A Clockwork Apple: A Steampunk Romantic Short Story
Phileus Theophile walked down the avenue, swinging his cane as he passed a G-760 automaton helping a lady with her shopping. The shiny brass glinted in the sunlight and Phileus winced at the glare. Fortunately, the bright sunlight was cut off by a dirigible flying overhead. It was a bright, sunny day, hot for London, and the streets were cleaner than ever with the new G-860 cleaning automatons hard at work, the only residual aftereffect being the humidity caused from the steam running them. One thing Phileus would have to work on when he got back to the university was the leaking steam from the automatons; it made summers nigh unbearable, almost tropical.
Phileus continued on his way, darting past this automaton or that; it seemed there were almost more of them than people these days, but they were so very useful. He hurried along, not wanting to be late for tea with Isadora Flitwit, the sensible lady whom he so loved. He was going to propose that day; he had to, for he could not wait another moment to spend his life with her. The lady in question, however, might prove to be difficult on the subject, for she was very sensible, and a lowly professor at London University who was contracted by the Royal Court to fix difficulties with the automatons could not compare to the Duke courting her as well. But Phileus believed full well that he would prevail, for Isadora had confided in him that she liked him best, not the stuffy Duke.
And so Phileus, sure of winning his love’s hand in marriage, rushed to meet her through the crowded streets of London at the Clockwork Apple, a little place where the upper and middle classes had tea, named such for the apple-shaped clock ticking at the register where favorite teas could be bought in small quantities. The dirigible overhead still shadowed the streets when Phileus caught sight of the Apple. He could see his angel through the window, already seated. Surely he couldn’t be that late? He took out his watch and glanced at the time; five minutes and thirty-three seconds past their meeting time. Isadora would not be pleased. He frowned, making his way toward the shop, smiling when he entered the cafe and she caught sight of him; she did not smile.
“Where have you been?” said Isadora irritably. “It’s five minutes past, if not more. You know how little time I had for this meeting. Mama shall be greatly displeased if I am late for our lunch with the Duke.”
“I know, my dear, but the streets were so crowded,” said he, sitting across from her as she poured his tea from the steam-kettle K-300 with all the elegance of a princess. “You know how London is during the Season. Ladies and their automatons were everywhere; you should have seen it. I’ve never seen so many ladies at one time, and automatons are so dreadfully slow-moving…”
Phileus stopped when Isadora frowned at him, and he realized that he was rambling again, as he so often did in her presence.
“You are doing it again, Phileus,” said she with disdain. “You know how I hate it.”
“Do forgive me, Isadora,” said he apologetically, adjusting his spectacles. “I just get so nervous around you. After all, you are so dreadfully beautiful.”
“Yes, well…” said she, rather pleased with his compliment. “What did you wish to speak with me about, Phileus?”
“Marriage,” said he, feeling fidgety as he said the word. “I want to marry you.”
“Oh, you are unromantic!” cried Isadora pettishly. “Could you not find some poem or sonnet to recite before springing that upon me in such a business-like manner? Honestly, it is hardly a wonder you are unmarried! You are such a stick-in-the-mud!”
“I try not to be for your sake, my love,” said he. “You know how I try. I would do anything for you!”
“Yes, well, it does not matter, for I must refuse anyway,” said she.
“Whatever for?” asked Phileus, most distressed.
“The Duke has proposed, and though I have not yet accepted him, I do intend to, though Mama has said I should never accept a proposal without giving the matter some thought first,” said Isadora. “I have done so and found that he is the most suitable match for me. So I must refuse you.”
“Surely you cannot be serious!” cried Phileus, even more distressed than before.
“I am sorry, Phileus,” said she, not sounding sorry in the least, only very practical, “but I must consider my station and Mama’s constitution. She could not bear to live in a shabby house with all those clockwork people, automatons and such, with the noise and steam. It would not do to have her made ill by the humidity.”
“I live in the best house on Grovesnor Square!” exclaimed he. “And my house is not shabby! As for the steam, I’m sure something could be done for your mother.”
“The Duke has an estate and a title, and his house is not the constant home to noise and steam and the clamoring of broken machinery,” said Isadora irritably. “I have made my decision. You must learn to live with it. And now I must go.”
Like a cold wind, she was gone, leaving Phileus feeling chilled and alone with a dozen people surrounding him, the only noise being that of light conversation, the tinkling of silverware and the ticking of the Clockwork Apple. He felt bereft and quite miserable, for his love had chosen another.
He paid the bill and left the tea shop, walking slowly along the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets and shoulders slumped. He walked for a long while in the shadow of the mighty dirigible. His eyes were downcast and the shadow seemed to match his mood exactly. The dirigible moved away just as he was thinking this, allowing sunshine to light the streets with all its glorious brightness. It seemed oppressive to Phileus then and he wondered how it dared to shine when his world had fallen apart. That was when he caught a glimpse of an angelic beauty talking quite erratically with her automaton, who was holding a mass of shopping bags not ten feet from him. It seemed as though she couldn’t get the machine to do as she wished and she bashed the thing over the head with her small handbag. It still did not obey whatever command she had given it apparently for she huffed quite childishly, and the act seemed charming coming from her.
“Madam,” said he, “may I be of assistance?”
She turned and looked at him, the loveliest expression of surprise on her face. She leaned her head slightly to the side and her automaton did the same, both examining him quite thoroughly before the lady smiled, and the automaton continued to stare blankly at him.
“Yes, thank you,” said she, her sweet lips curving more still. “My automaton won’t obey me. I need something from my shopping bags and it won’t give it to me. Will you be a dear and see if you can reprogram it?”
“I should be happy to,” said he, forgetting all about nasty Isadora. “I am Professor Phileus Theophile. I work at the University of London reprogramming automatons for the government. Reprogramming your automaton should be easy enough. I find that the work there is most exhilarating and interesting…”
Oh dear, he had been rambling again. What would Isadora say? What would this lady say?
“Oh, you’re rambling,” said she with a giggle. “How charming! Do go on.”
“Well,” said Phileus, blushing, “I should love to if you’ll perhaps allow me to escort you to the University so I can reprogram your automaton, Miss…?”
“Hephzibah Pilcher,” said she, “and I should love to see the university. You know, I have never been to the University.”
She slipped her arm through his and they began walking in the general direction of that part of town, her automaton following along.
“Really? It’s quite wonderful,” said he, forgetting that the sun wasn’t supposed to shine or that he had ever been unhappy. “You don’t by any chance have a mother living, do you?”
“Why, no,” said she, not at all offended by his abrupt question. “However did you know?”
She giggled again and they walked to the University, not noticing at all that her automaton stopped occasionally to beat its head against a wall here and there.