It was on the eighth of September in the year 1893 that I received an unexpected communication from my learned friend, Professor William Haversham.
My dear Archy, the letter read, if you would be so kind as to call upon me post-haste, I have something extraordinary to show you.
I responded to the summons with alacrity. Haversham’s keen intellect was well known to me from our years at Oxford. When I first went up, I was a student of physical science, while he, being some years older, already held a chair in natural philosophy. A profound commitment to bettering the general condition of humanity drew us together, and we remained in correspondence during the succeeding years. Now I was eager to see what discovery or accomplishment could so excite him.
The summons had come in late afternoon, and the shadows of night were falling over London by the time I stood on Haversham’s front steps and plied the knocker. The door was opened by a maid in cap and apron, who showed me into the parlor.
“The professor is expecting you, sir,” she said.
“Archy, my friend!” came a loud voice a moment later from the inner doorway. “How delightful that you could join me.”
Professor Haversham swept into the room, a bottle of champagne in one hand, two flutes in the other. Placing the glasses on an end-table, he popped the cork and poured. “Success!” he said, and tilted back his glass.
Bemused, I echoed his toast. “I must confess,” I added, “that I am quite at a loss. Your request induced me to board the first train to town, and your greeting implies some celebration, but so far I have not a clue as to the cause.”
“I want you to witness something that the world has never before seen,” he said, pouring himself another glass. “A machine like no other.”
“You’ve invented the chess-playing automaton?” I asked—for such, indeed, was the challenge of the age. Modern scientific engineering stood poised on the verge of turning Von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk from hoax to reality, and competition was fierce among the savants of the city.
“No, no, dear boy. Better. Come, let me show you.” The professor led the way, up two flights of stairs, to a combination workshop and laboratory under the garret. Boxes, jars, and tools filled shelves along three walls, while the fourth held a chalkboard covered with mathematical formulae and schematic diagrams. Benches and tables were piled with papers, electrical apparatus, and chemical flasks. Notebooks, opened, lay scattered on the floor. A sheeted object stood on a pedestal against the far wall.
“Archy,” Haversham said to me, “have you any pocket change?”
“Yes, but what has that to do...?”
“Everything.” He whipped away the sheet to reveal what appeared to be a human arm and hand, attached to an iron framework. Pneumatic tubes ran into the arm, connected to pressure bottles and a baffling array of mechanical switches. Palm up, elbow slightly bent, the arm extended into the room.
“Here,” Haversham said. “I have no idea what money you have in your pocket, do I? No way of knowing in advance, will you grant me as much?”
“Yes,” I said. “I will admit the truth of that.”
“Place any coin or coins onto the palm of that hand,” said the professor.
I reached into my pocket and withdrew a shilling, then placed it as the professor had indicated. To my amazement, a woman’s disembodied voice said: “A shilling.” The voice was a husky contralto, with the faintest hint of an Irish accent.
Haversham smiled and said, “Try again.”
I did as he directed, pulling two-and-six from my pocket and placing it on the hand. This time the voice said, “Two shillings sixpence.”
I shook my head. “If it were not for your formidable reputation, professor, I should say that this is a conjuring trick. You can see what I am placing on this hand, and you might in some way cause this voice to correctly identify the coins.”
“I assure you, I am doing no such thing. Let me leave the room and you may try again.”
He withdrew, leaving me alone with the bodiless hand. Determined to test its capabilities as thoroughly as possible given the circumstances, I tried several coins in different combinations. All of them were flawlessly identified: “A farthing. One pound ten. Two bob. A sovereign. Half a crown.”
Several trials later, I abandoned the project. Leaving the laboratory, I found the professor on the stairs, smoking a cheroot.
“Well?” he asked.
“I am amazed,” I said. “How do you accomplish this seeming miracle?”
“A combination of techniques. Electrical inductance, a balance to detect weight, a few other touches; attach a phonograph geared to recite the appropriate phrases, and it is done. Do you like the skin?”
“I had wondered. It does feel lifelike, in a cold and unpleasant way.”
I thought he preened himself a little. “A combination of latex rubber and gutta percha, my own formula.”
“What do you intend to do with this?” I asked. “Such a device may well have an application in shops or counting houses. Or do you have some other purpose?”
“The ability to recognize and count money was the final problem of a work in progress, without which the rest would have been futile. Return in two weeks at this same hour and I will show you everything. It is more easily demonstrated than explained.”
