By John M. Burt
The Osiris Club was housed in a three-storey building with a façade that seemed almost Classical, but not quite. It took up the entire block of Elm Street between Franklin and White, with a splendid view of the Collect Pond and the park on its other side.
Above the building’s entrance was a nude statue of a woman, down on one knee, feathered wings hanging down from her outspread arms. She wore a crown which supported a large disk.
Locke pointed at the statue.
“I suppose that is Osiris?”
“Quite possibly half the people who pass here suppose so, but Osiris was male. That is Isis, his wife. When he was dismembered, she reassembled his parts and resurrected him. You can see, perhaps, why we thought it was an appropriate reference.”
Carradine led the way up the stairs, where he knocked at the door in an odd pattern: one rap, a brief pause, four quick raps, a long pause, and then two raps a bit more widely spaced. It was evidently the correct knock, because a tiny hatch at eye level opened, just big enough that Locke could see an eye and part of a nose.
“Carradine, and an honorary member.”
The hatch slammed shut and the door opened immediately. A man in slightly old-fashioned evening dress bowed them inside and closed the door just as quickly.
To Locke’s surprise, they were in a tiny chamber, hardly bigger than a closet. The man who had opened the door then knocked at a door opposite to the first one, using a different pattern: four quick raps, a short pause, then two. The inner door was opened without any check, and they were passed through to another man in a similar outfit. Carradine leaned forward and whispered something into the man’s ear. The man gave a sharp little nod and looked at Locke.
“Do you ask that this person be admitted as an honorary member?”
“I do. I, Horatio Carradine, member, pledge that Richard Adams Locke will tonight conduct himself as a member ought.”
The man gave that same sharp nod and then took a step back to position himself with his back to the door.
“That’s quite the procedure,” Locke said softly as they walked into a large parlor. “I feel as though I have joined a secret society.”
“It might seem a bit much, but it’s not just for show,” Carradine replied, also sotto voce. “Some of our number are wealthy enough to make kidnapping a matter worthy of consideration. And there have been times when vitalogists were not held in such high regard as they are in America in the 19th Century.”
Beyond the portal, they entered a large common room, a fireplace at one end and a spinet at the other, couches and chairs distributed around the room. Several men sat reading, and a dozen or so stood in small groups. Four gathered around a man in a dark yellow suit, with a red satin stole draped over his shoulders. The stole supported a large triangular pendant that gleamed on his chest.
Locke indicated the man with his eyes.
“That’s L’Espanaye, the President of the Club -- the Horus, as we call him.”
“He looks as though he’s ready to carry out an altar sacrifice.”
Carradine rolled his eyes and chuckled.
“Oh, no, Locke, when we conduct our blood sacrifices, we wear white aprons – and we come here to get away from all that.”
A hoover in a spruce outfit approached Carradine.
“Doctor Carradine,” the creature said softly, “La Violeta is ready for you.”
Carradine nodded and when the hoover turned, he followed, and indicated Locke should, also.
The hoover led them up a narrow flight of stairs to a corridor, and opened a door halfway down. He let Carradine and Locke into a room with purple flocked wallpaper where a table was laid with a purple cloth.
Straight-backed chairs upholstered in purple velvet were arranged around the oblong table. A chalkboard took up most of the wall behind the head of the table, marked with the names of the party:
Five circles of paper lay in front of five seats, each symbolic plate lettered with the name of a guest. Locke saw that the calligraphy of his own name was as tidy as anyone else’s. Each place also had a glass fingerbowl, empty and upside-down. Locke had heard that the fashion among the upper middle class was to distribute sterilized flatware in brown paper parcels, but there were only small rings of paper printed SANITIZED around the linen napkins.
Carradine introduced Locke to each of the other diners: Moritz was a tall and slender old man, with a youthful glow to his face that contrasted with his white hair and beard. Hallmeier was as fat as a butcher, and had a butcher’s black moustache as well. While Locke was shaking Hallmeier’s hand, young Jekyll (the name turned out to be pronounced “Jee-kull”) arrived.
Jekyll was surprisingly young, thin and blond, with a British accent. He barely looked old enough to have finished school, but he evidently had made his mark on the field already, judging by the liberties the older vitalogists allowed him. Hallmeier was in something of a state, having just heard that a fellow member of the club had attended a lecture by the Abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who proposed to free not only the Negroes still held as slaves in parts of the South, but also the hoovers. Jekyll actually chuckled at how worked up Hallmeier was at the very idea, the very suggestion . . . .
