Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, Augusta Ada Byron, Ada Lovelace, The Enchantress Of Science… our beloved Ada has many titles and many claims to fame besides her noted works with Charles Babbagae. This little ghost story grew out of a reflection that, if it wasn’t for certain great minds at certain points in history, our world today would be a very different place… so, yes, I’m terribly sorry, but I have murdered the great mathematician for my own evil purposes. I shall await firing squad on the morrow…
The little crucible fizzed and popped indignantly as the heat from the gas flame melted the thin flakes of lead within. Gussy puffed at a stray strand of her liquorice hair and stuck her tongue between her teeth as she kept the vessel clamped between the two short lumps of wood. The wood was charring black. I held my breath; entranced by the bubbling silver metal.
Gussy carefully laid the crucible down on top of the tomb. She turned to the pile of tiny metal rods beside her and dipped the ends of two of them into the molten lead before pressing them together and holding them firm.
We waited in the cooling breath of the city as it sighed out. The fractured light from the shattered window above painted us like jewelled serpents, lying on our bellies in the dust of the old church.
I traced the coloured patches on the cold stone, remembering the shape names she had taught me, remembering the triangles which fit to make the cubes, the fantastical little wooden instruments she had built for measuring the spaces between one line and another. Trying desperately to recall the little numeric rituals that would reveal the magic held inside each simple union of those spaces and lines.
A single silver droplet fell and splashed upon the stone.
“Angel’s tear,” Gussy whispered.
I watched it harden in wonder, then turned back to contemplating the stained glass shadows.
When the window had broken I couldn’t say. We hadn’t been down to the crypt for almost a month. Gussy had been ill – measles they said – and it had taken her weeks to get over it. I had waited patiently by the railings every morning, watching the doctors and physicians coming and going with their top hats and their Gladstones, staring up hopefully at the ivory walls of the towering townhouses; all alike as a row of po-faced governesses with dark, vacant eyes that sucked in the sunlight from the Piccadilly Road and echoed back only a cool disdain for London and for humanity. Day after day I waited until she was better – and it seemed like eternity, but then everything does when we are young.
The lead solidified slowly in the almost silence. We filled our space with secret smiles and shrugs and the sighs of impatient children who wish that life would hurry itself along.
Gussy’s legs rocked back and forward in the gloom; a pendulous rhythm, taken for granted – tock, tock, tock, – like the pulse of the green sap inside the wood, the raised voice of the soap box cynics in the square outside, the choked breath of the chimneys puffing and grinding their industry, the soft, unobtrusive tick of clockwork winding down – everyday miracles, only remarkable in their absence.
Her black boots were scuffed at the toes and the laces trailed Fibonacci’s dance steps in the dirt. Beside them lay the creature she was building; frail framework vermeil with rust so that it seemed a tiny relic of diluvial times, some old crustacean now land bound and at our mercy. Gussy leant across my vision and secured another leg in place by means of a coil of wire twisted to form a cylinder. She pulsed the little rods up and down, up and down with an idle finger, checking the motion of the mechanism.
Gently she set the thing upon its feet and, lacking purpose or drive, it hesitated beneath the long shadow of the tomb, its amber eyes lit, not from within, but by the coloured light cast down from the stained glass saints above. The pale glass face of the Christ child, borne high on the shoulders of Christopher while all around them the river and the storm thrashed and foamed, had been exploded and the clear sunlight surged through the space between man’s delicate craftwork and danced decreasing spirals on the sleeping dead and our serpentine selves and the little simulation of life we were trying to create using all the spells we’d learnt so far. The creature had a central crank shaft, legs with pivoted joints that worked like pistons, a small fuel tank…
“Did you bring it?”
I nodded and reached inside my coat for my father’s pipe. My cold fingers closed around the smooth wooden bowl and I drew it out, bringing with it the comforting aroma of things that are ‘in hand and being dealt with.’ There is a certain grim delight in the finality of fire, a letter cast into the flames is soon devoured and all the words and thoughts therein and all feelings they evoked and things they might have achieved, for good or ill, are all licked down to naught.
I handed Gussy the pipe. Outside the sound of a spade slicing through the turf grated our quiet air into curls of metallic noise that sprang up around us and stung our throats and ears. They don’t burn our dead round here but quicken them with lime, the faces whose lines they can’t stomach to read, while those more illustrative of the truth they are trying industriously to create are enshrined in boxes of stone, for generations to behold in silent awe and whisper ‘ah, so this is how it was, for them.’
