life-size dancing doll. In his youth, poor Uncle Eric was quite the balletomane, and I think Coppelia sparked his interest in automatons.”

“I find beauty and music in numbers,” I said. That was the end of the letter.

The trunk was made of dark unpolished metal, bound with thick iron bands. The lid closed with a lock, the combination of which comprised four letters.

“Uncle Eric did not give us the code,” Mother said. “How will we open it? There must be hundreds of combinations!”

“There are 456,976,” I said. “If you allow for repetitions of letters.”

“Show off your mathematical skills to me, if you must, but do take care not to do it in front of young gentlemen. They will take you for a bluestocking, and they do not like a wife more intelligent than they. Do you wish to remain a spinster all your life?”

I felt my throat tighten. “I am but nineteen years old, not yet an old maid. And, unless a man crept around the door whilst I was taking delivery, there is none here to observe my mental calculations.”

“Not since your poor Uncle …” Mother sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. I squeezed her arm.

“I regret my insensitivity. I miss him too.” I kissed the top of her head. “Let us leave the trunk for now, I will undo the crate.”

I forced the top upwards with the poker. The nails came away and it opened, revealing an object the shape of a man, apparently constructed of bronze. It was dressed like a country gentleman. Its fingers, interconnected metal cylinders, were riveted to the hands. A cord round its neck carried a front door key and a crank-style grandfather clock winder.

The face felt cold to the touch. It was clean-shaven, with engraved curlicues above the eyes imitating eyebrows. Blue enamelled eyes stared at nothing. On its head was a flat cap, with a black band. I removed it, and the short black wig underneath it came away in my hand. Next to a panel in the top of the head was a button, about one-eighth of an inch wide. I pushed it and the panel popped open, revealing a clock-like mechanism.

I put the crank key onto the winding peg inside and gave it a turn. The box vibrated as mechanisms activated somewhere within the body. Inside the head, a ticking began as a cog turned one tooth at a time, restricted by the rocking anchor-shaped escapement that kept the apparatus running regularly. I closed the door and replaced the wig and the hat. The eyes moved from side to side.

Escapement, or The Contemporary Coppelius

With a whirr of gears and a creak of wood against metal, the automaton sat up and raised its cap. “My name is Arbuthnot, at your service.”

With a whirr of gears and a creak of wood against metal, the automaton sat up and raised its cap. “My name is Arbuthnot, at your service.” Its mouth did not move. The voice was like that of a man, but with a metallic edge and an air of distortion, like one of Mr. Edison’s recordings. It climbed out of the crate and stood up. It was about five feet eight inches, as tall as me. “I am glad to make your acquaintance.”

“And I yours.”

“Now, what about a nice cup of tea?” he said. “You need only show me once. I learn.”


To read the rest of this story, check out the Mad Scientist Journal: Summer 2015 collection.


Euphemia Thorniwork’s account of the events of November 1888 was found in a diary hidden underneath the floorboards in a study at Cambridge University. She was one of the first female students to be admitted to study mathematics and, as later entries in the diary indicate, was largely responsible for Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism. The last entry appears to be a design for a cordless telephone, the shape and size of a child’s tricycle. We will try to piece together the text explaining what happened to it, and her. Watch this space–she may rematerialise into it.


Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist working in emergency medicine, a medical writer, editor, and indexer. She started writing in 2009. She mainly writes speculative fiction, a welcome antidote from the world she lives in. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications in the USA, UK, and Australia. When she’s not working or writing, she studies English, knits, sings, and swims, not always at the same time. She blogs at Luna Station Quarterly and www.millil.blogspot.com.


Ariel Alian Wilson is a few things:¬†artist, writer, gamer, and role-player. Having dabbled in a few different art mediums, Ariel has been drawing since she was¬†small, having always held a passion for it. She’s always juggling numerous projects. Currently lives in Seattle with her two cats, Zippy and Persephone. You can find doodles, sketches, and more at her blog www.winndycakesart.tumblr.com.

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