Dr Stephenson's Prophet Machine

A mad doctor and his Victorian fortune-telling show wows a young newspaper reporter.


Finlay Butterworth was the fourth of the guests to arrive. He hesitated at the door, angling his eyebrows to suitably appreciate the large brass gargoyle that was the door knocker. A butler appeared before he had a chance to try it out.

    He was shown in with a bow and a shift of the eyes towards the interior of the house. Inside was a room, lit by what Butterworth assumed must be electricity. Paintings of fierce animals and serious old men adorned every available space on all walls. Two rows of five seats faced a pair of heavy, dark purple curtains, presently drawn closed. He sat at the end of the second row and as he did so, a drink was offered by the same servant who showed him in.

    Butterworth noted all of these details with dark interest. He was reporting for the London Evening Standard and its March 11th 1889 edition would carry his story on the night's events, already unfolding. The paper's science section was to be his, for the first week at least, depending on the reaction of his audience and, of course, his employers. He wasn't worried. He was quite confident the piece would write itself.

    The three men who were sat in front of him stopped their quiet conversation as Butterworth took a sip from his drink. They each nodded a greeting in succession. He was reasonably confident they knew who he was. 

    The first was Dr R A Eldritch, Senior physics lecturer at the Royal Institution. Whatever Stephenson had up his sleeve, thought Butterworth, he stood not a chance against the well-known ego that was the self-appointed voice of British modern science. His pipe puffed out smoke like prods of provocation toward the hidden doctor and his latest, as yet, unseen invention.

    The man in the middle was Ignatious Aldgate, owner and proprietor of the Islington Carriage Company. He was known to young Butterworth as an offensively rich man with a penchant for the pseudo-sciences and a notorious lifestyle that was, to his mind, numbering his days to this side of a thousand. His bejeweled hand played around with the huge sapphire atop his ivory cane.  He looked at the brash-eyed journalist with a half grin and another nod.

    Butterworth, confused by this odd look, reached for his pencil. he started to write about the spectacle of the two pole-opposites talking and even laughing together. Maybe the night might not unfold as he had imagined.

    The third man, Finlay noted, was an odd addition to the guest list. Florian Hertzler was the German Empire's ambassador to England. His quite incredible ginger mustache and preposterously tall hat was always recognized about town whenever there was a gathering of notable socialites and trend-setters. Denying his advancing years, he charmed his growing list of friends with stories of his younger days in unknown battles and improbable antics more suited to moving pictures.

    Two young men then entered wearing long gray coats and carrying matching brief cases. They sat near to Butterworth, leaving a one-seat gap, and acknowledged no one. The eager journalist would find out who they were later.

    Eldritch took out his pocket watch and looked around the room. The curtains moved, the butler turned off three of the four lights then opened the door. Again. In walked Christelle de Prony, heiress, as all present knew, to the Molinard perfume empire. All heads had turned at the sound of her slow, confident footsteps. 

    She walked over to the end chair on the front row, sat down, slowly, and immediately lit a long, black cigarette. Carrying her gaze towards the looking-but-not-looking men she said simply, "Gentlemen."

    More nods.

    Their attention was drawn, unsurprisingly, to her plunging neckline on a dress hardly capable of containing her physical attributes. The butler brought an ash tray on a stand just as she flicked the cigarette. He positioned it in time to catch the falling ash. She looked to her right to see all eyes move quickly forward.

    At this moment, a gloved hand appeared between the curtains. It pushed one of them aside and continued in the same direction. It was the hand of Dr Stephenson and he walked along a small wooden stage until the curtain was fully open. He did the same with the other side.

    He looked on the small, invited audience, clapped his hands together and grinned broadly.

    "Gentlemen." He walked slowly backwards. "And Madame de Prony." His left eyebrow lifted almost an inch. "Welcome to my home. I hope you are comfortable and that Dawson has been looking after you." 

    Sips of drinks were taken and there was minor shuffling on seats.

    Dr Stephenson had a deep, engaging voice, and a smile that made his black, wiry mustache look almost acceptable. His dark eyes were nearly lost in the shadow of his top hat. But they were there, penetrating each of the guests one by one. There were lines in the inventor's face that told stories of brave exploration and punishing experience, of many triumphs and many hardships. All of these trials embodied every single word with all-consuming, magnetic splendor.

