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The Marvellous Talking Machine

It is across a distance of many years that I remember the events of 1846, and yet it might have been yesterday that I first heard the voice that haunts my dreams. It is not the words that have troubled me so, ever since I was a boy; it is the way they were spoken—and the fact of their emerging from no human throat.

I was twelve when I first heard of the inventor, Professor Joseph Faber. Now my hair is grey, and yet inwardly I feel much the same. I still remember my father’s theatre, the magnificence of its halls; the sense of never knowing what wonders would pass before my eyes; the idea that perhaps, truly, they were not entirely of this world.

My father set me to work early, not because we were in need of funds, but because I begged him to release me from the tyranny of slate and desk. For what were schoolrooms to me, when life itself—and such life—passed daily before my eyes at the Egyptian Hall?

The edifice itself was a curiosity to behold. Part of the row of mansions lining Piccadilly, it was yet a thing apart; for its gargantuan figures, winged globes and lotus motifs would be better suited to an ancient tomb of Egypt than the heart of London. The mysteries continued within: vast pillars suggested the great avenue at Karnak, while indecipherable hieroglyphics adorned every surface. Its ever-changing displays were equally entrancing, having included extraordinary statuary, dioramic views, historical artefacts—including Napoleon’s coach—and indeed human entertainments; we had hosted a family of Laplanders offering sleigh rides, the Anatomic Vivante or Living Skeleton, and a mermaid—this last, alas, sadly pretend.

Indeed, it might be said that I was accustomed to wonders, and yet, when faced with something more remarkable still, I longed only to turn my face away. But I was not alone in that, for Joseph Faber’s was one of our most poorly received attractions.

My first sight of the man was not promising. A hunched fellow he was, wearing a frock-coat with too few buttons, and those dulled with time. His beard was untrimmed, his shoes smeared with street-dirt and his features were unprepossessing; his eyes, which were dull likewise, looked askance when he was addressed, even by me, a mere child.

He gave his name softly and with a slight German accent. It was only when he directed the placement of his boxes and crates that his expression became sharp, even mercurial in his assiduousness. I showed him to the chamber wherein his display would appear and he glared about before closing its door in my face, presumably to prepare himself. Later, my father sent me to offer any assistance he may require. I knocked and a voice responded with some phrase that I had no doubt meant “Go away.”

I did not go away, however, for I was young and curious; or perhaps it was stupidity that made me press my ear to the door and listen.

He was constructing something: that was certain. I decided I must ask my father what it was, for I had been much distracted by the imminent arrival of General Tom Thumb, a fellow celebrated for his diminutive stature and comic scenes, and had paid little attention when he had told me of it. I knew only that it was some kind of machine, and so it seemed, for I detected the sound of wood being slotted into place and the clearer sound of metal striking metal. But it was Faber’s mutterings that interested me the most.

It did not sound as if he were talking to himself. He would murmur in a low voice and then pause so that I could sense him listening before giving some reply. It sounded as if he were engaged in conversation with someone I could not quite hear.

Suddenly my ear stung as my father cuffed it. He told me to step sharp and see about the scenery flats in the main theatre, in tones so loud that Faber, shut up in his room, must surely have heard. And so I left him in there, alone yet not alone, speaking to whoever would listen; and to prepare for his performance that evening, whatever that may be.

I stared down at the handbill. THE MARVELLOUS TALKING MACHINE, it proclaimed. I had wasted no time, after dressing the stage for the hilarious capers of Tom Thumb, in obtaining a copy from the ticket-seller.

So perhaps here was the answer to the sounds I’d heard coming from Professor Faber’s room. The bill informed me that not only could his machine speak, but that a full explanation would be given of the means by which the words and sentences were uttered. It said that visitors may examine every part of his Euphonia—that was what he named it—not only demonstrating a wonder of science, but providing a fund of amusement to young and old alike.

