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From the steampunk world created by Sidney Swann in "Dangerous Science" comes a follow-up holiday tale featuring Professor Simon Cromwell and his beautiful Intellectual Ward, Dr. Gladys DeWalt.
It's Christmas in Victorian London, and Professor Sebastian Cromwell's longtime friend Cyrus Longbridge has created an animatronic holiday surprise to be publicly unveiled in the rotunda of the city's grandest museum.
But the arrival of an ambitious colleague throws the trio - and possibly all of humanity - in danger. When the dominant Professor Cromwell warns his beautiful assistant not to go it alone, will she obey him? Or will she try to solve the case herself and end up learning a lesson in proper submission.
If you love steampunk, spanking and a holiday adventure, then you'll enjoy "A Clockwork Christmas."
“Do you think I should rescue him, Dr. Jenkins?”
Dr. Gladys DeWalt turned to the man she’d been speaking with, a mischievous smile on her face.�
“As much as I enjoy seeing a man of his confidence so uncomfortable, I do think that intervention would be merciful.”
With a nod to her friend and former mentor, she made her way over to where Dr. Sebastian Cromwell had been cornered by two enthusiastic socialites.
“Your appearance here at the museum tonight is so appreciated.” The older of the two women punctuated her sentence by a tipsy wave of her wine glass, nearly spilling her drink on the scientist’s waistcoat. “You and your companion are the talk of London, you know. I daresay that your presence is as big a draw as whatever surprise is in store for us under that velvet drape.”
“Oh, I agree,” the younger woman said, tittering. “To have such a handsome, distinguished scientist as yourself grace our museum is truly an honor. Oh, the stories they tell of you. Is it true? Are you really�?” She put a plump hand to her bosom as she looked him up and down � “half automaton?”
“Dr. Cromwell! There you are!” Gladys appeared at Sebastian’s side, taking his arm in hers. “Shame on you for neglecting me again.” She fixed her face in a pretty pout that Sebastian immediately realized was for the women’s benefit. “If you two will excuse us, the unveiling is about to take place and we’ve been asked to go up front.”
“Thank you, Dr. DeWalt.” Sebastian squeezed her hand appreciatively as they moved away. “I cannot believe I agreed to this. It’s excruciating.”
Gladys could not help but laugh. “Oh, darling. I know crowds aren’t your thing. But it’s Christmas, and those women are right. An appearance by the enigmatic Dr. Cromwell is icing on the holiday pudding for the incredible surprise that Cyrus Longbridge has in store.”
Sebastian’s handsome face broke into a rare smile. “It is an incredible surprise, even by our standards. According to Cyrus, his latest creation is his most extraordinary feat. Next to our submersible, it will likely be the most visited attraction in the whole of Britain after tonight.”
Gladys nodded in agreement. Two years earlier, she and Sebastian had teamed up for an expedition designed to clear her name following an ill-fated mission that led to the death of her crew and her banishment from the scientific council. She’d been demoted to Intellectual Ward, and put in the custody of Cromwell, her former professor. It had been difficult for the brilliant young scientist as she battled guilt over the mission and fear of the man whom she was now forced to obey. A terrible accident had nearly taken Cromwell’s life years before, but the eccentric Cyrus Longbridge had saved his life, albeit at an expense. Inside, Sebastian was mostly clockwork � an automaton for all practical purposes �� but with enough humanity to make him pass as a normal man.
His near lack of emotion and stern demeanor had made him a strict guardian. He’d punished Gladys when she’d disobeyed, but he’d also discovered something he felt incapable of � love. With the help of Cyrus Longbridge, they had cleared Gladys’ name by unmasking the scientist who had switched her map with a forgery, dooming the mission. Gladys’ subsequent mission had been a success. Using her original maps and a “thinking” automaton fishlike submersible, she and Sebastian had found the lost wreckage of an ancient ship, beating their rival scientist to the treasure.
Gladys’ reputation had been restored, but she’d chosen to stay with Sebastian rather than go back to the council, which had betrayed her on the word of a man known for his flawed character. Now the two of them worked together and were the toast of the town, their romantic story the stuff of London legend.