    "You have, no doubt, noticed my machine." Without taking his eyes off his audience, he motioned with his right hand at the curiosity occupying the space next to him. What appeared to be a fishbowl sat on a huge wooden cabinet. Six glass jars connected by tubes were arranged on a shelf above an area of metal paneling, held in place by numerous rivets. Thick sets of wires ran along the base. Finally, a sealed iron box with an attached pedal rested at Stephenson's feet.

    Butterworth found himself nodding. No one else seemed to be impressed. Miss de Prony, however, by merely breathing, was putting on a show which Aldgate, in particular, found distracting in the extreme. His eyes flitted from Stephenson to the elaborate corset lacing her back, which was holding on for dear life. Butterworth watched all three as Aldgate tightened his grip on the cane.

    Stephenson chose not to notice anything. "This," he lowered the pitch of his voice, "is the result of three years' work." The dark eyes narrowed, moving further into shadow. "I can predict specific events, with a high degree of certainty, in the future lives of individuals."

    Aldgate stopped fidgeting for the first time. Butterworth scribbled furiously, Madame de Prony held her breath, then let out an inordinately long plume of smoke. The two gray men leaned forward a little, creaking their chairs as they did. 

    Eldritch did not flinch.

    "As some of you will be aware, I spent several years traveling in the equatorial regions of Asia. I eventually focused my attention on North Sumatra. In particular, on an isolated tribe of people called the Toba." He walked, slowly, back and forth along the stage as he spoke. They have foreseen, with precision, the future events of their families' lives for more than a thousand years."

    Stephenson then held out his left hand and it was filled, three seconds later, with a large glass, presented by the well-rehearsed Dawson. The doctor brought the glass to his mouth and knocked back the drink. A pause followed by the slightest hint of a wince. 

    "In the center of the village there is a pit. Within the pit, the people place a circle of wood and kindling, doused in chemicals extracted from plants and trees. In the center was placed, what I later found to be, a lump of magnetic rock. A fire then follows of intense and sun-like brightness, from which a pale, yellowish smoke rises. The chemical agents acting with the extreme light of the fire around the magnet then initiate what I can simply describe as a visual marvel, within the medium of the pale smoke.

    Stephenson's voice, at this point, took on a slightly different character. Gone was the cool charisma and air of mystery. Arriving each second was the specter of a man overtaken by shadows. It was as if the previous personality was backing away and a new, darker mind now controlled those eyes. 

    "The eldest of the family," The spaces between words grew longer, "would then interpret the rising imagery through trance-inducing, psychotropic and psycho - " He closed his eyes. "- active plants to produce…. an altered state of consciousness aided by…. benevolent… forces."

    Aldgate looked around at Eldritch, who looked darkly fascinated. Dawson then stepped onto the stage and took the doctor's arm. He helped him to the machine which now vibrated with a low hum. A chair was pulled out of the darkness and Stephenson sat slowly down. He raised his head and stamped a foot onto the pedal on the floor.

    Within the machine, a motor whirred into life. Lights within metal panels lit  Stephenson's features from below, flooding out of cooling slits and holes to the sides and rear of the contraption. The motor grew louder and faster, the lights shone brighter and the tubes connecting the jars bounced up and down with the pressure of fast-moving liquids moving through them. There was no doubt, to Butterworth, at least, that Stephenson had created a version of the Sumatran tribe's fortune-telling fire pit. 

    The doctor, now fully influenced by the contents of the glass supplied by the good butler, turned his head just a few degrees to his right. His affected gaze came to rest on the transfixed form of Christelle de Prony. She tried, through all outwardly obvious intensity, to look away but found herself open-mouthed and at a loss for breath.  The others looked back and forth between the two for what seemed like minutes before Stephenson spoke. "Madame," his voice was low and guttural. "I am…. sorry." He looked down at the glass sphere, into which now surged colorful smoke. 

    The French woman visibly gulped. 

    "Your father," then the vaguest shake of the head and a long pause. "You… will be extremely rich before the year is over." He was slurring but most certainly intelligible.

    The look on the face of Madame de Prony in the seconds that followed could only be described as confused. She knew the words meant that her father would soon die, leaving the perfume empire to his daughter. She was clearly battling internally with mixed emotions.

     Butterworth, who had not written a word since the lights and the motor had stopped him mid-sentence, put excited pen to awaiting paper. How, he thought to himself, will I get this down in two thousand words?

    A loud pop and several sparks pushed the French heiress over the edge. She broke down in tears and sobbed into a handkerchief. Apparently, she'd decided the news was bad, her delightful conscious weighing down on the side of the loss of a father over the gaining of an empire.

    Dawson appeared almost immediately with a glass of water.

