Friday: Chapter Twelve
As Locke drifted off to sleep, he wondered idly whether he would be awakened, perhaps at sunrise, or allowed to sleep as long as he wanted. He definitely wasn’t expecting to be shaken awake while it was still dark, especially not by a stout Negress in a calico dress and kerchief who was holding a pepperbox revolver in her free hand.
“Mistuh Locke, you be comin’ with me,” the woman said brusquely.
“Get yourself dressed and hurry up about it, it ain’t safe here, and I ain’t talkin’ about your virtue.”
Locke said nothing, merely looked for his clothes and found them, freshly pressed, in a neatly-folded pile on a chair, his mustard-colored jacket hung on its back.
As he dressed, he gave the woman a glance, then another one.
“Good morning, Miss Tubman?”
The woman looked startled, then smiled.
“You ’member me from Seneca Village, do ya?”
Locke nodded. He had interviewed several of the inhabitants of Seneca Village just before the shantytown had been demolished to make way for the Central Farm. Mr. Day had refused to print the article, saying that the concerns of a few dozen Negroes would be of little interest to the city, and it would cast a pall over the preparations for the opening of the Central Farm. The article had eventually appeared in Freedom’s Journal under the name Calvin O’Doull.
“You’d be s’prised how many folks don’t know me, even after we’ve talked face to face a dozen times.”
“I presume you’re here on business? Your usual business, I mean?”
“What oughts to be everybody’s business. The hoovers hadn’t oughta be slaves, nor human folk neither -- an’ that includes you, at the moment, don’t it?”
Buttoning his shoes, Locke sighed.
“Well, I am not the master of my fate, nor even of where I am allowed to sleep -- or how long -- so I suppose I am in need of a, er, Liberationist, as I believe I have heard you called.”
“Don’t need to call it anything,” the woman said dismissively. “It’s just what I do, an’ I’ll keep doin’ it long as the Lord permits.”
Fully dressed and making sure he still had his things with him, including his notebook, Locke stepped out into the corridor. He was startled by an oblong box, its resemblance to a coffin accentuated by its hinged lid standing open.
“Please step inside, Mistuh Locke.”
“Oh, my,” he said with a sigh, noting it was leaning back on a hand truck.
“It’s just until we out of this neighborhood. Make yourself comfortable and I’ll let you out when it’s safe. By some ways o’ sayin’ safe, anyways.”
Locke ducked back into the room and took a small red cushion with golden tassels. He lay back in the cabinet, putting the cushion behind his head. Tubman latched Locke inside and tipped it back, rolling it forward down the hallway.
Locke steeled himself for the moment when Tubman was stopped by an employee of the house, or stumbled on her way through a doorway and sent the box flying. He pressed his hands against the sides as it bumped down a flight of stairs.
Another door opened, and Locke could feel cold night air, and heard the sounds of the city. A bumpy ride down more stairs, and then the box was being tipped onto the bed of a wagon and shoved inside. He heard the box being tied down with ropes, and then the wagon was in motion, being driven down the streets of Manhattan.
Locke tried to guess at where they were heading. They went a few blocks, then turned left. He could smell the vitalogically created water life which purified the waters of the East River, so he guessed they must be moving south along the waterfront. Perhaps she was taking him to one of the ferries that ran across the river to Williamsburg. As the ride continued, he wondered if it had really been as long as it seemed, or if he were exaggerating the time because of his uncomfortable and vulnerable position. Finally, though, the wagon came to a halt and Locke heard the ropes being untied.
Locke found himself in a windowless shed. His eyes were dazzled by the predawn light coming in through a half-open door.
“Where are we?”
“Jerusalem,” Tubman said gruffly, then relented. “We’re at Nechtanc Point. You’re going to make yourself look presentable and buy yourself a ticket on the ferry to Perth Amboy. You got a nickel?”
Locke searched his pockets for coins.
“I have a dollar, a quarter and some pennies.”
Tubman handed him a nickel.
“Pay the ‘zact fare, they give you less of a look.”
Locke brushed himself off, straightened his belt and tried to make his hair lie down by spitting in his palm and wiping it across his hair. Tubman produced a small comb of black bone and told Locke to keep it.