Haversham knew well how to pique my curiosity; I remembered that slight vanity in him from our Oxford days, that he would never unveil a discovery until he judged his observers to be at a high point of anticipation. Time had clearly not changed that aspect of his character, and I found myself, as before, waiting in eagerness for whatever marvel the professor might choose to reveal. The glitter in his eye, the spots of color on his cheekbones, even the slight tremble in his voice, all hinted at a vastly greater degree of excitement than his words conveyed.
Two weeks later I returned. I found the door unlocked and a note affixed to the knocker, instructing me to come up to the library. I entered, and, since I saw no one else about, proceeded upstairs to a room just off the first-floor landing. Professor Haversham stood at the window, looking out upon the darkened streets of London. The lights in the room were all extinguished so that the only illumination came from the gas lamps in the street below.
He broke the silence before I could speak. “I trust you had no trouble seeing yourself in.”
“No,” I said. “Though I was a trifle startled to find your note.”
“I gave Molly leave to spend a week with her mother in Chelsea,” he said. “Come, join me.”
I went to stand beside him at the window. Turning from his contemplation of the street below, he gestured to the window as he addressed me, saying, “Tell me, Archy, what do you see out there?”
“London,” I said. “Buildings and pavement. Lights. Fog. What should I see?”
“A sink of sin and misery,” he said. “Here in this city, the capital of the greatest nation on earth, we have one prostitute for every ten adult males. Neither love of God nor fear of Hell, no law however enforced, no appeals to our better natures, has wiped out this scourge, nor is anything more along those lines likely to do so. The trade in human flesh corrupts all who come in contact with it; not only the men themselves, but also the young women forced into the life by poverty, lack of education, or drink. And what a toll it takes! The degradation, the decay of civic virtue, the crime and violence! It is almost too much to be borne. And the gentlemen who patronize these trollops infect themselves with diseases which they bring home to their innocent wives.”
“The problem, while distressing, is scarcely unknown,” I said. “Mr. Gladstone himself has made a habit of rescuing fallen women from the streets.”
“With what effect we have seen. Are there not now just as many—more!—prostitutes than there were before?”
“I confess that it is so. But what are we to do? We are men of science, not of the clergy nor of Parliament; nor are we the police.”
“Aha!” he said. “But what if I were to tell you that science has provided a cure?”
“I should wonder what you meant.”
“Then observe.” He turned toward the interior of his library. “Janet,” he said loudly, “come forward.”
I heard a susurration reminiscent of silk. A young woman walked toward us from the shadows where she had stood silent and concealed. She came to within three feet of us, then stopped.
“What does this mean?” I said. My friend had never been in the habit of inviting females into his lodgings, and I could not help but fear that he was suffering from some derangement of the mind and senses, to exhibit so marked a change in his behavior.
The professor ignored my protest in favor of speaking directly to the young woman. “Hello, Janet,” he said.
“Hello, sailor,” she replied. “Fancy a go?”
I had heard that voice for the first time two weeks before, counting coins. I supposed that I was meeting the actress who had made Haversham’s recordings.
“Janet, reveal yourself,” the professor said.
The young woman reached for the top of her dress. The deep neckline of the garment already showed her long throat and the tops of her bubbies to advantage; now she pulled down the bodice until she stood nude to the waist, her breasts snowy white in the reflected lamplight from the street, the areolae dark and the nipples shamelessly erect.
“Like a feel, sailor?” she said in her throaty, low voice. “Yours for a penny.”
I felt my face burning in the dark. “Professor!” I remonstrated, but my friend paid no heed.
“Would you prefer to see more?” Haversham said; then, addressing the woman, “Janet, expose yourself.”
Without another word, the young woman bent forward. Grasping her skirt and petticoats, she pulled them upward to the belly, revealing her lower body, entirely naked: white limbs bare above her buttoned shoes, the dark triangle at the juncture of her thighs, all.
“How about it, sailor?” the young woman said. “Only a shilling.”
“Professor Haversham!” I exclaimed. “What is the meaning of this vulgar display?”
“This,” Professor Haversham said, “is the clockwork trollop.”
He turned to the table at his side, struck a match, and lit a lamp. The young woman—Janet—did not react to the increase in light. Out of embarrassment, I averted my eyes.
“Clockwork?” I said, speaking to the ceiling.
“Yes. Springs, gears, cams, and levers. Observe.”