    Aldgate, about to pounce in the guise of timely consoler, was the next in the firing line of the temporally-tuned doctor.

    "Mr Aldgate," was what stopped the chair-hopping entrepreneur. He sat back down, evidently not expecting to be a victim of the now chilling voice of Stephenson. 

    "Mr…. Aldgate," he said again with a cold space between the knife-edged words. More sparks shot from the machine. 

    Inwardly, Aldgate believed none of what was going on. He hadn't decided whether the insane doctor believed it either and that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Maybe he did believe in what he was doing and had got so caught up in the events of his travels and subsequent machine construction, not to mention the drug-taking, that he really did think he was seeing the future.

    Despite this, the young philanthropist found himself staring into the star-filled eyes of the quite-possessed doctor. 

    "Your life," continued Stephenson, "will change dram… atically…. In days…. Not years." Stephenson's head was hanging down towards the glass globe. He started to cough, then looked up with shadowy eyes to meet Aldgate's stare.

    The receiving eyes remained unchanged. They registered no emotion. After a few seconds of nothing but the roar of the motor, Aldgate looked around the room for Dawson. He'd decided he needed a drink.

    One of the gray-coated men presently appeared to vie for attention, moving his previously motionless body nervously around his seat. The doctor, however, stood slowly. Without taking his eyes off the smokey sphere he stamped on the iron pedal, instantly shutting down the motor and consequently the lights.

    He walked with carefully placed feet to the edge of the stage, stepped off and forward to the position of the utterly mesmerized Florian Hertzler.

    Stephenson leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees to support himself.

    "And you, my friend," The doctor's tear-filled eyes, projecting relieved happiness through the five or six inches that separated the two men. "You will be reunited with your brother. He took one hand from his knee and placed it on the ambassador's shoulder. "I promise." His eyes, sad and happy and very distant.

    Hertzler's eyes opened wide and he took off his hat for what might have been the first time ever. "How? How?" was all he could manage.

    Stephenson turned around, while wiping away tears, stepped wearily up onto the stage and walked slowly across it. He was joined by Dawson who put a jacket around his shoulders and led him into the shadows.

    There were deep breaths, sighs and yet more sobbing. Dr Eldritch, brushing with his hand the embroidered Royal Institute badge upon his jacket, stood without speaking to anybody and walked out. Young Butterworth wrote faster than he had ever written before.

    Dawson appeared with a tray of drinks. Silently, the remaining guests took one each. The first of the two gray-suited men placed a business card on the tray then left, with Madame de Prony following behind, her almost-defeated corset laces having been pushed to the limit, clearly were in one piece.

    The last to leave was Butterworth. He had hoped to see Dr Stephenson again but Dawson had made it quite clear this was not going to happen and that the doctor would be resting for at least two days. Home to type the report, then, thought the still-eager Butterworth. Home to reflect on such a bizarre evening and to try to sum it up for his readers.

    It took precisely thirty two minutes for Ignatious Aldgate to reach Dr Stephenson's home after hearing the news. A follow-up article in the Evening Standard had told how the German Ambasador, Florian Hertzler, had been reunited with his brother after twenty five years, the latter having disappeared, presumed dead, following the second German-Danish War of 1864.

    After reading only half of the piece, Aldgate made his way, for the second time in a week, to the house of Dr Stephenson.

    The doctor, now fully recovered, smiled as the brass gargoyle made heavy repeated contact with his front door.

    "Right on time, Dawson!"

    Aldgate entered the main room and slowed to a stop in the middle. Before him, stretched out on a long leather seat was Stephenson. In front of him was a small, round table holding two drinks.

    "Expecting me?" said the slightly vexed entrepreneur, taking off his gloves and hat.

    "Why of course, Mr Aldgate," Stephenson showed his teeth. "Today is the start of your new life!"

    "Good to know," came the sarcastic response. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage." 

    "I'm afraid I do."

    Aldgate held out his hands, palm up, shoulders hunched.

    "Please sit down." The doctor took a sip of his drink. 

    "So how did you do it?" Aldgate did not reach for his drink. He held his cane tightly and asked again using only his eyebrows.

    "Well," Stephenson put his teeth away for the first time since the arrival of his guest. "The three years' work I mentioned during my, um, show, refers actually to the amount of time it took me to track down Otto Hertzler, brother of our friend, Florian. Of the ambassador variety."

