I was concerned about Reeves. As the poet says, ‘In the spring a young automaton’s fancy turns to thoughts of electrical appliances with shapely legs.’
And this was the third time this week that I’d seen Reeves huddled tête à chromium tête with the maid next door. Had his giant brain succumbed to her sleek and silvery legs?
I watched them from an upstairs window, my face pressed against the cold glass for a better view. What if they ran away together? Should I pre-empt matters and offer to take her on as housekeeper?
Maybe I was overreacting. I was, after all, at somewhat of a low ebb. My fiancée, Emmeline Dreadnought, was away on her family’s annual pilgrimage to Scapa Flow to sketch battleships. And I was counting the days to her return.
As soon as Reeves came back, I fortified myself with a bracing cocktail, and gave the subject a tentative broaching.
“What ho, Reeves, old chap. Pleasant weather outside? Plenty of sun and the joys of spring, what?”
“Indeed, sir. The weather is most clement.”
“Good. Good… Was that um … was that next door’s maid you were talking to just now?”
“I thought so. Are her ears bronze?”
“Beaten copper, sir. They were manufactured by John Pearson of Newlyn.”
“Really? You must know her pretty well to be exchanging names of ear manufacturers.”
“I would not say that, sir.”
“No? I thought I saw you talking to her the other day.”
“I was consulting with her upon a personal matter, sir.”
I tutted and gave the noggin a fatherly shake. “That’s how it always starts, Reeves. One minute one is merely consulting, the next, one’s name is headlining in the local parish banns.”
“I shall endeavour to remember that, sir.”
A knock at the door brought our conversation to an end. Reeves shimmered off to open the door and an agitated gentleman burst inside.
“Thank God, you’re here,” said the stranger hurrying towards me in a blur of tweed. “I don’t know who else to turn to. You are Reginald Worcester, aren’t you? The gentleman’s consulting detective?”
“I am. And you are…?”
“HG Wells. But please call me Bertie. Everyone does. You may have heard of my time machine.”
“Some sort of clock is it?” I said, fearing I was about to be bearded by a door-to-door grandfather clock salesman.
Reeves coughed from the doorway. “Mr Wells is an author, sir. He wrote a book about a machine that travels back and forth through time.”
“That’s right,” said HG. “But the thing is, it wasn’t fiction. There really was a time machine, and now it’s gone! My aunts have stolen it!”
“Good lord. How many aunts are we talking about?”
“Twenty-five at the last count.”
My heart went out to the poor chap. “You have twenty-five aunts!”
“Technically I only have the one, but she keeps going back in time and bringing back other versions of herself!”
This had the makings of a six cocktail problem.
“How…?” That was as far as I got. “Reeves? Do you have an opinion?”
“Most disturbing, sir. Have any of your aunts touched themselves?”
I nearly dropped an olive. “Reeves?”
“It is a theory widely held, sir, that if two versions of the same person come into physical contact with each other they will explode.”
It is sad to observe the decline of a once-great intellect. And a lesson to us all of the consequences of infatuation.
“Reeves, I have never heard such tosh in all my life. Aunts do not explode.”
“Mr Reeves is quite correct,” said HG. “I’ve heard that too.”
“Oh … Have any exploded?”
“No. They’re all as right as rain, chatting away to each other nineteen to the dozen. I can’t get a word in to reason with them! You’re my last hope. I can’t call the police. All they would do is arrest them — which is the last thing I want. My aunts have to be returned to the times they came from, not locked up!”
“Has your aunt given any intimation as to why she has collected so many versions of herself, sir?” asked Reeves.
“She said she was planning a dinner party to celebrate her sixtieth birthday and wanted to be sure of intelligent conversation. Though now she’s talking about turning it into a ball and inviting half of London to meet her younger selves. I think she may be planning to have one version of herself for each year of her life.”
The mind boggled, though I could see the appeal. A ball with sixty Reginald Worcesters of assorted ages would be just the ticket to liven up a cold March evening.
“Has she any plans for after this ball?” I asked. “She’s not intending to collect even more versions of herself, is she?”
“God knows. But I fear by then it will be too late. She’s changing the past and, if we can’t locate the time machine soon, there’s a chance we may never find it! She could break it, or have it stolen from her somewhere in the past. And, without the time machine to put things back the way they should be, the entire timeline is in danger. You and I, Mr Worcester, may not even exist tomorrow.”
“Steady on,” I said, feeling for the poor chap. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
Reeves coughed. “I fear, sir, that the timeline has already begun to change. I have been experiencing some odd feelings of late. You may recall my meetings with the maid next door…”
My heart sank. “I hardly think this is the time, Reeves. A cold oil bath and a bracing walk will soon sort you out. We have a case to solve.”
“If I may explain, sir, the feelings I am referring to are ones of foreboding caused by a distrust of my memory.”
“Indeed, sir. I appear to have conflicting memories of certain people and events. At first, I suspected a malfunctioning subroutine, but a full system check failed to locate the problem. Which is why I have been in conversation with the maid next-door — to see if her memory has been similarly affected.”
“Has it?” I asked.
“No, sir. Her memory appears to accord with the history books. From what Mr Wells has said, I think it probable that my circuits contain both extant memories from the original timeline mixed with those of the new. It is most confusing, sir.”
“What conflicting memories do you have?” asked HG.
“One that springs to mind, sir, is the name of Henry VIII’s sixth wife. I have a strong memory that the lady’s name was Catherine Parr.”
“No,” said HG. “It was Charlotte Neal. There’s a mnemonic: Divorced, beheaded, died … divorced, beheaded, sued him blind. Rather a spirited queen if I remember. She took half of Wales in the divorce settlement.”
Reeves coughed. “Indeed, sir. Would your aunt’s name happen to be Charlotte?”
HG gasped. “You don’t think… My God! Aunt Charlotte’s maiden name was Neal!”
“Are you saying, Reeves, that this Aunt Charlotte popped back in time and married Henry VIII?”
“I fear so, sir.”
“But… how long has she had this machine? Surely she hasn’t had time to get married and divorced.”
“She has a time machine,” said HG. “She can spend years wherever she wants.” He paused, deep in thought. “But, wait. Wasn’t Queen Charlotte in her early twenties?”
“Perhaps the Charlotte in question, sir, was one of her younger selves.”
HG put his head in hands. “This is far worse than I thought. If she’s letting her younger selves play with the machine… My mother always said Aunt Charlotte had been a handful in her twenties.”
Reeves coughed again, one of his muted coughs which usually preceded an observation of impending doom.
“What is it, Reeves?” I asked, bracing myself.
“I have another conflicting memory concerning a Charlotte, sir.”
“Not another queen?”
“No, sir. It concerns Pope Charlotte.”