All at once, I understood. Examination notwithstanding, it was clear to me that Faber was a cheat; for of course he must have some accomplice who would be concealed somehow within this “wondrous” machine and speak on its behalf. It had been done before. Almost a hundred years ago, Kempelen’s chess-playing Turk was heralded as the most magnificent automaton of its age, until it was discovered that its contests were won by a mere human hiding within its base. Thus it was made plain: it was a feat of wonder for a machine to mimic a man, but a matter of imposture and derision for a man to mimic a machine.

I could not confront Faber or reveal him as a fraud, however, for were we not his hosts, and party to all that passed? Yet I was determined to see for myself how the trick was done, and I confess I longed to lay eyes on whatever little creature may be concealed so cunningly. For, of course, it occurred to me that he or she may prove even tinier than Tom Thumb himself.

My disappointment may only be imagined when my father asked me to sort through a heap of mouldering costumes, to put some aside for repair, others for disassembling and yet others for the ragman. I knew I would never finish in time to take my seat for the start of Faber’s demonstration, and it being held in a somewhat small chamber, I could not then disturb those who had paid their shilling by making my entrance.

Still, as the time came for it to end, I could not resist waiting in the passage to glimpse what I may when the doors opened. This time, I could more distinctly make out the sounds from within. People called out in turn, the audience I supposed, and something answered, though in tones the like of which I had never encountered. The voice was flat and dead and empty, and it made me shudder, and then the first notes of music sounded, and the awful voice began to sing. It was the National Anthem, but emotionless and dry, as if the life was missing, or perhaps the soul, as if the voice progressed from the very heart of a tomb. But of course this must be Faber’s Talking Machine, his Euphonia, and I grasped the reason at once. For he could not wish it to sound human; if it did, all would guess at its true nature and his imposture would be discovered. It must perforce sound like something long dead—indeed, like something that had never lived. And yet I could not quite shake the chill as I pressed my eye to the keyhole.

But the door suddenly shook and swung open. I started back; a gentleman stood there, with commodious whiskers and a gloriously shining top hat. He gave me a disdainful look before leading the exodus from the room, and I made a hasty bow, gesturing towards the exit as if I’d come especially to point the way.

All the ladies and gentlemen filed past me, and as they went, I realised something odd about them. Usually, our patrons left smiling and laughing, exclaiming over what they had seen. But these did not smile; they did not laugh. They were entirely silent as they moved towards the cabs and carriages that awaited. There was no light in their faces; the only emotion that emanated from them was dismay.

I looked away from them and saw Faber, his skin pallid, his eyes as lightless as the rest—and fixed upon mine.

I mouthed an apology, catching a glimpse of the contraption behind him: a wooden frame, through which I could see the back of the stage; an arrangement of keys and levers and bellows; and, affixed to its front, a human face. It was in the form of a woman—or rather, a girl—with reddened lips and gleaming ringlets, but with a cold and empty expression. It unnerved me to look upon it, and I knew in that instant that there was nowhere for anyone to hide, even had they been half the size of Tom Thumb.

Faber stepped towards me and I turned and closed the door between us. I did not leave, however, but leaned heavily against the wall. Thankfully, he did not follow; after a time I heard shuffling sounds and the scraping of wood against the floor.

Then I heard a soft call of “Good night.”

I froze, thinking he called out to me, then the light that crept from under the door was extinguished and I was left in near darkness. Faber was to sleep in the chamber, then, with his machine. Whatever his trick, it seemed I would not discover it that evening.

The next day, I asked my father what he knew of the strange inventor who remained ensconced within our chamber. In response, he pulled a face.

“His takings are underwhelming,” he said.

I opened my mouth to enquire further and found myself unsure what it was I sought. However, he went on regardless.

“He’s a scientist, not a performer, and a mad one at that. This isn’t his first talking machine, did you know? He burned the first one.”

“Why did he do that, Papa? Didn’t it work?”

