Each day at 4:40 Maskelyne would leave his office above the Mechanical Theatre and descend to the lobby to discuss the evening’s program with the ushers, confectioners and box office staff. He would receive final reports from the stagehands about required repairs and anomalies that required observation. And then, reminding the stage manager to have a show report waiting on his desk the next morning, he would straighten his coat, don his top hat, and walk home.
When his key had been inserted into the front gate the gas lamps of his house would ignite, and as he walked the path up to the front door the deer, rabbits and other woodland sculptures would turn to watch him, bowing their heads slightly in deference. They were far less docile to unauthorized visitors.
In the anteroom his doorman, an early unnamed creation, would take his coat with one hand, his hat with the other and present him with a freshly mixed gin and tonic with the other. Then assuming that he didn’t pass an umbrella to its fourth hand, it would revert to the form of a coat rack. As he walked through the door of his study the player pyrophone in the corner would begin its program of Mozart etudes, the bar of orange flame that fronted the fire organ undulating with the music, casting a lively dance of shadows across the room. He would sit and read the newspaper fetched for him by his automatic paper, slipper and ball fetcher, which would lie curled at his feet.
At seven o’clock the dinner chime would ring and he’d put down the paper and his drink and proceed to the dining room, where his clockwork servants would serve the meal that they had prepared for him. There were never less than three and sometimes as many as eight of these automatons, depending on his current research and the menu. Across the table might scuttle a small mechanical intent on keeping his wine glass filled, while draped around the chandelier above, a sinuous segmented artifice would spin its internal spice rack at his request and shake vigorously where he pointed. The other more human-shaped automatons would move to and from the kitchen delivering courses and taking away empty plates and silverware.
Occasionally there would be accidents—food spilled, or poorly prepared, or other irregularities. When these occurred, Maskelyne would pull a small silver notepad from his vest pocket and make a note for future repair and refinement.
After dinner, he would climb the stairs to his workshop in the aerie. While much of the construction of his automatons was done in the basement, it was in the upper workshop that he made the fine adjustments and detailed work that transformed articulated metal into authentic creations. For it was here that he performed the infinitely minute work of clockwork, and the much more mysterious task of imbuing it with spirit.
The truth was, for all of his wide reading and experience the greatest lesson of clockwork that Maskelyne had learned was as a young apprentice. Then he had learned that the most accomplished Makers always left a small space in their mechanisms right in the midst of the gears, cogs, pillars and pinions. This tiny gap in the machinery was, he was told, to be filled with something immaterial. Traditionally, this was a personal wish that the clocksmith would whisper into the mechanism. But in Maskelyne’s creations, what was stuffed in the space was a gauzy piece of almost-nothing that he kept stored in a small silver flask.
The spiritualists call this substance ectoplasm, a near-transparency that they believe is the materialized essence of the spirits of the dead. Maskelyne, who had seen more ectoplasm and put it to greater use than the most celebrated of mediums, was convinced that they had foolishly misidentified it. He believed that this translucent material, fragile as a spider-web and with even less weight, was astral ephemera, the foam of an invisible sea, and entirely unrelated to the soul or any other human matters. But he also knew that when placed in a mechanism the material provided an indefinable vitality that made his inventions nonpariel.
The method of collecting the ectoplasm was inspired by shipwrecked mariners in sun-scorched seas, who capture precious fresh water by filling a cup with seawater and collecting the drops of condensation that gather on its sides. In a similar fashion, he created an object to collect the condensation of the astral realm. In the center of a glass orb he had placed an artificial icon, an abstract symbolic sculpture of gold, silver and brass. The object was devoid of specific meaning—Maskelyne was rigorously uninterested in religious matters—but the design and material mimicked those of traditional iconography. When charged with electricity, over hours the icon would accrete a layer of fine dust which would gradually begin to grow webs, then a tissue, and finally a gossamer-thin covering of translucent material. This was the ectoplasm, which he cut with a slender silver knife and then captured with a tiny silver net, to be stored in the flask. A small amount of this substance went into the ticking heart of every one of the Professor’s creations.
On this particular September night with which we are concerned, a windy and warm evening filled with flying leaves, Maskelyne was engaged in this very process, bent over his workbench, loupe held in his monocle eye, slicing the misty stuff with the care of a surgeon into an organ or a pauper into his last orange, when he heard the ringing of a tiny bell. It was soft yet very distinct—it had to be, in a house filled with bells and chimes. It was insistent. And it told the Professor that there was an intruder in his house.