Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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The Unboxing

by Mark Ward

History lay heavy upon the hall at 42 Wycombe Square in the fashionable London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The hall was clad in honest English oak and on its darkened panels hung portraits of the great and the good of the Auldsworthy family. To tread its Turkey carpet was to travel in time; to see the strong features of the Auldsworthy men poke out of different portraits and to pass by the spoils of old campaigns. The pictures on display were of events notable because they depicted an Auldsworthy accepting a surrender, storming a barricade at the head of a cohort of steamsuited soldiers or assuming the regulation stance to skewer an aboriginal upon an honest English bayonet.

Many a visitor to 42 Wycombe Square had remarked that the hall resembled a museum and that impression would be greater today as maids folded up dust sheets placed over heavy furniture and footmen in khaki workcoats replaced ornaments, straightened pictures, re-hung Assegais, totems and buckskin shields. The usual smell of polish, dried flowers and dust had been overlaid with horse dung, sweat and oil.

And not just any oil -- Vulcan's #3. As recommended by the Mill Owners Society of England. An oil perfect for keeping cogs turning and your Engine purring while it did its work. From today a mill, an Analytical Engine, would be purring under the roof of 42 Wycombe Square.

George the handyman, gazing at the dents in his beloved parquet left by the men delivering said machine, had been told that an Engine was not worth considering if you couldn't smoke a woodbine while you walked round it. He wondered if a mill in every home might not signify something more momentous than the raw power of the giant thinking machines the Government kept in the ziggurats flanking Whitehall.

In a study off the hall Sir Colin Auldsworthy and his particular friend Culshaw stood like bookends before a packing crate that reached as high as their watch chains. Culshaw weighed a jemmy in his hand.

"I don't know," said Sir Colin. "I don't want to risk marking it or jolting the workings before we even get a chance to try it."

"Show some backbone, man," cried Culshaw, having at the crate. Sir Colin's anguished yelp was drowned by the shriek of nails being torn from their housings. The unpinned panel fell forward and hit the carpet with a muffled thump. A sea of wood shavings slid with a shush in its wake. In a frenzy of jemmy work, Culshaw pried away the back and sides to reveal the solid central cabinet of the Engine riding high on its spindly legs. Daedalus was emblazoned on the front of the rosewood cabinet in flowing, glowing golden letters. Beneath in a more sober script was written The Pocket Titan.

"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well, it were done quickly," said Culshaw.

Sir A stood, then brushed a frosting of sawdust from his knees. The Engine was uninjured but his expression suggested it had more to do with providence's grace than Culshaw's dexterity.

Voices rose in the corridor and the study became crowded like an omnibus when the theatres turned out. Lady Auldsworthy swept in with a retinue of daughters, French maid and governess. The girls split up and advanced on the Engine. Madame threw herself into an easy chair by the window. The governess took a straight-backed seat close by. Next came the head butler, a footman and a maid. Through the gap at the door hinge, the other servants could be seen hovering in the hall, headed by Mrs W, the housekeeper.

"Splendid," said Culshaw. "We're all here. Anyone know how to get this blessed thing working?"

"What's this?" said Georgia, the younger daughter. A smaller crate had gone unnoticed in the lee of the rear panel canted against the marble mantel. Lord Auldsworthy snatched it up and set it on the desk, putting the great oak table between himself and the crowd. Culshaw offered the jemmy but the box was secured by catches. Inside were cables, connectors, a small screwdriver, a delicate spanner, a sheaf of blank cards, a card reader, a card punch and a pinboard.

"What gauge are the pins?"

"What did you say, youngster?" said Culshaw. His eyebrows were bunched in a 'V'.

"The pins," said Olivia, pointing. "What gauge are they? What definition do they get on the..."

"Plenty of time for that later," said Lord A as he gathered up the parts and stepped towards the Engine. He rounded the desk's first corner like a Derby winner but looks were exchanged by all the spectators and, as if on cue, Lady Auldsworthy said: "Before you begin, my dear, I think we need to determine how all the members of the household can use it."

"All of them?" The cables drooped in Lord A's grip.

"Indeed." The word was echoed within the study and along the length of the hall.

"Does everyone have a use for it?"

"John," Lady Auldsworthy gave the head butler the floor with a twitch of an elegant wrist.

John performed a peck of a bow in her direction, pointed himself at his Lord and master, and said: "I speak for all those that work above and below stairs, milord." The crowd in the hall grumbled its support. "The mill could prove a boon to us, everyone."

"Hear, hear!" crowed Mrs W from the hall.

"It could help sum the accounts, prepare guest lists, menus and order food and other household supplies. It..."