The waiters, all exquisitely-constructed hoovers made for domestic service, moved in with silent efficiency. Their limbs and their faces were as symmetrical and handsome as careful selection and skillful surgery could make them, their livery of pea-soup baize and gloves of ivory latex quite tasteful and up-to-date. They righted the fingerbowls and filling them with distilled water. They unwrapped the linen napkins and unfolded them. They pulled out the chairs for the guests and seated them.
One of the hoovers picked up a piece of chalk and wrote
The soup tureen was silver, made to resemble a sea turtle’s shell, and full of well more than five plates’ worth of soup. The broad shallow plates were set before the diners as the tureen moved around the table clockwise, while a wine hoover went widdershins with a bottle, pouring brilliant red wine into glasses. Last of all, a hoover pulled soup spoons from a small sterilizer and distributed them.
Locke happened to be very fond of turtle soup. Indeed, he sometimes spent weekends in a cottage on Manhattan’s Turtle Bay and watched the fishermen bringing in their catch.
As soon as the soup was distributed, the waiters peeled off their latex gloves and put on fresh ones.
“It’s ridiculous to suggest that hoovers are people in any meaningful sense,” Carradine said impatiently, gesturing at the hoover who was gathering used gloves in a bucket from the other servers.
“They’re not even really alive.”
“Nonsense,” Moritz retorted. “They move, they breathe, they eat.”
“But they don’t grow or mature. They heal poorly if at all, they learn indifferently at anything more than the most basic tasks . . .”
Carradine grinned, certain he could end the discussion with a single crushing point.
“And they certainly don’t reproduce themselves.”
“Are you quite sure? Most hoover makers have hoover assistants, and it’s quite possible that a clever hoover -- especially one made with the brain and hands of a surgeon -- might be able to build hoovers on its own.”
Locke allowed a hoover to take away his soup plate from his left, while another reached in from his right to place before him a dish of thumb-sized shrimp and a tiny bowl of red sauce.
Locke found the “ataraxic” sauce so peppery that he consumed quite a lot of the water and rolls provided.
Young Jekyll raised an eyebrow.
“I think hoovers are on the border between living and unliving, and proof that there is nothing inherently unique about life as opposed to unlife.
“But whether they are alive or not has little bearing on whether we should treat them as people.”
Carradine twitched his lip.
“What sort of word games are you playing at, Jekyll?”
“I’m saying quite simply that when a rational being asks you for bread, or for his freedom, or simply for mercy, the first question should not be directed to whether he is charged with some sort of vital force, but whether he thinks and feels and suffers and desires. And since hoovers undeniably do all these things –”
“To some extent,” Hallmeier interjected sullenly.
Hoovers were clearing away the appetizer and distributing a ham salad whose “eutectic” dressing seemed to contain quite a lot of molasses and more than a little bacon.
“Since hoovers can be shown to do all of these things,” Jekyll persisted, “and since no-one has ever demonstrated even the existence of any vital force, any more than anyone has trapped and measured a soul, I think that any discussion of what is life and what is unlife is irrelevant and useless.”
The men around the table all looked aghast, as though he had firmly declared some blasphemous heresy.
“For God’s sake, Jekyll,” Carradine complained, “if you deny the existence of the vital force, can you even call yourself a vitalogist?”
“Perhaps we need to find a new name for the field, as we relinquished the name astrology in favor of the humbler astronomy.
“I recently read an article by an alienist who said that as we cannot view the processes of the mind directly, but only observe a person’s behavior, that the field should not be called psychology but merely activology.”
Hallmeier had endured enough. Now he pounced.
“There, you see? Just as a vulgar behaviorism is corrupting psychology, this mechanistic attitude of yours will debauch vitalogy. Bad enough that the behaviorist denies the existence of the mind, let alone the soul, but now you would deny the existence of life itself.”
He rose, red-faced, to his feet.
“You, Jekyll, are not merely misguided, you are poisonous! You say that you are too humble to distinguish between Life and Unlife, but your true doctrine is an arrogant Anti-Life!”
He stood in trembling, red-faced silence, then composed himself and said quietly, “I will leave you to the company of those who are fool enough to allow you to pollute their minds with your mechanistic, mathematical anti-life equations.”