She took the instrument and the leather pouch of backy, filled the bowl and fished in her pocket for a match. Our eyes met and we shared those kind of guilty smiles that relentlessly plague the faces of the innocent when they are caught doing nothing. I took the match from her shaking fingers and struck it on the stone. Gussy put the pipe in her mouth and sucked as I cradled the flame to the bowl. The golden tendrils flared, smoked violently, and then settled to a steady glow. Gussy put her mouth gently to the tube of the fuel tank and blew a lung full of violet smoke into the cavity, sealing it in with a notch of cork. The smoke inside the tank coiled and writhed like an imprisoned jinn.
I nodded. I hugged my legs up tight to my chest to make more room on the flagstone floor. My teeth chattered and something inside me like a harp string trembled uncontrollably. Of course I wasn’t ready, how could anyone ever be ready for something like this?
The little beast waited in the dark, waited on our gumption, our resolve to release that pent up fume and let it spiral through the spaces we had mapped for it and realise the magic we had captured within each frame. Gussy’s pale fingers slid forwards and, with a soft hissss, opened the valve.
At once the twist of smoke rippled out of the little copper pipe spout. Like a long spindling tongue it slavered over the tiny triangles of coloured glass, soldered onto their pinwheel frame, and sent them carting round and round like a giddy carousel of streaming lights; blue, red, gold and green tumbling over and over propelled by the snaking vapour. Down the shaft the motion coiled, turning the minute metal discs which sent the pistons pulsing up and down up and down, the legs began to rise and fall and then, as the crescent rockers on which the creature crouched reached their pinnacle and began their decent the leg which had hung uncertainly in the void now took its first slow, mechanical step.
Then another. And another.
Slowly we watched its laboured gait carry it inch by gruelling, faltering inch, out from the shadows that we and the dead cast over it, across the mosaic stains filtering through the glass and, finally, into the sunlight, pouring in through the shattered space between the lines of lead.
I Iooked up again at the window as, for a second, the dreamy veil of industrial smog lifted a little outside and the dazzling white of the sun’s own light, free from all other interpretation slipped in like an ancient viper and stuck two bold brass fingers in my eyes, blinding me to everything but its own completeness.
Gussy put her hand into the shaft of light and the dust particles danced in elation at her touch as her pale fingers twisted this way and that like a stage conjurer working his arts on the enthralled crowd before him who stare in wonder, their faith at his mercy.
She turned back to her creation, still staggering this way and that across the debris-strewn floor. It hadn’t stopped in the sunlight shaft but had moved onwards now towards the patches of darker shadow and a landscape of fallen mortar on the other side of the crypt, far beyond our easy reach. There were steps down there. Somewhere in the dark.
“Shall I go get it?” I asked her with no enthusiasm to move myself.
Gussy shook her head and the stray strands of charcoal hair drifted round her pale face like smoke. “It has a logic system governing its movements. It can sense the optimum path and change direction.”
“So it shouldn’t fall?”
“No. It shouldn’t fall.”
We watched in silence as our little monster disappeared from view into the darkness. After some time, Gussy frowned and pressed her fingers together pensively, then she licked the nib of her forefinger and began quickly sketching a complex diagram in the dust. Numerals poured from her fingertips like wine from a crystal decanter and soon I was drunk on the complexity of it all as the lines and spirals leapt across the floor, capturing the void, taming and twisting it into ever smaller and more complex forms, forcing it to unleash the orenda within.
All around us the light and the dust, the shadows and the colours waged war across the walls and tried to claim us for their own children while outside the mundane things continued to tick their own time steadily away.
“It was a good thing the window broke,” I said after about twenty minutes had passed.
“Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to salvage all those bits of metal and glass.”
She looked older, suddenly, and out of place; not grown bigger, simply aged from the inside. Could that happen, I wondered? Could a spirit get old while the body stays young? I thought of the faces of those poor folks put to lime in the paupers pits. Young souls in bodies grown haggard and creased by the pain and wretchedness of life pulsed out in dark despair. No, it must be only the flesh that is born to fail, surely the soul goes on forever and age and illness cannot touch it?
Outside in the churchyard, a raven chuckled to itself as it peered at the inscriptions on the tombstones. Beyond, the rattle of hooves and carriage wheels on the cobbled street trickled down; a background curtain too familiar for us to be disturbed by the subtle shifting of its fabric, we were too soaked up – like droplets of vinegar on a surgeon’s sponge – Gussy intent on her design and I … holding my breath, enchanted.