Mrs W surged into the room and elbowed John aside. Sir A gripped the table edge; he had never seen anything like this before. He had read reports from Russia at the time of the revolution. Was it this bad for the Tsar?

"The mill is an essential part of household management," she declared. "Mrs Beeton, no less, says as much." She struck her ample bosom with her fist and continued: "I am a devotee, nay a disciple, of Mrs Beeton and her advice is clear as a calves foot jelly on the matter. Deny us, milord, and you do us a mischief." Exhausted by her declaration, she collapsed onto a sofa. Light applause rattled in the hall.

"Well, I understand your interest..." said Lord Auldsworthy.

"Henry, before you continue, can I be permitted to say a few words?"

"I can refuse you nothing, my dear."

"It is not just Mrs W that wishes to use the mill, I too would like to make use of its mechanical abilities. I fear that, denied this access, we, by which I mean our family, would be ostracised by our peers, cut off, set adrift, as we are not on the...," she sought her eldest daughter who stood holding a cable behind the body of the engine. "What did you call it, Livy, dear?"

"The network."

"The network," said Lady Auldsworthy, turning it into two words. "Just so. Seven deliveries of post per day are all very well but gossip, society, moves faster these days. It is on the..." She paused, waved a beckoning hand in the direction of Livy.

"Network," the company chorused.

"Thank you. Just so. On the network before our poor postman has managed to button his boots."

"That's all very well..."

"Papa, can we use it too?" Lord Auldsworthy was forced into his seat by his two daughters who besieged him with beseeching looks. "Pleeeeeeease," said Georgia.

"You pair?" said Lord Auldsworthy, his voice rising.

"Yes. Us pair," said Olivia.

"I want to talk to my friends," said Georgia. "So we can go and play together more. Can I use the mill for that, can I? Daddy?"

"Do all your friends have a mill at home?"

"Some," said Olivia. "Others use the common..."


"Not bad common, Daddy," said Olivia.

"You'll be telling me that you talk to boys on the network, soon," said Lord Auldsworthy, trying to make a joke.

Olivia and Georgia looked to their mama.

"Elizabeth, are they communicating with boys? Boys that they have not been introduced to?"

"Only because they want to talk to us!" said Olivia, throwing herself with a sob on her mother's lap.

"Now, Henry, not all boys are bad," she said.

"My Lord," said the governess, moved by the plight of her charges. "The mill is useful to the girls for more than just socialising. It helps our lessons, to correspond with pen friends and keep up with the news. A modern young woman must be as adept with a mill as she is with a needle or on the piano."

"Perhaps," said Lord Auldsworthy, looking round the folk gathered in his study. The servants jostled at the door. "But I am uncomfortable with my daughters becoming mill girls. The difference seems pernicious. It has the whiff of labour, commerce, trade about it."

"Come now," said Culshaw. "Those differences dissolve when everyone has an Engine in their homes. Would you say the same of carpets?"

"I would if we all had to weave them ourselves," said Lord Auldsworthy.

"Henry, my dear, haven't I heard you express this in your own way? Did you not call the rise of the mill, the Engine-driven society, as the scythe of progress?"

"Well," said Lord Auldsworthy, "That may have been an allusion I..."

"Live by your own words. Let this scythe sow as it reaps."

Lord Auldsworthy sighed. His stern expression softened as he looked around the room, at the mill and his family and servants gathered about. For a long moment, he stood, hands braced on his desk. Fingers drumming the leather. The crowd held its breath. Then he tucked his hands in his tailcoat and assumed an orator's stance. "In my political career I have seen a lot of changes. More so in the last decade than ever before. And it seems to me that the changes that matter, what can truly be called a revolution, are the ones where someone loses. It is clear who has lost today."

Voices rose in clamour. No, they cried, all the while thinking, yes. Lord Auldsworthy stilled them with a practiced gesture. "What I also know is that the loser does not have to lose everything. They can embrace the change and benefit by it. That is what I propose to do. Mrs W, John, Elizabeth, girls. Let us put the Engine in the hall and give everyone the use of it." A cheer erupted, footmen stole kisses from parlour maids and Mrs W fanned herself and thought of gin.

Afterwards when the Engine was in situ, the cogs purring inside and the smell of Vulcan #3 pervading the hall, it seemed that the house was at peace after its little war. A tradition had been maintained as the hall, which was the heart of the house, was the rightful place for this mechanical marvel. History had been served, or perhaps owned, and having writ, moved on.


© 2011 Mark Ward

Bio: Mark Ward is a resident of Surrey, England. His stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Everyday Fiction, Futurismic, RevolutionSF, Aoife's Kiss,, and Mbrane SF. This is Mr. Ward's fourth appearance in Aphelion; most recently, his story The Navigator appeared in the July 2010 edition.

E-mail: Mark Ward

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