Haversham took a pace toward the young woman who stood, fully revealed, before us. Despite my good intentions my gaze went with him, and I saw that her grey eyes were wide and unblinking. The professor waved his hand back and forth in front of her face and snapped his fingers under her nose, but she made no move.
I dared to do the same, and likewise provoked no reaction.
“Go on, touch her,” he urged.
I reached out a tentative hand and laid it on her shoulder, then snatched my hand back a moment later. “She’s warm!”
“Of course she is,” Haversham said. “While the men of dockside are brutes, sunk deep in degradation, I doubt that many of them are necrophiliacs. The warmth is provided by a small steam-boiler located in her abdomen. That boiler is heated with raw grain spirits mixed with methyl-cellulose to make a solid fuel. But warming the skin is not the only use for the boiler. Between clients, the trollop uses that steam to eject the spendings of the men she has entertained from her nether passage, at once emptying and sterilizing the sheath in preparation for her next; thus she will prevent the spread of disease.”
“You cannot expect men to actually—mate—with this thing!”
“You yourself thought she was real.”
“Only for a moment,” I protested.
“Crude men far gone in drink, addled by lust and in uncertain light, will be ready to believe that she is Venus’s second self. That linguist fellow made the lords and ladies at Ascot think a street girl was a duchess. Far easier to convince a drunken lout that this is a street girl.”
“Hello, sailor,” Janet added to the conversation.
“But will she actually be able to—”
“Yes,” Haversham said. “And quite skillfully, if I may be permitted to brag. A German fellow, a gymnast, cataloged four hundred and fifty possible modes of congress, not counting mirror-images or reversals. I have extracted the common factors and cut them into a series of cams that mimic the acts of love in quite lifelike detail. The copulative motion of the client will, by means of a pendulum and escapement movement, rewind the trollop’s main spring. She will be able to couple for the entire night without tiring. Should she run low on fuel, she can call for gin, drink it, and use that to fire her boiler. By the end of the century, I anticipate, the clockwork trollop will replace the common prostitute, just as the power loom has supplanted the cottage weaver.”
“Unbelievable,” I murmured.
“Would you like to try her for yourself? I will retire to give you privacy. But be aware that she will demand payment in advance.”
I felt myself blushing again. “No, that will not be necessary.”
“I can hear you asking yourself, what of the women thrown out of work by this invention? Them, I will train as mechanics to maintain these machines. Every morning, when the clockwork trollops return to their engine houses, the former prostitutes will clean them thoroughly with Lister’s solution, replenish the fuel and water in their boilers, check the tension of their springs, oil their clockworks, brush their hair, mend and launder their clothing, and perform such repairs as may be needed.”
“Don’t forget the gentry,” I said, entering into the spirit of the thing. “They could buy private copies; keep them in the lumber room and never again bother the tweenie, or wander alone through the East End where they are prey to footpads and blackmailers.”
“And the best part is that the whole enterprise will be self-funding,” the professor said.
My curiosity had by now outweighed my earlier reticence. I leaned closer to give the trollop a closer examination. “However did you make her seem so real?”
“I worked from a death-mask,” he said, “taken from an unfortunate young woman drowned in the Thames. The poor lass had not been in the water long; there was no wrinkling or bloating when her corpse was delivered to me, so I was able to cast her in every detail.”
“In every detail?”
“Just so,” he said. “From top to... ahem... bottom. I am quite proud of the lifelike nature of her skin; the hair, of course, is genuine.”
I stood in silent amazement for a few moments more admiring the craftsmanship. When I turned away from the machine I observed the professor had donned his coat and had his hat in his hand.
“Professor, do you intend...?”
“Yes. The reason I invited you here this evening. Tonight, Archy, we will take the clockwork trollop out for her sea trials, as it were.”
“Hello, sailor,” Janet said. “Buy a pretty girl a drink?”
“Ah... no,” I said to the young woman. I found it extraordinarily difficult to remember that I was addressing, not a living creature capable of independent thought and conversation, but a device no more human than my pocket-watch.
“Come,” said Professor Haversham. “Take her other arm, and we shall guide her between us to a cab and thence to the East End to ply her trade.”
The hansom cab deposited us in Wapping, not far from the London Docks. From there we set out on foot, to all appearances a pair of night-time carousers with a girl to share between them. The neighborhood was dark and insalubrious; if it had not been for the sake of Professor Haversham’s scientific endeavors I would never have ventured into its foul-smelling streets in the daytime, far less at night.
