It is a truth universally disparaged, that a single man can find the perfect wife on his own.
Youthful and impetuous, these men cannot be trusted, and over the generations a veritable legion of mothers and daughters has been assembled to compensate for this lack in intelligence and social mores. This has turned even the most childish game of pontoon into a dreadful battlefield of fine eyes and sweetened suggestions.
“Hells bells, Mrs Greenway,” cried he to his wife, “I have found our solution!” The Mrs Greenway in question was readying herself for a fit of the vapours as punishment for her husband’s complete lack of refinement, paused mid-swoon. It seemed to her that some men never made it out of the young and impetuous stage, no matter how many matrons descend upon them.
“What is it, Mr Greenway? You must tell me for you have quite nearly ruined my nerves!”
“A solution, and an easy one at that,” he replied, flourishing a periodical and eyeing the lace hanky his wife twisted in her hands. He had already achieved his daily average of three lace victims to his wife’s aggravated nerves, now he set out for the fourth. He settled back into the armchair and made no further answer.
“My dear husband, how can you do this to me? I shall be confined to my bed until the coming Thursday if you continue to play such cruel games,” she exclaimed, wafting her face anxiously. “Has a rich man come to the neighbourhood searching for a wife? If he has taken on Spitfield Halls, it guarantees a fortune of at least ten thousand a year! A magnificent catch for Emilia that would be!”
“It is much simpler than even that, my dear one. It is a machine that calculates the perfect couple and it is going to be revealed in London next month. They say it cannot be refuted.”
“We must go to Town at once! The future of our daughter demands it,” the good lady cried but her husband only settled back to his morning paper nonchalantly.
“We shall have to see; my business has not been looking favourable as of late.”
The fourth handkerchief was shredded at last.
Of course, Mr Greenway was merely teasing, and the next day he rented a smart townhouse, suitable for his income and large enough that in the study, he might not hear his wife’s squawks of outrage or adulation from the parlour. As a man of only a few thousand, many debts and a wallflower for a daughter, he had not been looking forward to the expenses that attending every Season until a man was intimidated enough to take Emilia on. Mrs Greenway might see a gilded version of her daughter, but the truth was that she was a plain, moonfaced girl, and inattentive to boot. Not a marriageable combination. This new-fangled machine was the cheapest, quickest solution, and Mr Greenway was determined to take it.
Meanwhile, Emilia accepted the decision with amiable apathy, content to be pulled wherever her parents wanted. Despite her mother’s frequent overtures about her looks (“skin like fresh paper, my darling) and her demeanour (“no man wants a harridan for a wife, and you are such a little mouse”), she had looked in enough mirrors and been to enough dances to know her chances on the marriage market were minimal. And more than that, she had little interest in people let alone any feelings that could be construed as romantic in nature. She found society to be monotonous and wearisome, something for which a childhood living with the likes of Mr and Mrs Greenway had not been beneficial. Rather she learnt how to smile, nod and stay quiet, staunching the cutting remarks and strange observations that no one wanted to hear, especially from a child with so little to offer. So she sat in parlour after parlour, ball after ball, baring with the indignities caused by her silly Mother. Customarily, she would find the nearest vase with tasteful Classical motifs and blithely stare at it as her mother filled the room:
“Oh, the colour of your gown! Such an awful puce I thought. But, dear, it does lift your complexion so.”
“Young things today, they really are not bought up with the exactness to propriety that we were! Say, I heard that your eldest son is somewhat of a macaroni?”
“My darling Ethelberta, the ornament on the lintel? I’ve seen such things at the village market back home, it is so nostalgic.”
Even the ugliest vase is a haven when a daughter is challenged with this.
Dressed in an insipid pink gown, Emilia entered into the large side room, beset by her parents on either side. They had almost not arrived at the grand townhouse on Dorset Street, her mother succumbing to acute nerves in the carriage over.
“Mr Greenway, sir, you made sure to inform them of our Emilia’s dowry, did you not? I am certain it’s important. They would refuse us entry if they believed us impoverished, and then where would we be? At least we are in Town, we can establish ourselves early for the coming season.”
“Never fear, madam, I have put them in no uncertainty as to our financial position.”
“You heavenly man! Now Emilia, have no fear and remember what we discussed. If there is a rush, there is nothing unsporting about a well-placed slipper between a person’s feet… Mr Greenway, what was it exactly that you did not leave them uncertain about?”
There were no Incomparables of the first water strolling around the room, no disgustingly wealthy men looking for fine eyes, and absolutely no members of any royal family in poor disguise. Instead they had been invited to the showing with only the dregs of the Tonne and a handful of merchant families, all milling around the room, sipping weak tea and avoiding each other. Mrs Greenwood was aghast that they had been lumped into such a crowd, and ushered her family to a far-off table to formulate a new plan of assault.