They rarely made public appearances. They last time they had was when they donated their submersible to be put on display. Tonight, they were at a gathering to highlight another Longbridge invention � this one billed as a mechanical tribute to the holiday season.
“Sebastian! Ah, there you are!” Cyrus Longbridge approached the couple, and Gladys smiled to see him.
The usually reclusive scientist was dressed in a top hat and velvet coat with a lavish bow at the neck. It was the first time that Gladys had seen him dressed up. In fact, it was the first time she’d seen him outside the lab hidden deep in the London Underground. Were it not for the trademark monocle that magnified Longbridge’s right eye to nearly comic proportions, she may not have recognized him.
“Why, how handsome you look, Dr. Longbridge!” Gladys said as he took her hands in his and pecked her on the cheek.
“And you are � as always � a vision, my dear.”
He turned to Sebastian. “Would you do the honors of announcing our little creation? Oh, don’t scowl so. You can’t hide in your house all the time, you know. A little public speaking will do you well.”
Sebastian barked a laugh. “Fine one to talk, good doctor. When is the last time you were above ground?”
The magnified eye looked upward, as if searching. “Why, I quite don’t know!” Cyrus Longbridge confessed. “But it will please me, Sebastian. And I would be so grateful.” He bowed then in an exaggerated manner that made Gladys laugh.
“Very well,” Sebastian said. “Although it may help if I know what I’m introducing. You’ve not shown it to anyone, not even us.”
“That’s because it’s a surprise!” Longbridge said. “All the audience needs to know is that this is a clockwork tribute to the holiday unlike anything the world has ever seen!” He shook his fists to emphasize the point, and the magnified eye looked positively crazed with glee. Suddenly Sebastian was glad he was giving the speech, even if he loathed crowds, and people, with the exception of the two standing before him.
“Go on, now.” Gladys urged him on with a gentle kiss. “If you can face down the Kraken, you can face down a roomful of wealthy Londoners.
Sebastian strode to the front of the room, leaving a trail of murmurs in his wake.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention?”
A hush fell over the crowd and everyone turned their attention to where Dr. Sebastian Cromwell had stepped up to the dais at the front of the room. People towards the back craned their neck to get a better look at the famed scholar explorer preparing to unveil the latest invention of the enigmatic genius who had saved his life.
“As most of you are aware, Dr. Cyrus Longbridge saved my life some years ago after a terrible accident. There’s been enough written of the man and his work not to bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that he is a mechanical genius. And ‘genius’ is not a word I throw around lightly.”
He looked towards Longbridge with a small smile.
“For the most part, my good friend has chosen to use his talents to advance our scientific causes. He’s built incredible vehicles, revolutionized equipment for navigation that we use both in the laboratory and the field, and perfected automatons so completely, one would swear they are real.”
In a rare show of humor, Cromwell dusted off his lapels as he emphasized the last example. Even though he was half human, the implication wasn’t lost on the assembly, who laughed.
“Really, though, is there not a laboratory in the kingdom that doesn’t rely on one of Dr. Longbridge’s automatons? They are indeed a marvel, not only performing tasks, but remembering and storing every bit of data received while they assist, making them not just incredible assistants, but walking scientific libraries.
“But sometimes, Dr. Longbridge designs things for no other purpose than simply to bring happiness.” Sebastian looked over at Gladys, knowing she was thinking of Claudette, the little clockwork kitten he’d given her shortly before she and Sebastian had gone on the scientific mission that had restored her good name.
He turned back to the crowd and reached for the cord on the velvet drape.
“Most of you probably assume I know what is under this curtain. But I do not, and what is about to be revealed will be as much a surprise � and delight � to me and my lovely Dr. DeWalt as it is to anyone else. So, without further ado�”
Sebastian pulled the cord then, and the curtain slivered to the floor in a heavy hiss. The sound was followed by the collective gasp of the crowd as they looked up at a golden replica of a clocktower. Behind the hands of the clock, cogs and gears could be seen moving the hands. Beneath the clock face were a series of doors, and underneath a larger one. As Sebastian stepped aside, the panel on the uppermost small door moved aside to reveal a gleaming numeral one.