He looked as if he’d like to spit. “Who knows? Drove himself maniacal with it, I reckon. It’s clever—more than clever, some would say—but people don’t like it all the same. There’s some asked for their money back.”

“It really speaks, then, his machine?”

My father affirmed that it did, and I remained silent, musing on that. It seemed intolerably sad to waste such an effort, if the professor really had somehow made the thing work. But perhaps his first attempt had failed?

I did not realise that I had voiced my feelings until my father replied. “Sad, you say? There’s worse things, boy. Sleeps in the same room with it, he does. Insists he can’t leave it by itself. It’s not good for a man to become so obsessed—mark that. And—”

“Yes, Papa?”

He hesitated before he spoke and when he did it was with reluctance, as if it were something better left unsaid. “It’s just—I did hear tell he gave that machine his dead sister’s face.”

I recoiled, thinking for an instant he meant it was made from flesh and blood; but of course it could not be so. I remembered the Euphonia’s visage, her bow lips, her pretty ringlets—her lifeless eyes. And it came to me of a sudden that “euphonious” meant pleasant, honeyed, bell-like; agreeable. How could Faber give his deathly sounding machine such a name—and such a face, one that was dear to him? But of course, he could not have meant it to sound as it did. Perhaps that was why he had been driven mad, why he burned his first machine—perhaps he had realised the gulf between what he hoped to achieve and reality. And yet, if his machine could truly speak, he was responsible for a miracle—was he not?

That evening, I witnessed the miracle for myself.

I did not know if Faber saw me as I scuttled inside and took a seat at the back of the room. I did not see him, only his machine, its pale face and shining hair standing out from the shadows. The edges of the room were dimly lit, though the stage was bright with gaslights, hissing and sputtering and highlighting each strut and lever and key—making it abundantly clear to all that no one could be concealed within. Those lights would not be lowered, not for this performance. Everyone could see as much as they wished.

Faber stepped forward. In a halting voice, he begged the liberty of introducing us, one and all, to his Marvellous Talking Machine—his Euphonia. His voice softened when he said this last, and he looked upon the immobile face with something like affection. I saw that he had hung a white dress beneath it for this performance—a dress that hung limp and empty almost to the floor, swinging slightly in some unseen draught. The hem, I noticed, was a little frayed, and I wondered where he had come by it. Had this, too, been his sister’s?

Faber took his seat at the instrument as at a pianoforte, stretching his hands from his sleeves like a great proficient before placing them above a set of ivory keys.

A noise like a great intake of breath filled the room. It was the only sound; no one moved or spoke. Then the Euphonia opened her mouth. Slowly—so slowly—she said, with a slight German accent, “Please excuse my slow pronunciation. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen . . . It is a lovely day . . . It is a rainy day.”

I realised I was leaning forwards in my seat. I wondered what expression must be written on my features. Despite the ordinariness of the words, I was repulsed—fascinated. Her lips moved like human lips. Her tongue lolled within her mouth like a human’s. She breathed like a human, and yet none could mistake her voice for a human voice.

I think my feelings were shared, for it was only when she ceased speaking that those around me began to move again as people do, shifting in their seats, rubbing their lips. No one applauded, however. No one cheered.

I looked at Faber, whose mouth was compressed into an unhappy line, his brows drawn down.

He invited the audience to provide words for his machine to copy. One soul, braver than the rest, bid her say, “Buona sera.”

No doubt he intended it for some trick, but say the words she did, though slowly, sounding each syllable as if she were learning his language. Another called out a line from The Taming of the Shrew. She could pass no comment upon it, only copy his words. Another demanded something about the fineness of the summer and this she spoke too, all with the same languor, although sunshine and warmth seemed a long way from this accursed chamber.

Then Faber demonstrated how, with the turn of a screw, the Euphonia could whisper. This was even worse. In this way, she gave out the words of a hymn, though such a horror of a hymn I’d never heard. Still, I could not take my eyes from her empty gaze until I became sensible that someone else was watching, someone standing at the back of the stage.