My friend, however, appeared to have no such misgivings but looked about him with interest. “Now to find a public house of suitable character,” he said. “Not too difficult in this area, I should think.”
We proceeded along the filthy street, navigating with care over the slick and uneven paving stones. I saw that Janet walked always with her left hand brushing the wall, and I asked Professor Haversham why this should be the case.
“It’s how she makes her way,” he explained. “Later, I shall include a map of each girl’s area of operations among her cams. For now, our Janet must pilot herself by feel.”
The slight smell of alcohol that wafted from the clockwork trollop added an air of verisimilitude to her profession. At the professor’s urging, we slowed our pace to allow her to draw ahead; before long we were trailing her at a half block’s distance. Off in the fog, a ship’s bell rang the hour.
A man approached the trollop. She paused when he addressed her; I saw her cock her head as she answered, and I imagined that I could hear her saying, “Hello, sailor, fancy a go?”
Apparently, he did. Money changed hands. A moment later the fellow had the trollop by the arm and was leading her off into an alley.
“We should observe,” said Haversham, sotto voce. “For the sake of science.”
Quietly, we approached the mouth of the alley. In its dim recesses I could see the trollop leaning back against the alley wall, her skirts held in her hands at shoulder height. The man was embracing her, his trousers around his ankles.
“Pierce me to the very vitals with your manly rod,” Janet said in her husky voice. “Oh, sweet lubricity!”
The man said nothing, but pumped against her. In a matter of moments he gave a grunt and stepped back. The clockwork trollop dropped her skirts and, one hand trailing along the wall of the alley, returned the way she had come. I could imagine the small jet of steam that was rendering her once again hygienic. The idea both fascinated and disgusted me.
Professor Haversham had his notebook out. I heard him murmur, “With this fellow a single motion sufficed for the purpose.”
Light and music poured out into the street from an open door ahead. Janet turned in at the doorway and entered.
“Now for the real test,” Professor Haversham said. “Keep your back to the wall, and observe.”
The tavern, for indeed it was such, was slightly below street level and filled with mariners fresh from the docks. The trollop had maneuvered the steps leading down and was now accosting the patrons, one by one, with a husky “Hello, sailor, fancy a go?”
Before long, one of the tavern’s nautical patrons did indeed turn out to “fancy a go.” The sailor—a packet rat, by his close-cropped hair and woolen pea-coat—pulled a coin from his pocket, handed it to the trollop, then escorted her to a back room and closed the door. A rhythmic squeaking of bedsprings commenced shortly afterward, and, above the din in the tavern itself, came the sound of the trollop exclaiming, “Oh, for the love of God, faster, faster! Oh, sweet lubricity! I spend, I die!”
A pause; the door opened, and the sailor emerged, his brow beaded with sweat, followed a moment later by the cool and unruffled trollop.
“She is able to dress and undress herself,” the professor said in my ear. “That was a great technical challenge, but magnetic thread in her garments proved to be the solution.”
Despite the sordid nature of our surroundings, I could not help but marvel. “This is far beyond anything you have previously accomplished. Compared to this....”
“A chess-playing automaton is but a toy.”
As we spoke, another patron was accompanying the trollop into the back room. More squeaking noises soon followed, then a muffled cry and Janet’s voice exclaiming, “Oh, pierce me to the very vitals with your manly rod!”
When she emerged, she made her way to the bar—navigating by touch, as before—and with every appearance of lifelike animation, purchased gin, which she knocked back neat.
“Is she running low on fuel?” I inquired. “Should we take her back now?”
“No, no,” Haversham said. “She is merely replenishing the fluid for her cleaning apparatus, while adding verisimilitude to her role. Our Janet is indeed the perfect trollop: she cannot be threatened, she cannot be insulted, she cannot be murdered, and she does not tire.”
The professor spoke truth. Before long, two more customers had enjoyed the trollop’s charms in the back room. While she was entertaining the second, a group of clipper-ship sailors pushed their way into the tavern, calling loudly for gin and beer and greeting the barman with many rough jests. He in turn supplied each man with his preferred tipple, from which I judged that they were all known patrons of the establishment.
When Janet next emerged from the back room, she turned her attention to the newcomers. Instead of approaching the nearest with her usual “Hello, sailor,” she made her way directly to one of their number—a strapping specimen with a tarred pigtail, his muscular arms gaudy with oriental tattoos—as he stood by the bar. He turned at her greeting, but seemed momentarily taken aback by her appearance.