Hallmeier turned and left the room, almost colliding with the hoovers who were just then wheeling in the main course under a huge domed cover.
The hoovers ignored Hallmeier’s exit, of course. One efficiently removed the cover, another began to carve, a third wrote on the chalkboard.
“Cuy Brava” proved to be a guinea pig which under vitalogical tutelage had grown to the size of a lamb. It was crusted in corn meal and surrounded by potatoes, and had a stuffed bell pepper in its mouth.
“Actually,” Jekyll said, breaking the silence in a calm voice, “the fact that every phenomenon in the universe, including life, follows the same natural laws and can be described in clear mathematics, is one of the comforts and consolations of my life. It gives me great pleasure to see for myself that Galileo was right to say mathematics is the alphabet in which God has written the universe. I don’t understand why Hallmeier thinks it is some sort of insult to God, or perhaps to Man, that we have a language in common.”
After that there was a long silence until Carradine cleared his throat.
“Well, Gentlemen, I do not agree with everything Jekyll says, but I also do not agree with Hallmeier’s, er, violent rejection, either. I would prefer that we continue this discussion at, er, a later occasion.”
The hoovers served cuts of cuy brava and poured white wine. The guests ate in silence, allowing Locke to discover that guinea pig did not taste like pork at all, nor like chicken or beef. It was its own flavor, and Locke hoped he would get another chance to eat it.
After a long period of quiet eating, Carradine sighed and said, “So, gentlemen, have you seen Joel Barlow’s latest dispatch on the war in Texas?”
He pulled a newspaper page from an inside jacket pocket.
Locke didn’t really hear most of what Carradine was reading. He found the war news incomprehensible with its minute descriptions of battle tactics, and he hated even worse conversation about the war, with endless wrangling over whether the Texians were honorable men fighting for their rights against a tyrannical regime, or cynical proxies for the imperial ambitions of business interests in the United States. For his own part, Locke thought they could easily be both, and plenty more besides -- a country was a complicated thing, after all. For that matter so was a single man.
As the guests began chewing over the Texas news, however, Locke realized that the war was of interest to vitalogists mainly because of the large role hoovers and other products of modern vitalogy were playing in the war. The Texians were fielding huge levees of hoovers from their plantations and factories. Armed with pikes, the hoovers died in droves but were proving effective against the Mexican army.
The latest news was that Texians had gathered the bodies of hoovers and dead Mexicans in a makeshift laboratorium inside an old mission house in San Antonio, to be reanimated as quickly as possible and sent back into the field. When the building was surrounded by Mexicans, they held out for a number of days, repairing their hoovers again and again from the stores they had there and from the bodies of their own dead comrades.
When the mission finally fell, the last hoovers and humans were shot, and all of their bodies, along with their stores of limbs and organs, were piled up together and burned, supposedly to prevent the Texians from using any of them again, but the Texians were calling it an unChristian desecration of human remains, intended to break Texian morale. Instead, it seemed to have inspired them to a new fury, and the mission house’s name had become a rallying cry.
“This is the first truly modern war,” Carradine said when he had finished reading, with the air of the consummate armchair general. “Napoleon never had more than a handful of hoovers in his armies, von Blucher had fewer, and Wellington I think none at all. Now, the Texians have thousands of hoovers. The Mexicans are slaughtering them in droves, but the Texians are willing to sacrifice ten hoovers for one Mexican killed. So long as they have hoovers, they’ll only lose an occasional human officer.”
The fruit course following dessert sounded absurdly rustic, but the huckleberries were grape-sized and exquisitely flavorful, and the acorns were Chapmans, soft and sweet.
Jekyll indicated his agreement with Carradine’s pontificating but added, “It won’t really be a modern war until both sides have hoover armies. Mexico is backward in that regard, at present. Now, when both sides are fielding hoovers, things will really get interesting. Whoever holds the field after a battle will glean corpses and parts and haul them off to be made into new hoovers. The occasional human or mule killed will just be more material for them.”
Carradine burst out, “Good Christ, man!”, but Moritz indicated he agreed with Jekyll.
“Mexicans have what I can only call a deeply superstitious fascination with death,” Moritz said. “Their art is decorated with skulls and skeletons, even in their churches. They have a holiday in the fall, dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead! It’s like that thing they do in Ireland, All Hallows Even, only a hundred times more gruesome and morbid. They feed their kids little skulls made from sugar – with the children’s own names on them!