“I ain’t goin’ with you. I’d just attract attention to you. You get on that ferry, though, and a man with a long beard’ll meet you at the other end.”
“Are you quite sure I’ll recognize him?”
“Some folks call me Moses. This fellah, you’ll probably wanta call him Moses, but just in case there’s two like that, just ast him if’n he’s Mistuh Green.”
Locke left the shed and went around the block to find the ferry. It was a new vessel, gaily painted in yellow and red. A handsome brontopede stood inside a yellow and blue treadmill. At a signal from its hoover mahout, the brontopede began walking slowly forward, and the mechanism that drove the ferry’s paddlewheels began to churn the water. As the ferry got under way, the gearing of the treadmill shifted with a muted clatter, so that the resistance in the wheel increased, rather than forcing the brontopede to run faster.
Some people always insisted that ferries and even ships on the open sea would be better off drawn by kimmers based on whales. A charming and fanciful notion, but not a practical one, at least not until Vitalogy had progressed a good deal further -- and quite possibly not even then. After all, the largest flying kimmer had a wingspan of over ten yards, but still could not carry a single man of normal weight.
By the time the ferry pulled in at Perth Amboy it was full daylight. He spotted the one who had to be “Mister Green” instantly -- the man was either Moses, or God Himself. He sidled up alongside the man and was about to greet him in a whisper when the man turned and seized him by the arm, saying in a loud, carrying voice, “Thought you could slip past me, did you, Dick? You owe me ten dollars, you whoreson, and I’ll have it in silver if you haven’t the gold!”
Locke said nothing and allowed the man to hustle him down the dock and into a waiting cab. The man rapped twice on the inside roof and the hoover driver shook the reins over the lummox between the traces. After closing the curtain, he said, “Please permit me to introduce myself, Mr. Locke. My name is John Brown, and I have the honor of being Miss Tubman’s friend as well as her colleague.”
Locke shook his offered hand gladly.
“Miss Tubman is a good woman to have on one’s side, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Brown. Er, how much do you know about my situation?”
“I know that you were a captive of Mellonta Tauta, and that it was thought to be wise to retrieve you from their custody.”
Locke noticed the careful use of words.
“But you are not confident of my being an enemy of them?”
“What you are not, any longer, is their prisoner. What you are is a matter for later. For now, it is enough that we do not wish Mellonta Tauta to have any joy they might obtain from you. I will help convey you to a place of safety, where that hateful organization cannot reach you, after we have done that will be soon enough for us to determine whether you are a friend and an ally, or an enemy and a prisoner.
“And,” Brown added, anticipating Locke’s next question, “it is also not quite time for me to tell you where that place of safety is located.”
Locke put on an expression of intense concentration and nodded slowly, trying to mask his surprise and confusion.
“So, er, can you at least tell me of our most immediate destination?”
“We have a long ways to go, most of it by train, but I am afraid you will have to bear with this somewhat slower and less comfortable means of transportation for the moment.”
Once they were out in the countryside, Brown did at least allow the shades to be raised. Locke had lived on Manhattan for most of his life without ever setting foot on New Jersey soil, and had only seen the dismal towns of Hoboken and Bayonne from there. The farms and towns of northern New Jersey were a considerable surprise to him, although he had known on a vague sort of way that New Jersey was the city’s primary source of food after the Central Farm.
These farms had vitalogically-enhanced crops and animals, of course, but were still much more the sort of farm he had known as a child from his picture books. He smiled to see a pair of farmhands in blue denim overalls and straw hats driving cattle into a pasture, though his smile lessened when he realized that the cattle were giants, their true size disguised by the fact that the farmhands were themselves eight-foot hoovers.
After about an hour, Locke said, “Mister Brown, when I asked you about our most immediate destination--“
“We will ride until dark, I’m afraid. We have food for ourselves, and the hoover and the kimmer will not need food or water until then.”
“Well, you see, Mister Brown--“
“You will have to relieve yourself in transit, I’m afraid. We dare not make any unnecessary stops.”
Brown slid a growler from under his seat.
“Really, Mr., er, Brown? I need to...to evacuate my bowels.”
Locke turned beet red, embarrassed by how embarrassing he was finding the conversation, feeling as though he were a little boy asking permission to “go”.
“It can’t be helped.”
