The Wind-Up Time Machine
by Kris Green
I found these letters in old Uncle Charles’ papers and they looked to be right up your street. From what I can gather (and to be very honest I did not really try to decipher all of it), there are some things written that cast rather a doubtful eye on the old boy’s mental state. Seems he wasn’t always compus mentis and spent some time undergoing treatment for all sorts. These letters seem to have been written at around the time an earthquake destroyed several buildings in central London, they give quite a fantastical account of that demolition though I never knew him to dabble in fiction. Well, I hope that they will be of interest to you,
I suppose it must have been last July when I first met the Traveller. That is how I came to refer to him, later. When I first met him he was just a raver, a madman. It was chance that brought Father and I to the courts, and chance that took us to the same courtroom as the madman. Justice Grindlow presided over the case of a vagrant found wandering the newly completed sewerage line connecting east London with the Chelsea pumping station. There were perhaps a dozen people crammed into the tiny courtroom like sardines. The corridor outside was no less full, it bustled with people and Father and I were waiting our turn in Justice Grindlow’s chambers with Mr Withergrew, our Barrister. I did not pay attention to the particulars of my Father’s suits and usually stood by idle and more than a little bored, but on that day I had plenty to marvel at.
To outside appearances the man was truly little more than a vagrant. He wore a soiled boiler suit – loaned to him, I later discovered, by one of the sewerage crew – and his hair was in a state of disarray so that great tufts of it stood on end. His skin was soiled with a thick coating of grease and he smelled, by God he smelled. It was his eyes that I noticed. I have seen madmen, and they rarely look so lucid. It is true, he had an air of desperation and he appeared completely lost, he did not stop looking about him, he watched everything with a keen interest with his bright almost malevolent eyes. He was accompanied into the courtroom by two members of the London Constabulary, a pair of manacles bound his hands and feet together in a length of chain that made me wonder if he had been violent.
Justice Grindlow resembled nothing more than a pork pie in a periwig, and he dispensed his judgements with relish. He curtly surveyed the prisoner and heard the testimony from the two Constables, one of whom had been present when the man had been dragged naked and delirious from the tunnels under London. The man’s name was given as Arthur Bartholomew Spengle, and a morning clearing crew had found him stumbling delirious and raving, naked and filthy, in the tunnel rubble. One of the crew had run off to summon a Constable who decided to take the man to the nearest workhouse until someone more senior could be called to attend the case. At this point Spengle became agitated and struck the officer who was aided in subduing him by the works crew.
The Judge heard the evidence with his customary scowl firmly in place, his mouth twisted into a sneer of disgust and before passing sentence he asked the court if anyone would stand bail or vouch for Mr Spengle’s behaviour. It was quite obvious that the man would be spending some time in the poorhouse or at the mercy of the doctors at Bethlem Hospital, and no one would look at him. It was to everyone’s surprise then, when a young man entered the room almost breathless, as though he had been running. He struggled to get his breath back but held up his hand to fend off the wardens of the court who moved to eject him even as Justice Grindlow struggled to spit out something witty and vituperative. He failed and the young man got out his words to the effect that he represented a man who was willing to stand bail for the vagrant and meet the conditions of the court, whatever they may be. For a moment I thought that the Judge would recant and sentence the man and this fresh apparition to the lower slopes of Hell; or the workhouse and his chambers respectively. Certainly the Judge appeared to pause while a fresh tendril of drool crept over his lower lip. In the end he came to a decision and pronounced that Arthur Spengle of no fixed address could accompany the barrister and was released from the custody of the court upon the presentation of a guarantee of fifty pounds.
I turned to Father and begged to be released from my duty because I had heard a familiar name in the proceedings and sought to follow the matter up to my satisfaction. I pushed through the crowds of people until I had caught up with the two men. I presented myself to the Barrister who nodded thoughtfully when I told him my name and my business. He excused himself to Mr Spengle and confirmed what I had overheard, that his employer was a young man by the name of Robert, the Lord Houndswick, and a close personal friend. I decided to follow the matter up with Robert the next time I saw him for now I was most curious. First of all, why did he choose to spend a great deal of money on someone he had certainly never heard of. Second and most important of all, how did he hear of him in the first place. They say that a fool and his money are soon parted, Robert was no fool and no fool to part with money without a significant return on his investment. No, I was most curious to find out what my friend was up to.