“What is it?” a woman from the crowd asked.
“It’s the first of its kind!” Cyrus Longbridge could no longer contain his enthusiasm and ran forward. “It’s an interactive advent calendar! And with its very own clockwork operator.” He gestured to Sebastian. “Open the door, lad!”
Sebastian stepped forward to open the full-sized door under the number one and the crowd gasped again. A beautiful golden man in a formal suit and top hat stepped out and bowed grandly.
“This is the Simeon!”
Gladys smiled again, recognizing the clockwork man who was Dr. Longbridge’s right-hand mechanical man.
“Simeon is more than just a marvel of modern innovation,” the scientist continued. “He is brilliant in his own right and helped me build this amazing calendar. His role during the twelve days of Christmas will be to not only unveil each day’s new and amazing holiday-themed wonder, but to give the general public a firsthand look at an automaton and ask it any questions they may have.”
The crowd clapped appreciatively, but Longbridge silenced them by holding up his hands.
“Hold the applause,” he said. “While Simeon richly deserves it, you’ll need it for the surprise he’s about to unveil. Simeon? Will you please show the audience what the calendar has to offer for this, the first of our twelve days?”
“Very good, sir,” the automaton said formally, and turned to reach up and open the door. As it swung open, a telescoping path emerged, wrapping itself around the clock in intricate loops as the crowd watched, mesmerized. Once the pathway had clicked in place, a tiny steam train emerged from the door, huffing and puffing as it traversed the path. In the passenger cars were small clockwork people. In the freight cars were intricately wrapped presents and loads of bound Christmas trees.
The crowd pressed in closer, exclaiming happily as they took in the details on the little train or craned their neck to take in Simeon, who was already beginning to answer questions.
“It is indeed quite a marvel!” A familiar voice caught Gladys’ attention and she and Sebastian and Cyrus Longbridge all turned to greet Hadley Jenkins.
Gladys smiled and leaned forward so that her former mentor could peck her on the cheek.
“How are you?” Dr. Jenkins.
“Never better, my girl,” he said. “And gratified to see you and Sebastian looking so well. You’re bringing him out of his shell.” He chuckled.
“Well, don’t get used to it,” Sebastian grumbled. “I’m far happier in my library.”
“More’s the pity, darling,” Gladys said. “You did a fantastic job.” She noticed then that a strange man was standing with her former mentor. Dr. Jenkins seemed to have realized it himself and turned.
“Forgive my rudeness,” he said, moving aside so the other man could step forward. “Dr. Cromwell, Dr. DeWalt, I’d like to introduce Dr. Alastair Peacock. Dr. Longbridge, I believe you’ve already had the pleasure.”
Gladys studied the man, who was short, dark-eyed and handsome in the way that dapper intellectuals often are. She’d seen him before, but where? Oh yes. She remembered then. He’d been at a symposium hosted by the Council of Archaeological and Anthropological Acquisitions. His specialty, as she recalled, was warfare. And she remembered thinking at the time how curious it was that this slight, well-groomed man would choose such a specialty for his scientific studies.
“Ah, Dr. Peacock.” Cyrus Longbridge stepped forward to embrace the shorter man like an old friend. “It’s been a while. How are you?”
“Very well, thank you,” Dr. Peacock said. “And very impressed. This is quite a feat!” He gestured towards the animatronic wonder that had just been unveiled.
“Indeed it is, and the first thing I’ve hidden from my dear friends. But I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“And were you?”
Gladys did not realize that Dr. Peacock was addressing her directly until she saw that his eyes were fixed on her.
“Oh�undoubtedly,” she said.
He shot her a charming smile. “Then it is indeed a success, for it must take much to surprise a brilliant young scientist who has faced down a Kraken and lived to tell about it.”
“I didn’t face it down alone,” Gladys said. “I could not have done it without Dr. Longbridge’s amazing submersible.� And, of course, Dr. Cromwell was my partner on the mission.”