“I tell you, when Mexico finally has as many hoovers as we do, God only knows how they will fit them into their culture, but it will be...interesting.”
The guests took demitasse standing. The coffee service was more elaborate than Locke had previously seen.
After a moment’s hesitation, he chose merely sugar and light chocolate in his own. The hoover who mixed his cup handed it to him saying softly, “Café mocha.”
After tossing off a small but potent cup (black coffee with a dollop of essence), Moritz asked one of the waiters whether “the play” had begun. When the hoover replied that the curtain would rise in a quarter hour, Moritz asked the others if they were of a mind to join him. Carradine said he would, and urged Locke to go also. On being told the performance was the Mangiafuoco Company’s production of Sir Walter Scott’s new play, The Sword of Parmagon, Locke agreed readily.
The hoovers cleared away the remnants of the demitasse service. The last to leave the room carried the bin which had received the many pairs of gloves used in distributing the courses. It was full to overflowing.
The clubhouse had a large theatre toward the rear, where business meetings and club ceremonies were held, but which mainly served, Carradine explained, for the staging of plays in the evenings. Many vitalogists, especially those with no dependents, preferred to take their light entertainment on the club’s premises. Professional theatrical troupes often performed at gentlemen’s clubs after ending a Broadway run and before departing on tour.
The fungus lights along the walls began to fade, a signal that the play was about to begin. As the dimming propagated along the walls, the light-producing fungal bodies reducing their light as their neighbors did, Locke thought of the author’s sad condition.
The legendary Sir Walter Scott had suffered a stroke, and all efforts of modern medicine had so far proven unable to restore his limbs to motion or his mind to clarity. He dictated all of his work now to a hoover stenographer.
The program said there would be vignettes between acts, but hadn’t said what they were. Once, these had always been either a slapstick routine or a popular song, but these days the fashion was for tiny dramas, such as the tearful end of a romance or the rescue of a kidnapped child.
A spotlight came on, throwing a bright circle of light onto the curtain. This was no fungus light, but the far stronger light generated by beetles from...Locke thought it was Jamaica...and concentrated by mirrors. An actor in clumsy makeup intended to make him look like a hoover came on, wheeling a man in a blood-stained smock on a hand truck. The “hoover” announced haltingly that the audience would be treated to a lecture on cancer treatment by “Dr. Lackobreath”, and gestured broadly toward the other actor, who had been placed in the center of the spotlight.
The “doctor” proceeded to mime a silent lecture for almost a minute before the hoover, shaking his head sadly, took hold of the hand truck and wheeled “Dr. Lackobreath” off the stage, still pretending to speak.
Locke found this vignette incomprehensible, but the rest of the audience found it hilarious. Then the spotlight went out and the curtains parted for the play proper. More beetle-lights came on, illuminating the stage.
At the end of Act One, Locke considered the circumstances under which the play had been written. Sir Walter’s narrations to his stenographer were rambling and disjointed. Scott’s amanuensis worked over the hoover’s notes, extracting a turn of phrase here and a subplot there, fitting them together into serviceable tales that still entertained, although sometimes the joins were noticeable.
Locke smiled sadly at the thought that Scott’s writing was now a thing of patchwork assembly, like a hoover.
The mock hoover wheeled out the mock doctor in front of the curtain again, but “Dr. Lackobreath” still lacked breath, and after a minute or so of pretended speech, he was wheeled off stage again. The curtains then parted to reveal a shallow stage space formed by a screen painted with the image of a hoover maker’s surgery. A woman lay upon a table, her body covered by a sheet. The foot of the table was toward the audience, the whole affair tilted slightly so that the length of her body was visible. The sheet was thin enough that her erect nipples were quite noticeable, and it appeared she was entirely nude underneath. Her bare exposed feet were restrained by leather straps, and small movements she made indicated that the rest of her was bound as well. A vitalogist in a white tunic stood by, setting up bottles and tubes for some sort of infusion.
The woman spoke in a faint, tremulous voice.
“Doctor, this . . . procedure. It will truly preserve my, er, my appearance?”
The vitalogists nodded authoritatively.
“Absolutely. Your beauty will survive, intact, through many years of use. You may well be passed from father to son.”
The woman giggled momentarily.
