The Analytical Assurance Company

Birmingham, 1875.

It was Ada’s first day at the Reeve & Winterborn Analytical Assurance & Annuity Co., Ltd. Anxious to be punctual, she scurried the short distance from Snow-Hill Station, hampered by long serge skirts, and the tightness of her shirtwaist, as she became slightly out of breath. An omnibus squealed to a halt, steam billowing from its valves. Damp brown leaves from the plane trees in the cathedral gardens blew along Colmore-Row. Here were the grandest offices in Birmingham, with porticos and pilasters of stone, or built of finely laid red brick with ornate arched windows. Ada reached the massive oak doors of Reeve & Winterborn well before nine-o’clock.

Inside, a uniformed doorman sat at a ten-foot-long desk in a gilded and marbled lobby. A pair of sculptured staircases ascended on each side, meeting above in a mezzanine. He inquired her name and business.

‘First floor, Miss, General Office, Mr. Winterborn’s room,’ he said.

As she ascended, running her gloved fingers up the gleaming brass handrail, her feet were silent in the thick carpet. Behind the hush of the building, she heard a muffled hum, and the chattering and wheezing of a vast machine.

Two doors exited the mezzanine; one said ‘NO ADMITTANCE’. The staircases continued up. She pushed at the other door, marked ‘GENERAL OFFICE’; it was heavy but swung smoothly on oiled hinges. The machine noises faded as she closed the door behind her. She stood in a long room containing rows of desks, still empty. On either side were shelves of thick ledgers bound in blue leather. At the far end of the room, behind a demi-glazed partition, was Mr. Winterborn’s office. His name was on the door in gold letters.

As Ada approached, she saw that he was occupied with a brass device. A gaslight shone down, gleaming on his dark hair. He pressed buttons and turned a handle, and an oblong of white card pierced with hundreds of tiny holes emerged. She tapped gently on the glass. He looked up, and beckoned.

‘Are you the new stenographer?’ he said, without rising, or really looking at her. He waved her to a small desk in the corner of the office. The room was very hot, and smelled of coal; the boiler that drove the typewriter was already hissing gently.

‘Ada Lambert, sir,’ she said.

‘Ah, yes. Previously of Rackhouse & Steyning? You will find us different here, Miss Lambert. Our company has invested in the latest Analytical Engine, which performs all our actuarial calculations to the highest degree of accuracy. Thanks to these…’ he broke off to cut, riffle, and cascade a deck of white punched cards ‘…that office, with its blue ledgers, and its rows of clerks, will soon be superfluous.’

Ada raised her eyebrows. ‘I hope my position will be secure, sir,’ she said. He was young, she noticed, and had beautiful hazel eyes with black eyelashes; his clothing was of impeccable quality, and fitted without a crease; his hands were as white as the cards; his beard and moustaches were groomed into elegantly curling points.

‘Who knows,’ he said. His mouth smiled, but his eyes were severe. ‘Scientists are working on a system for transcribing the human voice to wax discs. If those are capable of connection to the analytical engine, and then to a steam-driven typewriter, then we will not require stenographers, Miss Lambert. But for now, there is plenty of work for you to do.’

The morning proceeded quickly, Winterborn’s letters occupying her for an hour or so, and then, at just after ten-o’clock Winterborn took a folio from a mahogany tray on his desk.

‘The output of the Analytical Engine, Miss Lambert,’ he said, ‘without which all the operations of Reeve and Winterborn Ltd would be as nought.’

Inside the folio was a printed list of some thirty names with sums of money against them. Ada made out thirty orders of payment, Winterborn signed them, and then handed her the sheaf of cheques.

‘Take those to Mr. Reeve for countersignature, please. Fifth floor,’ he said.

