If I remember correctly it all started right around here. Two fellows. The first went by the name of Johannes. Johannes Fitcher, best damned tinkerer you ever saw, worked out of the old clock shop by himself, even though there hadn’t been clocks there since…but what was the other one? Franz? Friedrich? No, Franz. Franz von Homburg, fine fellow. Came from fine stock. They were chums, more from duty than anything else. Their fathers went way back, but then old Fitcher went bankrupt and knocked himself off without thought for his widow and child, and there were whispers about nasty business Homburg had dealt to him, but I won’t bore you with gossip.
Franz made a point of patronizing his friend’s establishment on a regular basis, usually to introduce some new so-and-so from the city to Johannes’ many wonders. How they’d laugh at Johannes’ clever fingers, all his little gadgets. A less enlightened soul would say Homburg’s visits did more harm than good, as his rich guests often left with more mirth than merchandise. But Franz was always solicitous after Johannes’ health.
Such friends! And when they should be so opposed, too! You see, in the strange caprice that sometimes strikes children of nobility, Franz thought to enter the clergy. He took many years of study, every holiday coming back home to his empty manor and his good friend Johannes. And every holiday, at least once a visit, Johannes would push himself back from his workbench, wipe his eyes behind his spectacles, and regard his newest specimen with pride.
“Now if that’s isn’t just near life,” he would say.
And Franz, smiling, would riposte, “but you will never truly be near life, Johannes. Only God can make it so.”
And, humbled, Johannes would return to his work.
Such work! Clockwork birds that sang popular melodies, rosy-cheeked maidens that fed Chinese pheasants and geese, silver crickets that trilled with the hour. Johannes worked his way slowly up to master craftsman, mostly under his own impetus. The tragic part of his brilliance was that he never got a proper education, by the age of twenty he could barely write his own name, and any apprenticeship was out of his grasp.
Oh, there were those crass persons who said he could have imposed on his friend for money, but Franz reassured him that if he was truly meant to have an education, God would see to it that one came his way. Alas, Franz was beset by money troubles and could give no help to his oldest friend, not that he would cheapen their friendship with monetary taint anyway. And Johannes would smile that sad, understanding smile and work harder.
By twenty-three, he had surpassed even his father in his mastery of the mechanical. At twenty-five, he buried his mother. We all felt for him, a man without family—but such a powerful friend! It seemed every other day he was bringing new city folk in in their bright taffeta and linen to laugh at Johannes’ clever clockwork creatures! It got to be so common folk couldn’t even get through the door! Lord bless their hearts, the rich are such different creatures from you or I, they could not buy Johannes’ stock for they were too common but if he were to build to their wishes he would go out of business.
And almost every other day, Johannes would rub his eyes with his fists, sigh, and say of some mechanical wonder that had all but the breath of life:
And Franz, smiling, would clap a meaty hand on his friend’s shoulder and chide him:
“But not quite!”
Poor Johannes seemed to age ten years in the next five, though his work advanced in suit. Clockwork serpents that coiled around peach-enameled Eves who bit into red glass apples. Astrolabes of imaginary planets, even Buckley’s Tlӧn included, wrought in jasper and jade. Courtyard scenes of such intricate movement that one could not view all in one sitting. And yet he never grew an ego, like old doctor Coppola down in Bremen, for his good friend Franz was always on hand to humble him back to earth.
I’m forgetting something aren’t I? Ah, the women. No woman wants to marry a man penniless, no matter how big his dreams are. Johannes had little more than hope, and it was often only a little way into a visit before a faithless maiden would turn her calculating gaze to his friend. Poor Johannes! Poor Franz! He tried often to interest his friend in women, parading them by his shop, but more often they would leave arm in arm, and he would have to find a way to courteously distangle himself without scandal.
…Wait, there’s still one I’m forgetting.
One day Franz entered the shop, and his usual friendly rejoinder died on his lips. A most curiously beautiful creature, a Botticelli angel brought to solid form, stood bent at the waist to peer at the clockwork Eve. Johannes, however, seemed to act curtly toward her, delivering short, clipped instructions as if to a dog. Her face registered no dismay, only lovely blank curiosity towards the clockwork wonder.
Franz introduced himself. The lady pivoted at her hips like a Javanese dancer, proffered her hand in a most balletic manner. Yet it was Johannes who introduced her, called her the lady Something-of-Something from southern Somewhere, in need of an escort. Well, dear, lovely, lonely Franz, how can he hear this but offer his help? The maiden regarded his offer with cool composure, and Franz feared he’d finally overstepped his bounds, but Johannes said she could not fail to appreciate the finer points of the city with him at hand. And the lady spoke her first words to Franz in assent.
Ah, if I could only tell you that voice! No wax cylinders exist of it, lest everyone be reduced to a lotus-eaten stupor. It was like peals of a silver bell, with a lovely rhythmic quality. To hear her was the essence of womanhood. And what better match for her than the fine essence of manhood Franz von Homburg, only a little worse for wear after a few year’s university dinners. He took her to galleries, operas, even the finest parties of the genteel. Always she was an ethereal presence at his elbow; a lady to the end, she spoke very little and only in reply.
One of her most commendable qualities was her talent for listening; the flush of her white throat, the wet shine of her sapphire eyes, she focused upon the speaker as if on the holy word. Oh, Franz grew quite smitten. Perhaps her permissibility went a way toward stemming his prior habits, he did not take liberties with her that he had taken with ladies of lesser stature. He quite forgot himself, forgot his good friends who were showing signs of becoming old friends, quite forgot about poor Johannes alone in his workshop. Inevitably, he proposed marriage, and the lady lowered her eyes modestly in assent.
The old house had not been so alive and gay before or since. Even the grand hall, with its teak floors and plush wall-rugs seemed not grand enough for the lady, and Johannes ordered a good chunk of his inheritance toward redecoration. As to color and style, the lady only replied modestly that whatever her husband-to-be chose would be enough for her. Such a lady, we said, already so attuned to the needs and preferences of her husband! Such a saintly being, a model of behavior for the lesser cherubim of matrimony.
The day came, as all days must, and the wedding was held in the grand hall, now shining with gilt and glass and sporting not a few fine silk flowers. The groom looked quite handsome(well-fed, less charitable souls might say) in finely-cut linen, and the lady was stepped out of a Raphael painting. No dress could have done her justice, but the almost sardonic plainness of her gown seemed only to accentuate the gold fall of her hair, the sapphire of her eyes, the symmetrical rose flush of her cheeks.
Much merry was had that day. Anyone and everyone was there, even poor little Johannes had managed to detach himself from the workbench for a day and dress up in an ink-spotted collar. He greeted his friend in all good spirits, gathering him in an embrace and leaning in close to his ear.
Many a year has passed since then, and this is all hearsay coming from the son of some viscount who happened to be within earshot, but the thing they say Johannes whispered into his friend’s ear went something like this:
“Do you like her? Could the creator himself have done better?”
Franz never did go into the clergy; his financiers ran into some trouble and he went to the south of France to drink away the last of his money. Johannes’ figures remain collector’s items, run smoothly as the day you bought them. He never married, no, but he maintained his business with the sense of pride usually reserved for literary scholars. As for the lady herself, I’ve never heard conclusively as to where she ended up.