It was a girl, almost concealed by the curtain. Her hair was shining, her dress white, her face pale. I did not look at her directly but even from the corner of my eye, I could see that her lips were moving. Was this Faber’s accomplice after all? I turned my head to better focus on her, and I saw that no one was there. It was only a fold in the curtain, nothing more, and I shook my head. I told myself I was unsettled by the dreadful voice and the dismal man operating it. Little wonder he had burned his first effort—would that he had burned the second!

Then everyone around me rose from their seats, and I realised it was time to inspect the machine. I did not wish to go closer, yet I followed, not wishing to remain alone either, and in the jostling of the crowd I found myself standing directly before the Euphonia’s face.

Close to, it appeared more lifeless than ever, more like a doll, and I wondered that I could have imagined it to be made of flesh. And Faber explained its workings: the replicated throat and vocal organs made of reeds, whistles, resonators, shutters and baffles, and then he showed how the bellows drove air through it all, and the Euphonia opened her lips and let out a long exhalation. I started away. It felt like breath on my cheek, but cold—cold as the grave.

I turned and, hidden amidst the bustle, I slipped from the room. I had heard the Euphonia speak. I had no wish, now, to hear her sing.

I could not keep away, however, for after the crowds had dispersed, I returned to that little room. I did not know what drew me there, only that I had been unable to cast it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was pity, for poor mad Professor Faber. I expected to find him lost in despair at the horror induced by the thing he loved, but no; even from the passage I could hear voices and the clanking of keys.

Quietly, I opened the door and slipped inside. He was seated once more at his infernal machine. He had not seen me enter, for his head was lowered as he played upon it. The Euphonia’s mouth gaped and twisted. She was singing after all, but not God Save the Queen or any such thing. I had not heard its like before, but I guessed this must be some German nursery song, perhaps even a lullaby.

My gaze went to the place by the curtain where I had imagined seeing a young girl. With those sepulchral tones resounding all about me, I could almost believe I had truly glimpsed the spirit of his dead sister.

Faber suddenly let out a cry of despair and slumped across his machine, folding his arms before his face.

And yet—I can see it still—his machine sang on. Her lips continued to move; her eyes still gazed blankly at me, holding me there until her song was done.

Slowly, Faber began to unwind his arms and lift his head. I did not wait to see his sorrow, or whatever message his expression might hold, however—I grasped for the door again, pulled it open and I fled.

That was many years ago. Faber left us soon afterwards, saying he had an opportunity with Barnum in America, and yet success was never his. I heard sometime later that he had destroyed his beloved Euphonia once more; and he too had then perished, by his own hand. It seemed plain to me, upon receiving the news, that they must always have risen or fallen together.

And could I believe that his was only a machine—that the glimpsed figure was an illusion conjured by my overwrought imagination? Sometimes, perhaps. But more often it seemed to me that he created not a Talking Machine, but a vessel; and that something immeasurably distant yet always close to him had come to reside within it.

I have thought upon it more than ever after my wife, Mary, died. Like Faber, we had no children; my father died long before. I was the last of my line. I was grown old and was alone, and lonely. Mary went before me into the dark, and I wondered—what would I not do to bring her back, to have my dear wife speak to me again?

The question would have signified nothing, of course, if it were not for the parcel addressed to me that arrived at the Egyptian Hall, years after Faber’s death, but not long after my wife’s.

The writing within was in a tongue strange to me, yet I saw its purpose at once. For there were plans and diagrams within: plans with levers and keys and shutters and baffles, and an empty space where a face should be.

Some unknown beneficiary of the professor must have sorted through his sad possessions at last—yet it seemed almost meant to be so. It appeared that Faber had not been able to entirely destroy his life’s work, but had decided to pass it on; to let some other man make the choice whether it should live or die. The only name he had bethought himself to write on the stained, torn envelope containing all his wisdom was mine.