“How about it, sailor?” the trollop said. “Only a shilling.”
He hesitated no longer, but took her by the hand and led her to the back room, to the accompaniment of the raucous cheers of his shipmates. The door swung shut, and before long the bedsprings commenced squeaking in their now-familiar rhythm.
“You may think me foolish,” I said quietly to Haversham, “but for a moment there I thought I saw her smile.”
“A trick of the light, my boy,” the professor said. “I cast her features deliberately in a neutral expression, so that each customer may read into her countenance whatever he most desires.” He paused. “She still walks a bit mechanically, however. Her skirts disguise it, but that is something I shall have to work on.”
“Oh, for the love of God, faster, faster,” came the trollop’s voice from beyond the door. The bedsprings creaked and squealed, joined now by the sound of something heavy—the headboard, I presumed—striking the wall with the same rhythm. The man gave a great cry.
“Oh drive your mighty engine into my mossy grotto!” Janet’s voice exclaimed in response.
“How do you make it appear that she breathes?” I asked, in order to distract myself from imagining the scene. Sailors in general were renowned for their prodigious reserves of amorous energy, but Haversham’s trollop, as the professor had described her operation to me, could match her partner’s stroke indefinitely.
“The appearance of breathing is accomplished by means of a simple bellows arrangement,” the professor said. “It also supplies air to her firebox.”
In the back room, the bedsprings squeaked.
“Oh, sweet lubricity!”
Thump! went the headboard against the wall.
Outside, the church bells of St. George in the East tolled the coming of the day.
One of the clipperman’s shipmates rapped sharply on the back room door. “Tom!” he called out. “Come away from your doxy. We’re sailing with the tide.”
The squeaking of the bed springs continued without pause.
I looked at my watch. “The man must be a veritable Hercules,” I said. “He’s been at it for over a quarter hour.”
“Pierce me to the very vitals with your manly rod!” cried Janet from within the back room.
Squeak, squeak, went the bed.
Tom’s shipmate pounded again on the door. “Tom, are you deaf, man? Captain’ll flog us hairless if we’re on board a minute late.”
No reply; only the continued thumpings and squeakings. The sailor tried the doorknob. The room was locked.
“I spend, I die!” came the voice of the clockwork trollop from within.
The clipperman put his shoulder to the door. When it did not budge, he brought over two of his messmates, who lent their own force to the endeavor.
“Something is wrong,” I said, a cold feeling growing in my stomach.
Over Haversham’s muted protest, I joined the men at the door, determined to render them what assistance I could. I had scarcely joined the group when the largest of them broke open the door with a mighty kick and a splintering of wood.
The men surged forward—but rather than tumbling into the room, they stopped as if halted by an invisible wall. Then those rough sailors backed out, pale-faced and shaken, one of them making the sign of the cross as he did so.
Through the open door, I saw the bed, and on the bed, lying on his back, a man no longer recognizable as a man. His head had slammed—was still slamming—into the wooden headboard, so that the top of his skull was crushed and his brains exposed in a welter of ruined flesh and clotted blood. Had not the bright tattoos on his arms remained for the most part visible, I would not have known the gore-stained wreckage for the fellow I had seen before.
The clockwork trollop, naked, knelt astride him, her iron hips grinding down onto his flayed and splintered pelvis. A spurt of steam arose from between her thighs.
“I spend,” she howled, still pumping. “I spend, I die!”
In the distance, a policeman’s whistle blew. The shrill noise loosened my voice at last.
“Professor,” I said. “We need to take her away while we still have time.” The macabre spectacle threatened to close up my throat again, and I had to draw a shaking breath before I could speak further. “I fear that the police will not look upon tonight’s experiment with a sympathetic eye.”
Little left remains for me to tell. Those few of the tavern’s patrons who had not fled at the sight of the horror in the back room did so at the approach of the police. The professor and I between us threw a blanket over the clockwork trollop and dragged her out through the now-empty tavern into the street and thence the short distance to the quay.
She sank like a stone.
The following year, Professor Haversham presented his mechanical chess-player at the Institute. Although the applause was polite, the academics concurred that the machine was not very lifelike and played but a perfunctory game.
A waste of his talents, they all said, and I agreed—and never confessed how grateful I was that this should be so.