By John M. Burt
Wednesday: Chapter Seven
On Wednesday, Locke found telegrams from several more vitalogists in his mailbox. Some offered to meet him in a week or more, in spite of his emphasizing the need for timely interviews in the newspaper business. A couple politely declined (which surprised him, since this was more than propriety required). One sent an angry rejection which demanded that he never again be contacted by Locke or any other newsman (as though Locke could have granted such a thing). Still, he received invitations to meet with Drs. Usher, Brandreth and Foster that very day.
Doctor Andrea Foster offered to meet Locke briefly that morning, before her first client of the day arrived at nine, so he dressed and shaved quickly and made his way to her Hester Street office by ten minutes after eight.
He’d have been there some minutes earlier, except that he hadn’t remembered that the intersection of Hester Street and Mulberry Street was at the pinnacle of Bayard Mount. Not much of a hill, but it was the highest point on Manhattan Island, and it had taken him awhile to climb the sharply rising Hester Street. There had been talk, Locke recalled, of leveling the hill and using the rubble to fill in the severely polluted Collect Pond. Instead, the pond had been renovated and become the centerpiece of a park whose proximity had made the Hester Street neighborhood a fashionable one.
As the corner of Hester and Mulberry came into sight, Locke saw a crossing sweeper shoveling dung into a wheeled cart. He passed crossing sweepers every day, but this time he actually paid the creature some attention: a small hoover in a white coat and square white cap, his narrow black moustache providing his gray face with an unusual bit of character. He wondered whether the hoover had to shave, or if he simply only grew hair in the middle part of his upper lip. Watching the hoover calmly going about his task, Locke remembered how filthy the streets of his childhood had been.
Locke was met at the door by a very humanlike red-haired hoover in a maid’s uniform. She looked more suited to the parlor of a well-to-do family than to a business. But after the hoover had shown him to a seat in Dr. Foster’s waiting room and offered him a cup of tea, it occurred to him that the maid was more than a doorkeeper. She served as a model of what customers could expect if they came to Foster for servants. Every family wanted their hoovers to be as handsome, which was to say as humanlike, as was on offer.
Locke waited (without tea), and pondered what it was that made the hoover so humanlike. Her body and face were very skillfully crafted, but there was something more to it, some additional characteristic that she had. He still hadn’t managed to put his finger on it when the maid returned to invite him into Dr. Foster’s receiving office.
When Locke finally saw Dr. Foster, he was unable not to stare. The resemblance between Foster and her maid was quite acute. Clearly she had made this hoover in her own image, down to details like the exact shape of her nose and the arc of her hairline.
Foster smiled, knowing perfectly well what had caused Locke to fall silent.
“What do you think of my Helen?”
Locke swallowed and said, “She’s a very impressive accomplishment on your part.”
“Thank you. As you doubtless know, I specialize in making hoovers for household service, and I happen to think I produce a better line of servants than anyone else in New York.”
“Quite possibly in the country, Doctor. Your, er, Helen is the most humanlike hoover I’ve ever seen.”
“Thank you. I do strive to make hoovers who are better suited to domestic service than any others.”
At this point, Locke knew he ought to get to the questions he really needed to ask, about Bullivant’s death, but he couldn’t restrain himself.
“Er, I must ask you, Doctor, besides your own surgical skills, what is it that makes your Helen seem so humanlike?”
“Well, it happens that my patent has just been approved, so I can let you be the first lay person to know about it.
“Do you know, Mr. Locke, why hoovers almost always have that strange pallor to their skin?”
“Not really, no. I presume it’s due to the same effect that so often causes their hair and eyes to change color.”
“A good guess, and partly right, but the main problem is their blood.”
She went to a cabinet and took out a jar of red liquid that looked very much like blood. But that wasn’t right, hoover “blood” was the elixir vitae, which was a pale straw color. This was a vivid, rich blood red.
“The pigment of the skin provides part of human coloring, and the red color of the blood cells provides the rest. Aside from those two, the human body could easily be as transparent as a jellyfish.
“This is the type of elixir I infuse my hoovers with, and that is the secret of getting their coloring to come out so humanlike.”
“Most excellent, Doctor. But how do you get elixir to turn red?”
“I simply added a bit of ordinary cochineal dye to the elixir. It does no harm to the hoover, and lasts for months before the hoover needs an injection of a little more.”
“If it’s so simple, I wonder why no-one ever tried it before.”
“The obvious often escapes people – hadn’t you noticed?”
Having put Dr. Foster at her ease with flattery, Locke managed to get good answers out of her during the rest of the interview. Unfortunately, although she’d apprenticed under Bullivant, she hadn’t had much contact with him in recent years, and so couldn’t add much to what he already knew. She did say that they had last spoken about eight months ago, and he had mentioned that he had joined a new lodge called the Illuminati.
Locke left just before Dr. Foster’s first client was due to arrive. Dr. Brandreth had offered to meet him at 10:45, and Locke decided he could deviate from his routine by eating before eleven, just this once. On his way to Brandreth’s facility on Attorney Avenue, Locke stopped at a cafe on Ludlow and had a “lombrick” -- a segment of earthworm as thick as a half-dollar and as long as a man’s hand, on a bun.