It was almost two weeks before I was able to find the time to visit Robert, my Father’s involvement in certain business enterprises required the ability to focus considerable attention and as he has grown older Father has tended to lean upon me more in these things. I still wonder what might have happened had I gone to visit earlier, would events have transpired as they did. I can never know the answer to that question but that simple fact has not stopped me from torturing myself even to the point of madness. When I arrived, the first note of dissonance was that it was Robert himself who answered the door. I asked him what had become of his manservant and was astonished to learn that most of his staff had given in their notice. He seemed unperturbed and was his usual charming self and appeared to be oblivious to my distress. He inquired after Father’s health and asked about business in general, I replied to his questions with all the courtesy I was able to summon. I think I acquitted myself rather well until we arrived at the library. His home in London has always been a generously sized building of ancient character and yet with all of the amenities and modern conveniences to be expected from the house of an up and coming society man like Robert. I recall evenings spent in pleasant company inside that room, the soft light of dusk filtering through the windows as we talked about such things as amused us. On the day of my visit however, when we began to approach the library all I could hear was a terrible sound as of metal being tortured.
The wall of heat that assailed me as the door to the old library was opened caused me to take a step backwards into the hall. When I had recovered from my moment of weakness I went inside after Robert who had already gone in. Where there had been shelves and paintings and the stuffed heads of game animals, the walls were instead decorated with charts and notes covered with wild scrawling and all sorts of strange diagrams. The windows were gone, as was most of the east facing wall and the library now opened directly onto the garden where a sort of a forge had been set up. It was from this, and other apparatus set up inside of the room, that the tremendous heat originated. At the centre of the room, presiding over the chaos was the Madman, Spengle. He looked no less mad than when I first set eyes upon him in the Halls of Justice, his eyes were as fierce and his gaze was fixed intently upon a set of plans he had sprawled over some apparatus made from coiled lengths of wire and metal struts. Here and there around the room were set these metallic contrivances which stretched from the floor to the ceiling and appeared to be constructed from finger wide lengths of metal. On the north side of the room one of the struts was bolted firmly onto the wall. To say that I was struck dumb would be something of an understatement. I was destroyed, crushed. I could not conceive of what was happening, and was momentarily displaced. I remember being introduced to Spengle who looked upon both of us as a surgeon looks upon a gnat whose buzzing interrupts his work for but a second before crushing it and returning to his gory toil. I did not stay long, and before I left the house Robert and I argued. He said that he had been approached by a man who was aware of Spengle’s brilliance, who had made certain promises to him which had then come true, and that now he placed his trust in Spengle as a scientist and a man of honour. He offered me a chance, he said, to invest in the future. I laughed hysterically and called him a fool. We did not speak again after that.
A month later I was attending upon a meeting with one of my Father’s solicitors when I saw Robert’s lawyer. I almost passed him in the street but something made me stop and ask him if I remembered him correctly. He said that he was pleased to make my acquaintance once more but after a moment he became serious and insinuated that he would like to speak with me in more private surroundings. We passed a tea room and stepped inside and ordered, whereupon we were left on our own for a few minutes. The lawyer, whose name was Forster, told me that his employer, my friend, had been acting erratically of late. The Lord Houndswick, he explained, had presented him with a number of articles and schematics for which Forster was to take out Patents. Forster having already contacted, on his behalf, industrialists and certain figures in the government and military with regard to the patents, confessed to becoming more and more alarmed with the extravagant promises his employer was making. He implored me as an old friend of Robert’s to become the voice of reason. For some reason I could not then fathom, I decided to hold my tongue about my earlier visit and instead waited to see what else he would say. I was not disappointed for he placed into my hands a thin sheaf of papers and leaned forwards as he did so to disguise them. I slipped them under my coat just as our tea things arrived and passed into conversation about more pleasant matters.
After Forster and I had parted ways it was all I could do not to look at the documents there and then. Instead I steeled myself and walked back to my lawyers’ offices with them clasped firmly under my arm. I was as courteous as necessary with the under-secretaries and quickly sequestered myself in the room set aside for the private reading of legal documents. I made sure that the door was closed and locked before I unpacked the documents and laid them out to read. What I found there was remarkable and confounding. Here there was a Patent for a machine intended to displace a man in Time and Space, and another page was a correspondence with a government minister about the possible uses of Time as a weapon. I was aghast, I did not know whether to become terrified or laugh at the horrendous absurdity of the situation. Here was a man, my friend, being used by this Spengle to procure facilities and materials upon which to base his utterly ridiculous experiments, it was insane, and I had documentary proof that senior members of the government were not only colluding in this patent lunacy but taking it seriously. And yet something gave me pause. I remembered the look in Spengle’s eyes when I first stepped into the ruins of the library. Intense, yes, fierce, yes. But not mad. Not entirely. It was too much. I threw the papers and documents together and rushed out of the building.
I arrived at the house as the sky became dark, the clouds incarnadine by the dying sun filled me with a feeling of such dread that I feared I was already too late. The front opened at a touch and I stepped inside. This time the sensation of heat was absent, however a tremendous noise began to start up the moment I stepped into the hall. It was a high pitched wailing, like the noise a kettle makes when it boils dry, but it shook through the entire building so that I could feel it inside the hollow of my stomach. I felt suddenly very unwell as though my nerves were about to fail me. I remember dropping the papers onto the floor along with my hat. They fell from my hands which were devoid of strength. I was there no longer, not in the hall or in the house or in London. I was somewhere other, watching all of this from at a terrible distance. The door to the library swung open and I could see it, the mechanism. It resembled the inner workings of a pocket watch, how had I not remarked upon the similarity before. Here, a vast spring coiled and uncoiled across the length of the floor; there, a shaft set in the roof turned upon a hidden axle constantly winding, winding, winding. The garden had disappeared. In its stead was an horrific vista of colours, a landscape of madness blotted in the air. Blue ovals turned lazily and bright red whorls elongated and broke apart like blood spattering from an artery but everything happened slowly, as if all of the energy was being drawn out of the air to fuel this terrible machine.
At the centre of this organised chaos of looping metal threads and grinding cogs, was Spengle. He wore a suit now, black trousers and coat over a white dress shirt and waistcoat. He had a round hat on top of his head and in one hand he clutched a silver watch fob. He looked up and seemed to see me and smiled. He opened his mouth to speak but just then the building shook and a crack appeared in the wall where a shaft was pinioned to it. This did not seem to alarm him. Spengle turned to face the colours, which had by then begun to spill into one another and mix to form, not the washed out murk of a brown that it should have, but instead a new and indescribable colour. A coil of metal tore away from the wall and hung there in mid air, where I had expected to see broken plaster and ruined brickwork there stood revealed a new window into horror. Through this aperture dreadful things began to swarm and cluster, darting and looping about the churning machine. They resembled Cuttlefish but I knew that each one represented an idea. Blood, murder, knife, cutting, escape, bedevilment. I knew I did not have to look further to discover what had happened to my friend, Spengle’s confession was written in the air. I cried out, then. But it was late, too late. Another section of wall broke away from its pinion and Spengle disappeared upon a point of light. The screaming ended as abruptly as it had begun and I was left alone in the dreadful silence. Almost an hour later I was discovered three streets away by members of the Constabulary, wandering aimlessly among the debris of the shortest and most sudden earthquake to hit the centre of London for a century. In total, five buildings were destroyed by the shocks, Robert’s among them. I have not spoken to anyone of what I saw that day, although later I did suffer a breakdown brought on by the events of that day, I believe even when I was at my most unreasonable I did not divulge what I had seen. I set these words down for my own record, ten years from the day my friend was murdered and the treacherous Spengle set out upon his journey, and I do so for my own peace of mind. What became of Spengle after that day? I have thought on it often, what kind of a human being could own such power and use it for such squalid ends. Whatever has become of him, I do not think that he is human any more.