Adelaide could hardly contain her excitement when her father announced that the Hollingsworth family would attend the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair at Chicago. She spent weeks making lists, reading every newspaper and pamphlet she could, planning which exhibitions she would visit and when. She especially wanted to see electricity and steam powered machines.
“You should be making lists of suitors,” her mother chided the morning they were to leave for the Fair. “You’re not getting any younger, and a woman of high society should not be left without an escort in a large city.”
Addy looked up from the long list and pasted on her fake smile, the one she wore when her father’s friends told her to smile more. “Thank you for that advice, Mother. I plan to search for a suitor while at the Fair.” She held up her list. “This is my list of possible matches. Would you care to see?”
Her mother took the list dubiously and scanned the carefully written names of all the young men Adelaide read might attend. They were sons of inventors, innovators, scientists, and chefs. Some were real names she found published alongside the names of their fathers, but most of them were from Adelaide’s imagination. “This is quite a list. How on Earth did you find these names?”
Addy’s smile was genuine now. Her mother believed her. “Reading all of the newspapers, of course.”
“I thought you were planning to look at machines,” her mother said as she handed the list back.
“Oh, I am. But it would be so much more enjoyable with a gentleman escort.” Addy tucked the list into her skirt pocket.
Her mother took a sip of tea while eyeing her suspiciously. “If this proves unsuccessful, you have your cotillion next month.”
The thought of a cotillion made Addy ill. She didn’t want to be forced to marry some boring son of a wealthy landowner or heir of another factory. She wanted to be her own woman, and the only way to do so would be to pull off the trick of the century.
The White City in Jackson Park was just as grand as Addy imagined. Its huge buildings, sprawling waterway, and elaborate statues made her think of ancient Rome from paintings she studied with her governess. The dome of the administration building in the center of the palisade rose above the water, casting a shadow the size of a giant over the droves of people wandering from hall to hall.
Addy’s father had an appointment with an inventor and her mother was invited to tea with the inventor’s wife, which meant Addy was free to roam the fair as she pleased. “Remember,” her mother said before they parted, “only two hours.”
Addy bowed and smiled, grateful her mother agreed to her leaving at all. As soon as her parents were swallowed by the crowd, Addy set out to find the Women’s Building. She was eager to see the inventions other women brought, especially in the way of steam and electric powered machines. As she walked, she marvelled at the different styles of clothes she saw, the different languages, and the spectacles of people. Everywhere she looked there was something new to see. A street vendor with candied plums in one corner, a performer with bagpipes in another. The sounds, smells, and sights of the fair overwhelmed and impressed her. Especially the giant wheel.
When she reached the woman’s building, she joined the throngs of people rushing up the steps and toward the door. Inside was a vast rotunda, filled with sculptures and booths. A gentleman handed her a map, and she quickly located the scientific wing in the opposite section of the huge pavilion.
Part of her wanted to wander the entire span and stop to take in each and every exhibition. She reminded herself that she would have time, eventually, to see whatever she wanted. But today she was on a mission. She was looking for a very specific booth.
It took mere moments for her to spot Martha Maison’s booth. A large crowd gathered in an arc, almost hiding it from view, but the sign hanging overhead was enough for her to see she was in the right spot. Addy pushed through the crowd to the front, past women and men alike staring on in wonder. When she finally settled, she saw both the object of their fascination and the reason she came here straight away: a steam powered robot.
“Observe as I open the back,” Martha, the small, stout woman in the bright blue dress proclaimed as she opened a panel in the back of the robot, “and add the mixture for the power.”
Everyone held their breath as she poured something into a small funnel that stuck out the back of a very realistic looking man. He was wearing a top hat, monocle, and even though she could only see one side of him, he looked to have a mustache. His suit was finely tailored, and were it not for his very obvious metal hands, she might not have known he was a machine at all.
Martha closed the panel, and then wound a gear with a crank. She replaced the robot’s jacket and patted him on the back. Addy was transfixed as she watched the woman work, her hands expertly maneuvering the parts the same way Addy’s did when she worked with her father in his shop. Marth took a step back, smiled, and the crowd gasped. The robot took a step forward. Then another. And another. The steps were slightly stilted, but as he made his way around the circle, he looked no different than many of the men in the crowd. When he turned to face Addy, she was impressed to see his face was almost real. His skin, smooth as though made of clay, and his mustache, furry like the tail of a rabbit, though ridiculous by itself, was convincing enough in conjunction with the suit and the gait.
The robot came to a stop in the middle of the exhibition floor, looked out into the crowd, and bowed. Everyone, including Addy, burst into thunderous applause. This had to be the most thrilling invention she had ever seen! It was better than what she saw in the papers. More sensational than the most glowing reviews in the newspapers. And to think that a woman made it–a woman just like her–was an overwhelming thought that filled Addy with hope and admiration.
Addy hung back while most of the crowd dispersed while a line of admirers gathered around Martha Maison. She would have to be patient, but she was ready for that. It was the reason she came to this booth first. She would wait for the others to leave.
And they did–almost an hour and a half later. She only had fifteen minutes until she had to meet back up with her parents in the square, and Martha had already set to packing up the robot.
“Excuse me, Ms. Maison?” Addy said as she approached.
Martha looked up from her task of taking apart the robot. “Yes?”
“Could I ask you a few questions? I’m an inventor myself, and I saw your demonstration. It was quite impressive!” she gushed.
Martha’s smile widened. “It’s always good to meet another inventor. What can I answer for you?”
