Colonel John Blackdowne was an interesting character. Father Percy Grey watched the massive retired army officer over his glass of port as the officers of the CSS Pembroke, a packet air steamer out of Hamilton, lingered over cigars in the officer’s mess. Colonel Blackdowne was muscular and almost brutish in appearance, with heavy brows, a rugged angular jaw, and rough hands like a miner’s. Yet he was dressed impeccably in the latest style with a yellow waistcoat, silk cravat, and frock coat nearly the shade of Father Grey’s port. Colonel Blackdowne spoke in a subdued manner between puffs of his cigar and Percy knew that he greatly understated such exploits as the officers could pry form him — for Percy knew well this retired officer’s career.
Colonel Blackdowne had most famously commanded the miraculous victory at Paardeberg where British and Canadian troops, outnumbered and outgunned with only infantry faced a force accompanied by a pair of steam walkers with volor air support. Against all odds, the Imperial troops had won the day and turned the tide of the Great African War.
Many had thought he’d go on to great heights in the service of His Brittanic Majesty, yet at the age of forty-five he’d suddenly retired. And now here he was on a packet steamer headed back to the Dominion of Canada as the fellow passenger of the Catholic priest who’d taken the cheapest and fastest way over the Atlantic to report to the Archbishop of Québec on the news he’d received about the rumblings of renewed anti-Catholic republican sentiment in Napoleon IV’s French Empire.
“Colonel Blackdowne,” Father Grey said. “You’re far too humble, good sir. In fact, I can’t help but wonder at a war hero of your esteem travelling on a packet air steamer.”
Blackdowne took a puff on his cigar before responding. “And you father? The secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury not on a private volor?”
The retired colonel was very well informed, another surprise. It was Percy’s turn to delay by taking a sip of port. In fact, the Catholic Church’s finances were in dire straits and even more so in the British Empire. This was not public knowledge; it was, in fact, a closely guarded secret.
“I try to be responsible with the faithful’s contributions.”
“Most admirable,” Colonel Blackdowne said.
“A frugal priest, that’d make a stuffed bird laugh!” Captain Cavendish, the air steamer’s skipper laughed loudly and the company moved on to other topics.
In fact, Fr. Grey knew that the colonel was aboard on some sort of mission of his own, not merely sightseeing in his retirement. Percy had overheard — well, if he was honest about it, he *had* been listening in on a conversation that wasn’t wholly his business — when Colonel Blackdowne’s passage was arranged. ‘Was arranged’ was accurate, for Blackdowne hadn’t booked it himself; there had been a soft-spoken lady making the arrangements with the first mate.
Blackdowne had seemed very protective of the lady and unhappy that she was making the arrangements herself, but aside from a brief comment in that regard held his tongue. It seemed that there was some very important cargo that the colonel was accompanying.
As Father Grey took in the frigid night air, wrapped in his furs out on the gondola’s viewing gallery, he couldn’t help but wonder greatly at what the cargo might me. He finished the last of his cigar and threw it overboard to fall into the Atlantic far below and with a sigh reached for his breviary.
He had just stepped inside to pray his office when he saw Jones, J. the second engineer’s mate, clattering up the staircase from the hold. Such was his mad rush that he nearly bowled the priest over.
“Mr. Jones, what’s the matter?” Father Grey said, grabbing a handrail to steady them both.
“Begging your pardon, Father,” the engineer’s mate puffed in his heavy Welsh accent. “But it’s that colonel, he’s gone orf his chump!”
“What nonsense is this?”
“I think he’s going to blow up the ship!” Jones rushed to an intercom station and grabbed the handset. As he began cranking, Father Grey grabbed his arm.
“Where is he?”
“In the hold, Father.” Then Jones began jabbering into the intercom.
Father Grey rushed down the stairs, nearly tripping on first his cassock and then his furs, which he cast aside. As he neared the main hold, a trio of sailors had already taken up positions to either side of the entry hatch, armed with spanners.
“What’s the meaning of all this?” Father Grey demanded.
“‘e’s holed up in there,” Jones, D., another Welshman said. “Jones — the other Jones, said he’s got a bomb.”
“Yes, he did say he thought the ship would blow up.”
“Said he heard it ticking,” Jones, D. said.
“Hmmmm, now what …?” Ticking; that reminded the priest of something. Something from that meeting he overheard.
By now, several other ratings were coming clattering down the passageway from either direction, these ones armed with pistols and one with a scatter gun.
“Is he armed?” Percy asked.
“Pretty, sure,” Jones, D. said.
Percy took a deep breath. “I’m going to go speak to him. There’s got to be more to this. Colonel Blackdowne isn’t some lunatic; I know enough of the man to be sure of that.”
“Father, I can’t let you do that,” the officer leading the reinforcements said. “I’ve seen plenty of blokes crack up after the wars.”
“Nonsense,” Percy said and leapt through the portal before the sailors could stop him.