“Of course.” Dr. Peacock raised his dark eyes to the taller man. “London is abuzz with your story. Disgraced scientist turned Intellectual Ward to the severe Dr. Cromwell.” His eyes darted from one to another. “You must have had your hands full, Dr. Cromwell. And yet you remain her Intellectual Guardian. Why is that? It’s the big question in London scientific circles, you know? Why have you retained your authority over Dr. DeWalt when she so obviously won her release?”
Gladys felt her face flush under the questioning and looked up at Sebastian. If he were similarly irritated, his features did not betray it. His handsome face remained expressionless, even as he gave her hand a surreptitious, reassuring squeeze.
“Whether in scientific or social circles, gossip is gossip, Dr. Peacock,” he replied. “To respond to speculation is merely to feed the petty beast. Our work may be public, but our lives are private. Forgive me if this response is inadequate, but it is the best I can do.”
“Of course.” The charming smile again. “Although I will say, you are indeed a lucky man to have such an intelligent beauty at your behest. It would be more than most full men could ask, let alone half of one.”
Gladys was on the verge of responding angrily at the insult, but again Sebastian squeezed her hand. This was not a reassuring squeeze, but a warning one, for he knew her temper well. She wanted to say to the arrogant Dr. Peacock that even if he was half clockwork inside, Sebastian was more of a man than any she’d ever met. But she knew he was right to stay her; he was the insulted party, not her. And if he could ignore the barb, so could she.
So she ignored the insult and turned to Cyrus Longbridge.
“It seems Simeon will be a busy fellow this season. It is so kind of you to loan him to the museum. Won’t you be lost without him?”
“I plan to take it easy through the holiday,” he said. “Now that Sebastian is occupied with a lovely partner, we can all put aside work through the Christmas season. Simeon will open the doors daily for the amusement of visitors. The surprise behind each door interacts with the others, you see. By the time they are all open, it will form a Christmas village complete with railway system, tiny dirigible suspended from wires, and on the final night, a clockwork sleigh pulled by eight tiny mechanical reindeer!”
He looked over at Simeon with affection. “And my beloved automaton will be here around the clock to guard and guide. His heart may be of tin, but it’s the heart of a teacher. Never a more patient chap will you meet.”
He is loveable, Gladys agreed, remembering her first time at Dr. Longbridge’s lab. She and Sebastian had trekked deep into the tunnels of the London underground, enduring icy mud and rats. When they’d arrived exhausted and dirty in the gleaming, cavernous laboratory that also housed living quarters, it had been Simeon who’d cared for them and shown her to the bath.
Gladys could remember a time when she used to fear automatons; now it was hard not to see them as just a different kind of sentient being.
Hadley Jenkins spoke up now. “Dr. Longbridge has indeed made automatons a growing part of society. So many saw potential in them for servants or companions. But Cyrus here has brought them into the scientific realm. And Dr. Peacock here sees a day when we can fight wars with them.”
“Wars?” Dr. Longbridge frowned. “Oh, mercy me, no. I should think that a bad idea. Terrible, in fact. With all due respect to Dr. Peacock, such abuses of the science behind automatons is exactly why I closely guard my secrets. I could not die a peaceful and good death should I ever think my creations were used to harm others.”
“But surely service of automatons in the defense of the Crown,” Dr. Peacock offered, “surely that would be considered a worthy use.”
“In a perfect world, my good man, it would be. But we both know the motivations of those in power. There is no way to guarantee that what starts as a shield will not end up as a bludgeon.” He shook his head. “I’ll have no part of it.”
“Well, isn’t that the beauty of science, though,” Hadley Jenkins said affably. “The ability to use our gifts within the confines of our conscience.” He raised a toast. “To Science,” he said. “May it always be used for the advancement of society.”
The others raised their glasses, and soon the conversation had moved to other matters. As she talked, Gladys was aware of Sebastian’s eyes on her, and she caught his gaze and moved closer to feel his large hand smooth down the back of her deep green dress. She’d been with him long enough now to interpret the subtleties of his communication. He was not one prone to overt displays of emotion, but with his one touch, she could tell he was ready to have her alone.
And she was more than ready to comply.