“Well, um,” Addy hesitated. She wasn’t sure she’d get this far and didn’t know how to broach the subject other than to speak plainly. “I have a favor to ask, actually.”
Steering the robot was more difficult than Martha made it look. As Addy and Mr. Sterling made their way to the center of the square, she struggled to make him turn and move in the way that seemed natural to her. If he were to fool her parents, and especially her mother, he would need to be convincing.
She was thankful Martha had a spare robot and even more grateful she’d part with Mr. Sterling long enough to try this experiment. Addy already concocted a story. Mr. Sterling was the son of a rich landowner from Wyoming. Unfortunately he was born without the ability to speak, but he is a perfect gentleman and will escort her the entirety of the World’s Fair. When she returns to Philadelphia and he returns to Cheyenne, they will keep a close correspondence which will give her time to better plan a way out of her cotillion.
The plan seemed much more convincing in her head, but now that she had him, she was afraid that this would never work. Her father was intelligent and knew about all the inventions at the Fair, and her mother scrutinized everything endlessly. They’ll never agree to let her galavant around town with a stranger, let alone a metal gear robot boyfriend.
But it was too late to turn back. Her mother spotted her first, waving her over to a bench where she sat alone. At least her father hadn’t returned yet. It might be easier to convince just her mother. Even if she could get an extra few hours alone, it would be worth it.
She hid the controller in her skirts the best she could and looped an arm through Mr. Sterling’s mechanical one. His top hat, monocle, and mustache made her smile as she stared up at him and pretended to be a young lady smitten by his charm. It was easier to steer him straight ahead with her hand in her pocket, thumb and forefinger pressing the controls.
Her mother stood as they approached, shock and a slight smile on her face. “Well, Adalaide, who is your friend?”
Addy smiled at her mother but did not dare step away from the robot. “This is Mr. Avery Sterling.” She pressed the button for the robot to bow, and he did, albeit with a jerk. Addy watched her mother’s face, but luckily she didn’t seem to notice.
Mrs. Hollingsworth gave him a nod. “Lovely to meet you.”
Addy pressed the bow button again, but this time he bowed too quickly. It was so quick that his top hat fell off. She snapped it off the ground. “Oh goodness, Avery, your hat.” She repositioned it as best she could, but she could feel her mother’s judgemental eyes on her. “Apologies, mother. He, uh, can’t speak.”
“Then however did you two meet?” Mrs. Hollingsworth asked.
Addy smiled up at the robot who did not look back at her. “At a booth, of course. I was marvelling at the crafts and Avery was walking past. He stopped and handed me a note of introduction. See?” She produced a fake business card she’d been working on for weeks and handed it to her mother.
“I see,” she said as she read the print. “And what are your intentions with my daughter, Mr. Sterling?”
In a panic, Addy stood in front of the robot while trying to move his arm to encircle her shoulders. His arm was heavy and fell several times, but eventually she got it to stay. She said a silent prayer that the gloves concealed his mechanical wrists enough to continue to fool her mother. “He is entirely a gentleman, Mother. He merely wants to escort me around the Fair this weekend. We also exchanged addresses so he may write to me when we return to Philadelphia.”
“Oh, you did? Already?” her mother muttered. “May I have a few moments alone with Mr. Sterling?”
“No!” Addy shouted. Then she remembered herself. “I mean, that’s not necessary. I trust him, and you should, too.” Just as she turned to look up at him again, his arm fell, and one side of his moustache drooped. Under the fur, Addy could clearly see the shiny patina of metal.
“Adelaide,” her mother said, a warning in her tone. “Please let me speak to this gentleman alone. It is my duty as your mother to ensure that I leave you in the most trustworthy of hands.”
With a sigh, Addy stepped back. “Go ahead, Avery,” she said to the robot. “I hope my mother is kind to you.” She pressed the button and he stepped forward, one leg arching too high and nearly swinging him off balance. Her mother took his arm and they walked, Addy trying to steer him as naturally as she could. They didn’t walk far, thankfully, but she still wasn’t sure what her mother was saying and wanted to make sure she could cover for the fact that when they turned back toward her, his mustache was almost completely hanging off of the side of his mouth.
“Addy,” her mother sighed. “What on Earth is going on?”
“What do you mean?” Addy was determined. She could do this. She could fool her mother and get out of here.
Her mother held out Mr. Sterling’s arm and pulled up his sleeve to reveal the metal arm underneath. “You’ve brought me a robot.”
She bit her lip and didn’t reply right away, instead staring in horror at the look on her mother’s face. She’d been trying to stop it, but the tide of tears came. When she was stressed, she cried. When she was angry, she cried. And now she was afraid, so of course, she cried. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
To her surprise, Mrs. Hollingsworth laughed. It was more than a chuckle, but a full, belly laugh that shook her and bubbled over. Tears streamed from her eyes, and not from anger or sadness, but laughter. Addy’s own tears stopped as she watched at first in confusion, but then joined her mother, both of them laughing and crying next to a robot whose mustache had fallen off of his clay and metal face.
“Oh my dear,” Mrs. Hollingsworth said as she took her daughter in her arms. “This is just what I needed today. You are something else.”
“I’m sorry I tried to fool you,” Addy said. “But I really don’t want to marry. Not yet. I just want to enjoy the Fair.”
Her mother pulled away from the embrace and held Addy at arm’s length, taking her in. She smiled. “And you shall, dear. Let’s take this robot back to where you got it, and we’ll have a look at whatever exhibits you desire.”