And I began to dream of it, that awful, dry, dead voice whispering as I slept. Would it be worth the cost, I wondered, to have my wife speak, but in such a voice—dead—soulless? But perhaps, I told myself, it needn’t be so. I pored over the plans with increasing avidity. Could not the arrangement of baffles be improved upon a little? And the whistles and resonators could surely be of finer make than had been available to Faber. If I followed the plans carefully, exactly, and yet made my own little improvements here and there, surely the vessel would be perfect. I would hear her the way she was in life, her honeyed tones, her bell-like laughter . . .

I could only pray it would be so. It took many more months of hearing that voice, of wondering, but eventually I could resist its call no longer. I had the papers translated piecemeal, so that none but I would learn their whole secret. And I started to build, creating lungs, glottis, vocal cords, tongue, lips. I laboured long in closed rooms, my beard becoming unkempt, my clothes as stained as Faber’s had been. It consumed me, this thing, and yet still, I hoped.

Now it is nearing completion. With his footsteps carved into the earth before me, I have achieved what cost Faber many years of torment. Soon it will be time to take my place at the machine and see what emerges from its waiting lips.

The time has come to try my creation. I sit at its keys, regretting the arrangement that has Mary’s face turned outward, so that I cannot see it. I wonder what expression might be revealed upon it? But it is of no matter. If my wife returns to me, I will know; I will feel her presence.

I place my hands so that they are just resting on the ivories, and I fill her artificial lungs with air. She takes a breath. We are ready.

I touch my fingers to the keys, and in answer she begins to speak. I press and press and her vowels turn into words that become sentences, and still I cannot stop, though I want to; with my whole heart, I want to. But my fingers betray me. They keep pressing, performing their dance, and I do not know what drives them; perhaps it is horror. Perhaps it is only that I wish, so very badly, that it is not true . . .

The voice speaks with a German accent. It is unmistakeable, even in its hoarse whisper. And there is so little life in it that I can almost convince myself I am wrong, but as it speaks to me, I know: the voice is not a woman’s, but a man’s. It is Faber’s voice I hear.

I sense a presence, though not hers; not the one I longed for so badly. I can picture the dishevelled, hunched figure standing at my back, watching me with narrowed eyes. I feel his sorrow, his yearning, his unfathomable despair, and still, I play. I make my machine whisper. I make it sing, but even then, the truth does not change.

I press my hands to the keys more firmly than ever. I am driven onward by something—madness, perhaps; yes, it is likely that. And yet there is fascination too, with the terrible miracle that is before me. Most of all, though, I realise it is fear. For what would happen if I ceased giving it these words—my words? The thing might not stop speaking. It might keep opening its lips—and what might I hear then?

I keep feeding it, and as I do, I feel my own humanity slipping from me. I do not mourn it as it goes. I think of Faber shutting himself in a room, setting fire to his machine, to himself. I can almost sense the flames that await me, that are waiting to consume us both.

Historical note:

Joseph Faber’s sister is fictional, but the inventor himself was very real, as was his display of the Euphonia at the Egyptian Hall in 1846 (though Tom Thumb actually appeared there two years earlier). Sadly, the audience’s reaction to his machine is also a matter of record. One theatre manager of the day, John Hollingshead, said: “Never probably, before or since, has the National Anthem been so sung. Sadder and wiser I, and the few visitors, crept slowly from the place, leaving the Professor with his one and only treasure—his child of infinite labour and unmeasurable sorrow.”

Originally published in Phantoms, edited by Marie O’Regan.

About the Author

Alison Littlewood’s latest novel is “Mistletoe.” Her short stories have been picked for Best British Horror, The Best Horror of the Year, The Years Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime. They have been gathered together in her collections Quieter Paths and in Five Feathered Tales, a collaboration with award-winning illustrator Daniele Serra. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction.