After his wife’s death, Alan Cartwright focuses all his energy on his work, building clocks and other delicate mechanisms, and his eight-year-old son, Brenton. Father and son bond while building a lifelike automaton, designed to resemble Brenton in looks and talent : The boy is an extraordinary artist.
Before the automaton is completed, Brenton is killed by a carriage driven by Sir William Tyndale, a decorated soldier and knight who lost his own wife and son during service in India. The accident leads to strange occurrences and an unholy obsession.
The automaton comes to life, communicating with Alan and drawing pictures of the past and the future. Alan is convinced Brenton’s spirit possesses the machine and refuses to sell it. Sir Tyndale sees the likeness of his own dead son in the device and is determined to have it by any means.
Driven by grief and fatherly love, the two men are set on a collision course with the soul of a young boy trapped between them. And Brenton’s reasons for possessing the automaton a mystery to them both.
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Automaton: A non-electronic machine that mimics the movements of an animal or a human. A nineteenth century robot.*******
London, England, 1863
Rain clouds rolled in over London, bringing with them a gray tinged afternoon light that struggled to penetrate the shop’s plate glass windows. Alan Cartwright turned up the wick on the oil lamp and moved it closer to the mechanism he worked on. Despite the gas lamps lining the interior walls, working on the small fittings of the automaton required additional light. The wooden clock cabinets and music boxes he built gleamed in the warm glow, their brass fittings sparkling gold. The smell of freshly cut wood and machine oil hung in the air.
“What comes next, Papa?” Brenton asked.
Alan smiled at his eight-year-old son’s interest in the automaton. Since his mother’s death two months before, the boy had been withdrawn and shown little interest in anything but his drawings. In the hope of distracting Brenton from his grief, Alan had decided to finish the machine. They worked on it together each afternoon after school.
“Next we attach the cylinders,” Alan explained. “The pins in them designate the movements for the automaton’s arm and hand.” He popped the large brass cylinder with its circular cams into place. “Why don’t you do this one?” He offered Brenton the long tube.
Too short to reach into the framed box that held the automaton’s parts, Brenton stepped upon a stool, and taking the heavy cylinder in hand, laid it into the side axles.
“Good,” Alan leaned over the contraption and tapped on the lock rings that secured the pieces to the gears and springs that would drive it.
He glanced up to see Brenton straightening the wooden puppet’s shirt. The body of the machine, hidden by the shirt, was fashioned from thin strips of brass. Heavier brass fixtures, when attached to the cylinder in the base and to its spring-driven motor, would move the shoulder and arm and allow it to draw.
Brenton’s dark brows drew together in a frown, and his lips puckered in thought. “He looks like me, Papa.”
“I suppose he does a bit.” His son was the most important person in his life. Who else’s face would he have given the automaton?
Brenton touched the puppet’s small wooden writing desk . “Will he draw much better than I do?” Brenton asked with a downward tilt to his lips.
In truth, Brenton was a gifted child. His teacher had commented that, in her opinion, he was drawing as well as or better than some of the artists whose work she’d seen. She was in awe of his talent, as was Alan.
“No. I’ve patterned what he draws from your work, Brenton. The cams I’ve created will guide his hand to copy your drawings. And he’ll only be able to draw four pictures. You’ll be able to draw hundreds.”
The frown clouding Brenton’s face cleared, and he smiled. “I want to be a famous artist when I grow up.”
Alan’s throat tightened. Did the resurgence of his son’s hopes for the future signal he was setting aside some of his grief? He hoped so. He laid a hand on Brenton’s frail shoulder. “Aye, so you’ve told me. If an artist is what you wish to be, and you work hard, you will be the most famous artist London has ever known.”
Brenton’s expression was earnest. “I will work very hard.”
Alan gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You already do. If you sweep up the sawdust at the back of the shop, we’ll walk down the street to Cotter’s for a hard candy when I’m finished here.”
Brenton’s smile broke forth. “Excellent! I’ll do it now.”
A smile lingered on Alan’s face as he made some adjustments to the position of the larger of two cylinders. He studied the brass fittings he had created for the machine. It represented some of his best work. He was certain the piece, if it worked, would sell as a novelty to a rich patron. But it would sadden him to see it go. After all the time-consuming work he’d poured into it, the temptation to keep it was strong. But the bills which had accumulated during Arietta’s brief illness, and her funeral, weighed upon his mind. He had to do what was best for Brenton, no matter the cost to himself.
He rested his hand atop the automaton’s head. The puppet’s dark hair was incised into the wood and painted with streaks of dark brown with a hint of red. The pale blue eyes stared downward at an angle, as though looking at something on the table. Alan had designed it so it would appear that the puppet was looking at the drawing it was creating. The gears inside the body would move the arm and head so it would not only look like the little boy was drawing, but would also create a reproduction of one of Brenton’s works.
It had been Arietta’s idea to make the machine’s face a likeness of Brenton’s. She’d called it a tribute to their son. The sale of the piece was to fund his future. And now it would go to pay for the end of hers.
A wave of grief rolled over Alan, so intense his knees threatened to buckle. Tears burned his eyes, and he squeezed his lids closed in an attempt to stave them off. At the sound of Brenton’s return, he bent over the automaton for one last check of the day’s work and to give himself time to regain his composure.
“I’m finished, Papa.”
With an effort, Alan beat back his grief and forced a smile as he turned to face Brenton. “Good. We must hurry and get your treat before the rain starts. Go upstairs and get your coat.” As the boy ran upstairs, Alan strode down the center aisle between the wooden tables holding clocks in need of repair, and music boxes waiting for their last layer of stain. He folded down the sleeves of his shirt and fastened the cuffs, then, lifting his coat from a peg by his desk, slipped it on. He smiled at the sound of Brenton’s pounding steps overhead. He was such an easy child to please. And so very bright.
Alan locked the shop door behind them and turned to face the busy thoroughfare of Oxford Street. The wind whipped between the buildings, kicking up dirt and carrying with it the blended smells of fresh baked bread from a nearby bakery and horse manure. The wide, cobbled street was congested with buggies and coaches, steam-powered buses and phaetons conveying their passengers home before the storm. Dark gray clouds reflected in the plate glass windows of the surrounding shops, as though the storm had taken root at street level. Alan’s grasp on Brenton’s hand tightened.
Cotter’s Confections waited at the end of the block. Eager to be there, Brenton skipped beside him. “I think I will get some sugarplums, Papa. I will share them with you.”
“Why thank you. That would be kind of you,” Alan said with a laugh.
“Out of the way!” A shout came from just behind them.
Alan swiveled to look over his shoulder. The huge shape of a pale gray horse filled his vision. The animal struck him chest-to-chest, spinning him around. His head struck the sharp edge of a brick window facing. He cried out and fell to his hands and knees. The large, highly polished wheels of a buggy rolled past his face.
Stunned, he lay still, his head throbbing. “Brenton?” Alan staggered to his feet and braced a hand upon the wall as the world tipped and whirled. Blackness threatened to overtake him, and he shook his head. When his vision cleared, he saw the small form that lay crumpled face-down just beside him on the sidewalk.
“Brenton!” Fear chocked him, strangling his cry to a whisper. He stumbled forward and fell to his knees next to his son. Grasping his shoulder, he eased the boy onto his back. Blood colored his son’s lips with scarlet and ran in thin rivulets from his nose and ears. Alan placed his hand on the little chest and, feeling no movement, pressed an ear to his torso. The brittle thrust of broken bones jabbed against his cheek. Brenton’s heart lay still and silent.
Agony poured through Alan, stealing his breath, as though the horse’s hooves had pulverized his heart to mash. “Brenton!” The cry burst from him and climbed to a high-pitched wail. He gathered his son’s body close and rocked, his pain too much to contain.
The sky opened up in a torrent. And the rain blended with the tears that streamed unheeded down Alan Cartwright’s face.
I was born in Southeastern Kentucky, but grew up a Marine Corps brat. The love of reading was instilled in me when I first learned to read in Kindergarten at Paris Island, South Carolina. Books were the friends who traveled with me during the many transfers my father's military career entailed.
When I grew older, it was a natural transition for the love of reading to become a love for writing. Though I've been an art teacher and an artist for over twenty years, writing has always been my first love and my passion. And I know that will be true for the rest of my life.
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