Quartermain, squinting from behind his octagonal ruby lensed glasses, lifted a clinking glass of effervescent liquid to his lips. Tears of condensation dribbled down its sides and patted onto his cricket linens - the stains welling out before fading as they evaporated in the heat.
Dr Moreaux, stretching
out in the midday sun, supine in his favourite lawn chair, had his eyes closed and was listening to the sounds of the English summer.
He fancied he could hear halfway across the county; the murmur of the stream at the end of the garden, the rustle of the trees in the breeze, the tweets, chirrups and warbles of various birds - they sounded somewhat different today, louder, more insistent than usual - but the combined effects of the sunshine, and Quartermain's special recipe Pimms soon had his attention drifting onto other things - the sounds of far-off cows lowing in the fields, the laughter and splash of children playing in the pond at the village green, and the incessant tappity-tap of Quartermain's fingers playing across the surface of the specimen box he'd brought down to the picnic.
All was well. His team of undergraduates had returned successfully from a perilous expedition to the Plateau of Leng, literally loaded with artefacts. Dr Moreaux had been poring over one particular parchment, trying to tease the meaning from its ancient markings lines radiating from a central eight-sided node, intersecting with other points, from which emanated yet more rays, each of which intersected with yet more points, and so on. Beneath this image, a line of text that Moreaux felt sure held some meaning. If only he could decipher it.
Dr Moreaux sighed happily in the warmth, then sleepily turned to his friend.
"I say, what a day Quartermain, eh? Quite the scorcher!"
"Mmhmm." Quartermain, his attention attuned to the box, continued his tapping.
"I could get used to this you know - reminds me of when I was overseas..."
"Aha. Mmmh Hmmm. Yes."
"Oh yes, remarkable climate - almost too hot sometimes. Terrible sunburn if you weren't careful. Good swimming if I remember. I say, how about a bit of a swim eh Q?"
"Good God man, are you listening to a word I'm saying?"
"What? Er yes?"
"What the devil are you doing with that thing anyway?"
"What, oh this?" Quartermain indicated the specimen box.
"Yes, you've been fiddling about with that thing all morning. Tapping away at it ceaselessly, it's most distracting."
"Oh, I was just talking to one of my...ahm, nieces."
Dr Moreaux's eyes sized up the contents of Quartermain's glass with a quick glance, his mind performing wild calculations in an attempt to gauge whether Quartermain really was inebriated, or if it was just his natural mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that made it appear that way.
"Talking? Surely not Quartermain, there's only you and I here. And that damn box."
"Yes - clever isn't it?"
Moreaux noted a particularly brave sparrow chirruping noisily right at Quartermain's foot.
"Oh, here we are..." Quartermain looked more intently into his box, studiously observing the contents over the rims of his glasses.
"...yes, aha - very good!" and he started tapping away again with his fingers, his tongue sticking out between his teeth in concentration.
"I say Quartermain - what are you up to?" Moreaux was craning his neck to peer into the box, and had to raise his voice over the now noticeably loud chirruping the sparrow, and seemingly, all the birds in the vicinity, were making.
"Like I said, I'm discussing this evening's arrangements with my..." he hesitated.
"Niece" prompted Moreaux
"...Oh yes, that's right - my niece! Fine girl - very savvy - technically I mean. I made her another box just like this one. It's a communications device of the most delicate and ingenious order. All my own design. Only two are currently in existence, the one you see before you, and the other one in the capable hands of my ahmm...niece."
"How intriguing Quartermain - I didn't realise you had relations - you always said your entire family were wiped out in a mysterious lightning accident when you were a young boy."
Quartermain tensed for a moment "I was completely exonerated of all...oh yes, I see what you...she's distant...family. Very capable hands."
Dr Moreaux broke off a piece of bread, applied a generous slap of butter and jam, and took a bite.
"So you said - but I still don't see how you can communicate with her if she's not here." taking a small piece of bread between his fingers he threw it towards the animated sparrow at Quartermain's feet.
"Stop! You oaf! You'll ruin the mechanism!!" exclaimed Quartermain, his arms thrashing wildly in an attempt to intercept the jammy projectile.
"But, I. I was just feeding that wee little sparrow fellow, " he gestured at the plucky bird at Quartermain's feet. Dr Moreaux suddenly felt a wave of anxiety (an altogether not uncommon feeling whilst in Quartermain's presence, as many people would later remark), for any normal sparrow would have flown away immediately at Quartermain's outburst - but this one was still sitting at his feet, chirping away happily, it's tiny head now crowned with a morsel of bread and jam.
Quartermain leant forward, clasped the still cheeping creature and lifted it from the ground. He turned it on its side, and probed beneath its feathers. Suddenly with a click, the bird was silenced, and Quartermain, using a cloth secreted from his jacket pocket , was gently brushing the bread and jam from its feathered brow.
"This creature is the product of my invention" he said, "though some of the internal components were of such a delicate nature, I had to have them made and assembled to my specification by a family firm of watchmakers - the Jaquet-Drozes - before shipping them back in jostle-proof packaging."
Dr Moreaux was suddenly aware of a pervading quiet. Where they had recently been surrounded by the tweets and calls of birdsong, all appeared now to be silence. A second wave of anxiety washed over him.
"These Sonorous Automata receive an encoded feed of information, which they vocalise in the form of birdsong. Other examples of my 'apparatus passeria' pick up the sound," at this Quartermain's arm cast a sweeping motion, indicating the hedgerows, "and repeat it. The more there are in a given area, the more the signal is repeated, and the better chance it has of being received correctly at the other end. This is the dawn of a new age Moreaux!"
The bird, now relieved of jam, was carefully wound by Quartermain with a brass key he kept for the purpose, and pressed it back into the earth with a click. It paused for a moment, as if gathering its senses, before launching once more into song.
In the hedgerows, the midday chorus resumed.
Dr Moreaux reeled, his lips forming the words translated from the parchment,
"His is the Hand that Makes!"
"Yes, Moreaux. I'm working on developing a clockwork cetacean for longer-distance messaging - but the gears keep getting clogged with barnacles."