    Aldgate moved forward about an inch. His eyes left the room while his mind took in Stephenson's words. "Obviously, I didn't make contact with him myself. I paid someone else to do it. And, at the appropriate time, I had this person present Otto Hertzler to Florian."

    The doctor's words skipped along in an almost musical satisfaction. "Some of the time was also allotted to find a doctor who was treating a rich patient for an incurable disease. And to then make friends with said doctor to find out the details, such as probable timescale. Under the influence of several friendly  alcoholic drinks, you understand."

    "Grim." Was all that Aldgate could muster.

    "The unfortunate rich patient was - " Stephenson held his mouth open and waited for Aldgate to complete the sentence.

    "Jean-Pierre de Prony." Came the reply

    "Six months at most." Stephenson shook his head in mock despair. "And, of course, he hasn't told any of his family, including the delightful Christelle. It took me over a year to build the machine, with principles and materials acquired on my travels. I'm very proud of it, even though it is only for the centerpiece of my show. 

    Aldgate gathered his thoughts. "So all of this - "

    "Was for money. And," continued Stephenson, "It was a test. I wanted to try out my show and bring in funds to take it on the road. The whole thing is a fake."

    "So the fortune-telling tribe, the machine, the drugs and your trance?"

    "Fake, fake, fake, fake."

    "What did you drink? The one Dawson gave you?"


    Aldgate's jaw dropped. "The trance state, you were acting?"

    "I was acting." The teeth reappeared.

    "When you say you want to take it on the road,"

    "Aldgate," Stephenson interrupted, "In the last six hours, I have received six thousand pounds from the men in the gray suits and two thousand from Florian Hertzler."

    Aldgate was clearly surprised and impressed. "What's the story with the gray twins?" 

    "They are from Zurich, Switzerland. Into the occult and ghost-hunting. They were left a large sum of money from an aunt and, between them they run a periodical, write books and give grants to people like me who will share their research for publication. They'll lap up anything I give them."

    Stephenson stood up and walked around the room with his hands behind his back. "Florian Hertzler wants me to bring my 'work' to other people so they can experience what he has experienced."

      Aldgate furrowed his brow. Stephenson, in anticipation of interruption, was determined to finish his speech.

    "Nobody has suffered!" he boomed, expecting some sort of criticism from Aldgate. "I have given a man his long, lost brother, told the truth to an heiress and given what two dream-chasers want to hear." 

    "Have you heard from Madame de Prony?"

    "Not yet."

    "And what about Eldritch? Why invite him?"

    "He'll write about it in the Institution's journal. I don't care what he writes, I just want publicity, good or bad. People will come to hear their fortune whether they believe the science or not. And they'll come to see the machine."

    "I think you can improve the machine."

    And that was it. Stephenson saw the glint, the hint of eagerness.

    "I can!" Stephenson nodded at Aldgate."I also need transport and finances for advertising the show. Someone to help talk punters into parting with their money." Stephenson held out his hand. And waited for Aldgate to shake it. Which he did.

    "You knew I would agree?" It was a statement rather than a question.

    "I did." I knew you weren't convinced with everything you saw. But once you read about Hertzler, I was sure I had you.

    "I certainly wasn't convinced with what you said to me on the stage. It was vague."

    "It was a conceited message." Offered Stephenson. "I was telling you that I was confident you would join me."

    Aldgate folded his arms.

    Stephenson added. "There was something,"  he hesitated. "Something I saw in the smoke. In the glass chamber. The motor chugged and spluttered and for an instant, black lines appeared in the smoke: the unmistakeable shape of a spider. From above. This, while I was aiming my rantings at you."

    Aldgate looked at Stephenson with frightful coldness. His eyes cut through the space between them like arrows from a bow. This was an unexpected turn. He said to Stephenson, "You mean like this?"

    He pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat and flipped it open. The doctor looked into the still-freezing eyes and down to the watch. Covering the face was a deathly dark image of a black widow spider. Its legs sprawled uniformly around the watch face. its thick body dead center.

    Stephenson backed away a little, visibly stunned.

    Aldgate closed the watch case. "Why doctor, I do believe you might have accidentally built something very special."

    "Maybe I did!" he barked. He rubbed his chin and looked at the stage, still there from several nights earlier. A full minute elapsed in silence and pacing. "But what I saw was most likely just a freak form in the smoke from the engine backfiring." He looked again to the empty stage. "We'll stick to the plan. Agreed?"

    They looked at each other in silence. Aldgate smiled broadly.

    The two of them disappeared into a bottle of gin without a second thought about what the mad doctor might actually have stumbled upon.

The End

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