Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Boyproof Watch VI


The next morning Maskelyne sent a note via his patented Mechanical Courier to his staff saying to not to expect him in the office for the remainder of the week. They would assume he was repairing the Egyptian Fortuneteller, but he didn’t so much as uncrate that venerable automaton. Instead, he skipped breakfast, told his bedside clock to inform the kitchen he wanted a full carafe of black coffee, and walked to the upper workshop as his clock scampered downstairs to deliver his message. Once in his workshop he pulled out a large bottle of superior brandy, poured just a bit more than was required to wet the sides of his glass, and sat at his drafting table.

This was his favorite method of creation, to alternate the stimulant of the coffee with the depressive qualities of the alcohol, enough to keep him awake yet not jittery, relaxed but not clumsy, setting his talent like a precision tool. His head and hands floated slightly above sober through the day, aided by the alertness of an empty stomach.

Maskelyne designed through free association, with the lines on the paper begun before he himself knew what their form might be. A curve would become a spring, a line a pin, a doodle a gear. He worked quickly and fluidly and with no regard to the time or amount of paper he used.

He had long had a Boyproof Watch in his imagination. The greatest reason that Maskelyne hated children was their uncanny ability to destroy delicate machinery with their tiny hands and cunning if underdeveloped minds. More than once, tallying up the number of repairs required due to their sabotage, he had consulted his ledger to see if his Theatre could operate with no children in the audience, but no matter how he fiddled the numbers, it couldn’t. It wasn’t simply the income to be gained from the tykes but the high percentage of parents, yoked by custom and necessity to their offspring, who attended his programs. To remain profitable he had to continue to allow the brats in.

That didn’t mean he had to like it. A prerequisite of all of his staff was that they were both childless and discouraged from showing affection for children. While it would not have been in his nature to tolerate discourtesy, he had let go certain employees who were too sentimental towards the younger patrons. And since the day twenty years ago that he had opened the Theatre he had never offered any special ticket price to children—though he was both generous and courtesy to the elderly, and gave many complimentary tickets to deserving charities throughout the City.

Lunch sat prepared but ignored on a side tray and before he looked up from his drawings it had been joined by a dinner tray also grown cold. Inspiration had sat next to him all day, and having decided on this project it was one that eagerly awaited his discovery. He had not only years of salvage work to draw from, clocks and machines and automatons and devices all returned to him after being crippled or killed by boys, but his own memories of inspired destruction.

The challenge was devising a casing strong enough, a mechanism sturdy enough and a form captivating enough to catch the eye of any boy, and then resist every stratagem, every tool that his tiny hands and malevolent mind might try on it. Faced with such a challenge even the greatest of Maskelyne’s creations had proved to be but a Goliath facing David’s sling. But now he would find the solution.

Dawn found him working on his final draft. The bell in the hallway cabinet had stayed silent all night.

 After a few hours sleep he ordered another full carafe of coffee and began again, now gathering the plates, pins, screws, wheels, pinions, and springs he would need. He laid out the miniscule inventory in meticulous order, for there is no “approximate” in watchmaking. Then he began assembling the gear trains, the escapement and eventually the balance and hairspring, not only reinforcing each element but building in secondary fail-safe mechanisms. By the time he finally fell into bed eighteen hours later, he had given the tiny mechanical engine a single key wind and heard it tick with an even amplitude.

While he had worked and while he slept the bell in the hallway cabinet remained silent.

When he rose at noon he took breakfast to settle his stomach then descended to the basement. He had instructed his workshop mechanicals to heat the forge days before as he planned to make the casing from the new wolfram alloy he’d been sent by a colleague in Schaffhausen, and while he was unsure at what temperature it was workable, he knew it must be very hot indeed.

The next few hours were frustrating and so infernal in temperature as to reduce the eternally sanguine Maskelyne to curses and his undershirt. Much of the alloy was wasted and several tools were rendered useless. But by that evening he had finally completed the case, and by midnight he was again at his aerie workbench, delicately setting the mechanism into its grayish-white casing.

Then he reached under the workbench and with a deft movement undid a tiny latch. Out of a hidden drawer he retrieved a small silver tinderbox. On it was written I have myself passed through the fire, I have smelt the smell of fire. He reached inside and pulled out a tiny bright red seed and placed it on the workbench before him.

This was the seed of a Salamander Blossom, gained by Maskelyne through a complex series of trades with various antiquarians. It was the subject of study by scholars throughout Europe and one in America, who noted that whatever was the eventual product of the seed (for no one had every claimed to see so much as a root tip or a shoot emerge from the tiny scarlet casing) it had certain remarkable physical properties. When exposed to a spark, it would explode into a flame of astonishing heat. Maskelyne had discovered in his own experiments that when encased in ectoplasm the flame would burn even hotter, at greater radius and with greater duration. He pulled out his silver flask and extracted a small amount of that near-intangible substance with silver tweezers that he then used to wind it round the seed. Using the same tweezers he inserted it deep into the mechanical heart of the watch.

He then took a miniscule brush and with precise care painted around this gauzy substance with phosphorus paint, highly reactive and flammable. As it dried he took two pieces of flint each no larger than an infant’s fingernail and inserted them resting next to each other in the watch’s frame.

Now was the most delicate part of the operation. Carrying both halves down to basement, he heated a tiny amount of solder on his forge, and then drew it around in a thin line around the interior edge of the watch’s casing. Working quickly but with infinite care he brought the casing to set against the watch’s back, holding his breath. To his relief there was no combustion.

But there would be if the case was ever opened. Indeed, he calculated that the resulting explosion would injure or even cripple any person foolish enough to try.

While the case cooled, he pulled out a blank watch box. In his florid yet supremely legible handwriting he wrote:

The Boyproof Watch

When it had cooled, he would place the watch in the box, and the box on his workbench. And then he would wait.

No comments:

Post a Comment