Mr. Reeve was the senior partner, and Ada had expected his offices to be opulent, but as she climbed the stairs to the fifth floor she noticed that the carpet seemed to grow thinner. The stair rail was wood, not brass. The building became perceptibly colder, and cobwebs were scribbled across the ceiling. Speared to a door with a pin, a faded card, curling at the corners, bore Mr. Reeve’s name. Ada tapped on the door and went in.

In contrast to the sleek mahogany of Mr. Winterborn’s office, Mr. Reeve sat in a faded and torn chair whose legs had worn through the carpet. His desk, of cheap stained deal, had pale scratches and dents down the legs; splinters protruded.

Mr. Reeve was as old and decrepit as Mr. Winterborn was young and dynamic. He was so sunken forward in his chair, that his shoulders nearly rested on the edge of his desk; his neck craned upwards like a turkey, the loose folds of skin quivering as he wished her a good morning, a smile creasing his face into a crumpled tissue of wrinkles.

‘The money orders from Mr. Winterborn, for counter-signature, sir,’ she said.

Mr. Reeve peered at them through demilunes, fumbling slowly through the pile with thickened fingers, scratching shaky signatures with an old quill.

‘There’s no money in this assurance business any longer, Miss…er…’ he quavered, spreading the cheques in a patchwork across his desk. His ’S’s whistled, as though steam were escaping between his teeth.

‘Lambert, sir. Ada Lambert.’

‘Miss Lambert.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I say, there’s no money in this assurance business. No profit to be made. We pay out hand over fist.’

Ada wondered about Mr. Reeve’s decrepitude, and Mr. Winterborn’s sleek elegance.

‘If it weren’t for Winterborn and his Analytical Engine, that saves the work of twenty clerks, I doubt we could even pay the weekly wages.’ Mr. Reeve’s black coat was frayed at the cuffs, the lapels shiny with wear. A few wisps of white hair stretched over the crown of his head.

‘There seem to be plenty of subscriptions coming in, sir,’ ventured Ada. ‘It was my impression that the firm was making a good profit.’

‘Young lady,’ said Mr. Reeve slowly, ‘You are new to this employment. You ignore the complexity of the business. The risks we take. The actuarial calculations as we aggregate and disaggregate the payment structure. Sometimes those risks pay us. At other times we pay. We lose, do you understand me?’

‘I thought, well I have worked at Rackhouse & Steyning, sir, and I know I haven’t…’

‘Miss Lambert, that is a completely different enterprise. They do not use the Analytical Engine to extrapolate their future limits of risk and determine the minimum level of capitalisation. A fly-by-night business, in my opinion, quite unreliable. You were lucky to leave them.’

‘They seemed to be prospering, sir, when I left. It was only because the travelling was easier to here, with the new train service.’

‘Fly-by-night,’ repeated Mr. Reeve, gathering the money orders up, his hands scraping across the desk like the withered limbs of a dead spider. He held the bundle of slips out to her, looking up from beneath white eyebrows. Above his demilunes, his eyes were blue and clear.

Ada soon found that Winterborn was an industrious employer who did not overload her with work, preferring to do many tasks himself. She noticed that, however early she came into the office, and however late she stayed, he always seemed to start before her, and finish afterwards, always working on the white cards. ‘Programming’, he called it.

The clerks in the outer office seemed to be a clique. If she walked through their office, they fell silent and would start murmuring to each other as she got to the door. Winterborn disliked chatting, and it could be a rather lonely day, but at least the peace and quiet enabled her to concentrate on her work, something she had not enjoyed at Rackhouse & Steyning. She became proficient at operating the typewriter and adjusting its steam pressure so the keys would strike with perfect emphasis. Filling it up with coal was messy, and it could be a little hot at times, but she was glad of this as the autumn drew on into winter.

Once a week, she was entrusted with all the incoming payment cheques and walked along Colmore Row to deposit them at the Birmingham & Midland Provincial Bank. Mr. Reeve seemed right, in that the sums paid in only just exceeded the sums paid out, which she found surprising compared to her experience at Rackhouse & Steyning, which had seemed a far less efficient company.