“Don’t come any nearer!” Came a voice from behind a stack of crates.
“Colonel Blackdowne, it’s me, Fr. Grey,” he said, moving cautiously forward.
“Father, what are you doing here? You really ought to mind your prayerbook.”
“And let those sailors poke you full of holes?” Percy continued forward but stopped at the corner of the boxes as he heard the click of a hammer being pulled back.
“I mean it Father. I can’t let anyone, not even a priest …”
“You know it would be an excommunication to shoot me?”
There was a long pause. In the silence, Percy could hear the quiet whirring of gears and a very soft tick-tock; surely the sounds Jones, J. had heard.
“You did convert to Catholicism, didn’t you? That wasn’t mere rumour? And … ah yes, you know Lady Acton, don’t know?”
He could hear Blackdowne stiffen. “What do you know about her?”
“John, enough of this foolishness,” came a quiet, muffled voice from the same crate wherein the clockwork sounds originated. “And let me out of here. This is all so ridiculous, going to Canada to die and letting you risk your life.”
Father Grey stepped around the corner and Colonel Blackdowne lowered his multibarreled hand cannon. Percy looked at the crate.
“Are you going to open it?”
With a sigh and a shrug of his massive shoulders, the retired officer took up a crowbar and wrested off one side of the crate. As it was moved aside, the padded interior was revealed with a sturdy chair in the centre holding what at first appeared to be a life-sized doll of exceptional craftsmanship and beauty. She had real human hair the colour of wheat that could be seen below a miniature top hat of black silk with its heavy veil pulled back above an exquisite mask that might have been the finest pearl or porcelain.
But it was not a mannequin for the whirring and ticking came from within her torso and as Father Grey approached and knelt next to the chair a hand came up to the lips in an unmistakable gesture of embarrassment.
“Oh father, please don’t do that,” came a soft female voice with a tinny tone from the unmoving mouth.
“Mary Frances Acton,” Fr. Grey whispered, involuntarily crossing himself.
The gloved hand moved from the perfect lips of the mask up towards the eyes. Percy could see bright blue and very human eyes from those sockets.
“I know, I’ve become a monster, trapped in this —“
“Oh no, my child,” he said softly, quickly standing. “No, that’s not why I crossed myself at all. I simply couldn’t help but marvel at the breathtaking feat … I am sorry. There had been rumours, but I had no idea.”
It had been well known in Recusant circles that Lord Acton’s eldest daughter, Mary Frances, had been born with the hideously painful and debilitating Ehrenfrucht’s Syndrome. She had been bedridden and hidden from the public eye for years, only the family chaplain allowed to see her. Then she had completely disappeared and though Fr. McIsaac had clearly been sworn to secrecy, rumours began to circulate when a Japanese, rumoured to be a Karakuri puppet master was spotted on the family estate along with the legendary surgeons Livingstone and Charcot.
Karakuri were very lifelike clockwork marvels that could perform basic tasks like serving tea, and Percy had heard some stories of newer creations that could walk and talk. But this was something else — a new clockwork body had been constructed for the youngest Acton daughter. But …
“You said you were going to Canada to die, my child,” Fr. Grey said.
“I can’t go on like this. I was meant to die, God wanted me to die.”
“God wills not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live.”
“Then why did He give me Ehrenfrucht’s Syndrome?”
“Why did He give you a family that could afford and acquire the magnificent expertise to give you a new body?” Father Grey asked.
“A new and beautiful body,” Colonel Blackdowne added softly.
“This isn’t a body, it’s a coffin,” she said. “Must I continue like this?”
“It is not required to take extraordinary steps to preserve life. I take it that your plan was to wait for your gears to wind down, hidden in Canada, and have Colonel Blackdowne prevent anyone from winding the life-giving mechanisms?”
He looked to Colonel Blackdowne, who nodded. His eyes glistened with tears.
“It would not be a sin to let nature take its course. But it would cause your parents great grief. Look at what lengths they’ve gone to for you. And I believe there is more for you to do.”
“And to suffer?” She asked.
“Yes. We all must suffer.”
There was a very long pause.
“Will you hear my confession, Father?”
Father Grey took his small travel stole from his pocket, kissed it, and with the violet side facing out draped it over his neck. Colonel Blackdowne strode quickly out of the cargo hold and the priest pulled a small crate over so that he could sit next to Mary Frances.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned, I confess to Almighty God and to you Father …”
A little over two hours later, Father Percy Grey was again back out on the viewing gallery in his furs, now with Colonel Blackdowne next to him, puffing on a cigar. All had been explained to the crew and the furor had finally died down. Mary Frances Acton had been installed in the Captain’s cabin and the crew was abuzz with excitement. The giant screws propelling the great brass airship pushed her onwards through the night.
“Do you think she’ll choose to live, Father?” Colonel Blackdowne asked.
“Time will tell, Colonel, but I have a good feeling about it.”