Only the arrival of tea paused the matron long enough for Emilia to sweetly interject with a plea to take a turn around the room. Blessed with her mother’s acquiescence, she began to circle the room with as much grace as she could muster before sliding out of the door and into the cool freedom of the hallway. With no hysterics or fervent mutterings to distract her, she could finally decide her next move. Until now, she had been content to follow the wishes of others including that of marriage, but with its possibility and all the accompanying complications looming so close, so real, she found the idea to be disagreeable. Sickening even. Sharp voices echoing down the hall caught her attention, and man and woman appeared from behind a large potted plant. The man hardly glanced at Emilia as he turned and strode away, leaving the woman behind to manage the eavesdropper. Her sour expression was quickly smoothed over as she approached.
“Now, what are you doing here, Miss…?”
“Emilia Greenwood. I was just taking some air if you don’t mind. I am sorry if I intruded onto anything?”
“It is nothing. Charles and I do not always see eye to eye, and his latest machinations – let’s just say that I believe them to be an overreach of what we are currently able to achieve. Are you sure you are well? You do look dreadfully pale.”
Emilia decided against assuring the lady that she was always this pallid.
“I am simply nervous,” she said, feeling that it was a safe excuse but the woman stayed silent, waiting for the truth as her clever eyes assessed Emilia. “I… I don’t want marriage. But what else is there for me?” Moments passed like years before the woman replied.
“I am the programmer of the Eternity Engine, and I can arrange it so that marriage will never be a part of your future.”
If her parents were surprised by her sudden zeal to secure front seats in the machine’s reveal, they did not show it as they took to the much sought-after positions. Silence filled the room as final families filed in, and the man from the hall took to an improvised stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming here today to witness the revolution that will change the Empire – if not the world. Mismatched marriages will no longer be a risk. The expense and strain of coming out will soon be an antiquity from years gone by, and our children will be of the utmost beauty and breeding that is normally reserved for only the most fortunate among us. We can now find certainty in love and life at the flick of one small switch. I present to you, The Eternity Engine!” With a flourish, he drew back the curtain behind him to reveal a machine of gleaming brass and mahogany.
A murmur fluttered through the crowd as he held out his hand, “Now if I can just ask my lovely assistant, Ada, to step up here we can commence with the first demonstration.” The woman approached the machine and turned the crank, shoulders tight with affront that she should be so demoted. Neither looked to be afraid of the crackles and shudders that emanated from its heart, rather they did not seem to be hearing it at all as they explained its mechanics and its origins as the Analytical Engine. The erratic clanks and groans soon began to ease as the pistons began to curl and dance smoothly as if it breathed, and Ada made a show of selecting the first candidate. As planned, she surveyed the gathering before selecting Emilia. A contract was handed to Mr Greenways to sign, “All a formality, I can assure you, sir,” and Emilia was handed up to the machine.
“I have made all the necessary changes,” Ada whispered as she settled Emilia down in a chair set into the hollow of the machine. “You might feel a little kick to the neck, but if you remember what I said to do it will start printing nonsense rather than the analysis of your perfect match. Just tip your head forward for me, this will pinch.” She nipped the skin at the top of the girl’s neck with two delicate fingers and fixed a clamp there. Its needle-like teeth bit in deeply until it entered bone. “Not long before all of this is cast out as tosh, then it’s no more marriage for either of us.” Ada’s face disappeared from her vision and she was left alone in the churning breast of the Eternity Engine. Closing her eyes, Emilia concentrated on pushing back at the Engine with her mind. With Ada’s surreptitious changes to the programming, whatever that was, the machine was now open to manipulation and all she had to do was force it to print her thoughts, in particular those in regard to her spinster future. All those years of focusing on ornaments to drown out her mother had shaped Emilia’s mind into a hammer, and the moment the Engine connected with her with a resounding crack, she swung with all her might.
But there was no resistance, no wall to push her thoughts through. She tumbled in. There was no hope of saving herself as she floundered in the Engine’s silvery channels, her screams drowned in electric waves.
The Greenways watched Charles touch the switch, their hope turning to horror as their only daughter convulsed in the chair then slumped, indifferent to the grease and the audience. Grim seconds passed before a slip of paper was disgorged from the machine. Ada stared at it, blanched, and ran to Emilia, her shaking hands tearing the link from her nape. But the girl only slumped further down, lifeless. Another piece of paper slipped out. Charles took them carefully in hand and passed them gently to the couple:
~Oh merciful God, why?
~I am lost to the machine.