She began, however, to wish that Winterborn would let her do some of his work. It seemed unfair that he should spend such long hours programming the cards, when all she had to do was a little stenography, help compile the payment cheques, and take them to Mr. Reeve. One day she decided to ask Winterborn directly.

‘Mr. Winterborn,’ she said, ‘I wish you would teach me to do a little of what you do. It doesn’t seem right that you should be slaving away at that card puncher and I should be sitting here doing next to nothing. At least if you showed me how to do the programming, I could be of more help to you.’

Winterborn glared at her very strangely then, as if she had been presumptuous, rather than offering to help.

‘It’s of no consequence,’ he said. ‘It would take me far too long to train you.’ And then, composing his features into a smile he added, ‘ But you might allow me to walk out with you on Sunday afternoon, Miss Lambert.’

She reddened. She imagined, for a moment, his beautiful hazel eyes close to hers, his moustache scraping her lips.

‘Mr. Winterborn!’ He had seemed so aloof and stern all along, and now this. ‘I…well…’

‘Do you have a young man already?’ he inquired, and when she replied in the negative, he rubbed his hands, and smiled with his generous mouth.

‘That settles it,’ he said. ‘The Botanical Gardens it is.’

‘I really don’t think…’ she stumbled.

‘Well?’

There was something cold about the way he said that, she thought. Elegant though he was, she might shrink from his white hands. His eyes narrowed.

‘I think, Miss Lambert, that it is important that two people, who work in such close collaboration as ourselves, should get along.’

She was silent in confusion and embarrassment. He frowned down at the card punch, and turned the handle. The steam hissed like a little dragon. He said no more.

She turned it over in her mind, as he turned the handle and the white oblongs came out. His affluence, Mr. Reeve’s penury, the mysterious cards that no-one else could read. His sudden proposition. The cards started to weigh upon her mind, and as she worked, she often glanced at them. Winterborn, it seemed, always intercepted her gaze before she had time to look away. She longed to examine them more closely. There was also a book, which he sometimes consulted before setting the card punch.

She started arriving at Reeve & Winterborn earlier. Eight-thirty. Seven-forty-five. Seven-thirty. Winterborn was always there. Then, one morning, spurred by an irresistible curiosity, she arrived at seven. The front doors were locked, and she waited until twenty-past-seven when the doorman arrived. No sooner had he unlocked the doors, than she sped up the stairs. She grabbed the cards and the book from Winterborn’s desk, and rushed out of the office, thinking to take them up to Mr Reeve’s office and wait for him to arrive.

As she went through the door to the mezzanine she barged past Winterborn. He could not fail to see what she held, and grasped at her arm. She wrested herself from his grip and rushed across the mezzanine.

There was nowhere else. She pushed open the doors that said ‘NO ADMITTANCE’, and went in. At the end of a short corridor was another set of heavy doors. As she opened these, the noise and heat seemed to rush out at her like a force. There was a blast of hot air that smelled of coal, and steam, and machine oil. A huge and glittering array of brass machinery soared high up in an enormous circular chamber, rising through three stories to the roof. In the light from a glass cupola, Ada saw a moving mechanical mountain of pistons and camshafts, of hammers and bearings, of rotating flywheels, of hundreds of thousands of cogs in tall arrays, their numbered edges rotating back and forth as the complex calculations of the annuity payments were processed by this immense steam-driven brain. A moulded brass plate bore the inscription: BOULTON & BABBAGE – SOHO MANUFACTORY −1852.

Beneath Ada’s feet was a perforated cast-iron platform, and she moved to the railings that guarded the edge and looked down. The machinery went down through the floors below, past ground level and into the cavernous depths of a basement. The floor on which the leviathan rested could not even be seen in the dark depths. From below came the roaring of the boiler’s furnace and the clanking of the mechanical hopper that fed the Analytical Engine with coal. A narrow iron staircase spiralled up around the machine. Gripping the slender railing tightly, Ada started to climb, in the hope that Winterborn would not be able to find her, and that there was perhaps an exit at an upper level. If only she could get to Mr. Reeve, then perhaps she would be saved. Mr. Reeve would see there was something wrong with the ledgers and the cards.