Brown shifted to the far side of the carriage, and stuck his nose out the window. He remained in that position even after Locke had emptied the growler out the window, into a rural ditch.
“This really is a lovely country,” Brown said softly. “I never had the chance to look at it before.”
In the space the growler had come from, Locke found a bottle of Dillamond’s Antimiasmic, and poured some of the blue liquid into the container. A fierce reek like ammonia rose, numbing Locke’s sense of smell, for which he was grateful.
After several minutes, Locke broke the silence, saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Brown. That was nastier than I’d expected.”
“What have those poltroons been feeding you, Locke, hoover jerky?”
“Please, don’t give them any ideas.”
“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right about that.”
This led to a conversation in which Locke related what Gall had shown him, both in the Quisqueya scrapbook and in Building 101. Brown shook his head sadly a number of times, but when Locke described the dissected bodies being finally allowed to die when reduced to little more than heart, lungs and brain, Brown slammed his fist against the wall of the carriage, making the entire structure rattle.
In Brown’s voice, the phrase became more than invective. It was a curse in the truest sense of the word, as might have been pronounced by a Biblical prophet, and which might have been in those days expected to reduce its targets to blackened and shrivelled husks.
“We must put an end to this despicable institution.”
“You don’t just mean Mellonta Tauta, do you? You mean slavery itself.”
“Yes. Human slaves should be set free to live as human beings, as American citizens.”
“Not sent back to Africa?”
“Once they are free, they may go where they wish, of course.”
“But what of hoovers. Are we to make them Americans as well?”
“As to that, I am not sure. But then, what the so-called ouvriers do is up to them, once they are free.”
“If it is not possible for free Negroes to live among whites, they can go to Africa, or to the Caribbean, but in what country might free hoovers assert their munity?”
Now Brown smiled.
“In the Republic of Kanawha.”
The name sounded vaguely familiar.
“And where is that, Sir?”
“In the mountains of northwestern Virginia, where humans are few and mostly sympathetic, Kanawha exists as an invisible nation.
“Free hoovers live in townships, mobile bands what set up camp in a place for as long’s it’s safe, and move on when it is safe no longer. A township holds between four dozen and twelve dozen -- more, and they split up. Fewer, and they merge with another.”
“So then, you speak of maroon colonies, as in Florida and Jamaica.”
“Yes. Hoovers can live on the mountaintops, where humans have never managed to survive for long. Remoteness and mobility allows them to live unmolested.”
“Yes, I see. Old Frankenstein was afraid of escaped hoovers doing just that. It makes perfect sense.”
“But those townships are more than just places of refuge: hoovers are at work there on projects for the betterment of their own race, and humanity, too.”
“Such as...studying the elixir vitae which animates a certain hoover who dislikes the term?”
“So, you have heard the tale of the one they call the Whistler?”
“I have met Mr. John Greenleaf Whittier, Sir.”
Brown’s eyes widened.
“Locke, it’s a very fortunate thing for us that you are no longer in the hands of Mellonta Tauta.”
Locke looked offended.
“I wouldn’t have told them anything.”
“Oh, Mister Locke, they have ways of making you talk.”
Locke shuddered, and shrank a bit.
When night fell, they stopped at a farmhouse just outside of a small town. The hoover knocked at the door, and after exchanging a few words with the person who answered it, led the carriage into the barn. While the hoover tended to the lummox, Brown introduced Locke to their host, Mrs. Eulalie Carnacki. There was nothing about Mrs. Carnacki or her house to indicate she was a member of a nationwide underground network engaged in highly controversial, to say nothing of illegal, activities. This group, whose name Locke didn’t even know, and Mellonta Tauta, which he wished he could forget -- how many such groups existed, Locke wondered? How many had done their work and then vanished, never known to history? It was a disturbing thought.
After a bath and supper, Locke fell gratefully into bed next to Brown. It had been awhile since he’d had to share his bed, especially with a stranger, but he was grateful to have a bed at all, and a chance to sleep among people who, if not friends, were at least well-intended.
“Sleep well, Mr. Locke. In the morning, we will go into town to catch a train that will take us to Pittsburgh.”
“Are we in Pennsylvania already?” Locke asked.
“No, we’re in the middle of New Jersey, a town called Grover’s Mill.”