“I, who have never . . . .”
Locke smiled sourly. Dramatists were allowed to wink and hint at terrible things, but when you got right down to it the ladies were always chaste, the heroes were equally prim, and the villains were always foiled before they had the chance to carry out their wicked intentions. Doubtless this woman would be virginal and unharmed in all other ways at the end of the scene.
The actor portraying the vitalogist pretended to attach tubes to the woman: one dangled from a hanging carboy of some pinkish liquid, to feed into a needle in the woman’s right arm. The woman winced convincingly as the vitalogist pretended to insert the needle. Then he went around to the other side and “inserted” another needle for a tube which went to an empty carboy on the floor.
Bubbles began to rise in the hanging bottle and the level of the pinkish liquid slowly fell, while dark red “blood” drained into the other carboy.
The woman moaned.
“Ohhh, my arm is burning.”
“Yes,” the vitalogist said briskly, palpating her arm, “that means it’s doing its work. That sensation will spread throughout your body.”
“Yes, it’s spreading across my chest now. It’s terribly painful, it hurts more than anything I’ve ever felt.”
Yet as she complained, she still spoke in a distant, soft, almost dreamlike tone, and her face remained calm.
“You will feel that burning all over your body as it perfuses your tissues, and then all sensation will begin to fade as your body becomes fully preserved.”
“Like this . . . all over my body? I’m not sure I can bear that.”
“Oh, but you must, otherwise this will all have been in vain.”
“But . . . couldn’t you stop it? Let me live?”
“No. If I took out the needle now, you would still die, just more slowly and painfully, and your preservation would be spoiled.”
Locke was startled by this. How was the woman to be rescued at the end? With an infusion of some miraculous antidote, perhaps.
“Oh, Lord. In that case, can’t you . . . dispatch me now, to end the pain?”
“Again, no. I need your heart to pump the fluid to every corner of your body, or else you won’t be properly preserved.”
The bottle was already more than half empty.
“Then I must simply lie here. And suffer. And die.”
“And be preserved forever, your beauty never to fade.”
“Never to grow old.”
“Never. You will be spared that terrible decay.”
“Yes. This is what I wanted. Thank you, Doctor.”
And all was silence, broken only by a low moan of pain, as the last of the fluid drained into the girl’s body, and the receptacle filled with her blood. Locke noticed that the last blood in the tube was pale pink rather than red, presumably mixed with the circulating conservant.
The vitalogist (evidently also a thanatologist) listened at the woman’s chest with a stethoscope. The audience heard a slow drumbeat that slowed still further and finally stopped. He unmanacled the woman’s right wrist and raised her hand, allowing the audience to see her bare arm. He flexed her joints and squeezed the muscles exactly as though she were a mere object, a life-sized doll. He nodded in satisfaction as the curtain fell.
Locke sat back, stunned. The woman -- the character the actress had played, that is -- had died, died a horrible death while the audience sat and watched. There had been no rescue, no reprieve. She had simply suffered the death she had solicited. The doctor had not been stopped, had carried out his monstrous plan, and presumably now would be selling the mannequin he had created to some wealthy degenerate, and would not be punished.
That was not how drama was supposed to work. There were rules, damn it! Locke could hardly have been more shocked if the vitalogists had actually killed a woman on their stage.
The curtain rose and the screen and table were gone, the stage dressed for the play’s resumption.
Locke almost didn’t want to see what the interval after the second act would be. What sort of nightmarish scenario would he witness this time? But in fact, it was merely a comic song, which he realized toward the end of the first verse was a satire of Dr. Ponnonner’s experiments with his mummy. The singer, in a dusty lab smock, sang of “my mummy” as though it were a lady whom he was courting, with the hoped-for resurrection standing in for “mummy” yielding to his suit.
Thus I found her one day, simply crumbling away
And wiped with care her resinous tears . . . .
The song was bizarre, but nothing like as shocking as the vignette of embalming.
After the final act, which received what Locke thought was rather brief and unenthusiastic applause, and which made no curtain call, “Dr. Lackobreath” was brought out for a “question and answer session”. A man at the far end of the front row stood up and was recognized, and mouthed a silent “question”.
Surprised by this turn of events, Locke finally laughed. Meanwhile, the audience was just as delighted as before when the “doctor” made a silent reply, at which the silent questioner nodded, seeming quite satisfied, and sat down.