The heat started to overwhelm Ada as she climbed; her breath came in short gasps, the air seemed thick with coal vapour and cinders, and she felt as if she were suffocating. She made slow progress upwards, hampered by her heavy skirts, her chest constricted by her clothing. She paused to gather her breath and looked up. The machinery seemed to go on up forever, the walls of the chamber were sheer and blank and she could see no exits. Below her, louder than even the chattering of the cogs, she could now hear Winterborn shouting what sounded like threats, or curses. His shouts resounded in the cavernous chamber. He was the other side of the machinery, and she caught a glimpse from above of his white hands, the glint, perhaps, of a weapon.

The staircase spiralled up and Ada circled cautiously, keeping Winterborn in view when she could, trying to stay on the other side of the machinery. She came to a place where a tunnel seemed to form amongst the mechanism, the cogs were in a diagonal line, and sighting along it she saw Winterborn clearly. He was holding a pistol pointed ahead of him. As if sensing her gaze, he looked up and saw her. As he levelled the pistol at her, she darted swiftly on, flinching inside her dress as she heard the loud report of the shot. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the steel framework and fell on the steps ahead of her. She forced herself to go on, her legs feeling heavier, and cramping as she climbed, a stitch developing in her side, and now she could feel the iron staircase vibrating under his footfalls, as he took the stairs two at a time.

She reached the top. The railed stairway ended abruptly, a chain hooked loosely across the end. Above her, rain hammered on the glass dome. If only she could find a way out. Winterborn was advancing up the stairs. She unhooked the chain and tottered out on the steel frame of the machine where a metal beam ran for twenty or thirty yards across the huge chamber. She felt the vibrations of the Analytical Engine through her thin shoes, and, beneath her, the cogs whirred and clattered and clicked. She looked back; Winterborn now stood at the top of the stairs.

She wondered that she had ever thought him handsome; his face was ugly with anger, and fear, and hatred.

‘Give me the cards,’ he snarled. He pointed the pistol at her.

Ada turned away from him and kept going across the beam, right to the edge of the engine. She willed herself not to startle when she heard the shot; the bullet went wide, bounced off the brick wall ahead of her, and fell down into the mechanism. A grinding noise started to emanate from the depths. Then Ada reached the end of the beam, and there was nowhere to go. She turned. Winterborn fired again and missed – she was too far away from him. He paled as he looked down beyond the beam at the myriads of moving cogs beneath. Then, seized by fury, he advanced shakily over the structure.

The grinding beneath Ada’s feet became louder and louder, the machine groaned and juddered, the steel framework started to bow and twist, and as Winterborn stood poised on the beam to take another shot he looked down at the boiling mass of dysfunctioning machinery. He reeled, he lost his footing and fell between the cogwheels. His boots were torn from his feet by the brass teeth and he cried out in pain, a long cry that vanished into the mangling depths of the engine.

Ada turned her head away, and when she turned back, Winterborn had completely disappeared. The spinning cogs of the Analytical Engine slowed, as it shuddered and wheezed to a halt.

The engineers had to shut down the boiler before Ada could inch her way back to the staircase. For a short time the offices were in disorder. The police were everywhere, and the Analytical Engine had to be unblocked. Ada went through the accounts with Mr. Reeve and confirmed the discrepancies. Many of the supposed claimants of annuities were false, and existed only in the Analytical Engine.

After a fortnight, a claim for twenty thousand pounds on the life of Mr Giles Winterborn, complete with a death certificate, arrived in the post.

 

This story is available in my anthology:
Link to Amazon.co.uk

© M Wallis 2020

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