OTHER TIMES, OTHER PLACES
At a cemetery on the outskirts of London,
on a bright chilly October afternoon in 1888, a funeral cortege pulls up.
The casket is taken from the splendid hearse, and carried with pomp to the graveside by pallbearers in black-ribboned top
hats. Mourners file in respectfully through the iron gates, making their way across the grass between the obelisks and statuary,
like so many black chess pieces moving between white ones.
The deceased was well-known, his mourners are many, and the young couple in elegantly-cut black go quite unnoticed where they stand
to the rear of the crowd, though in his high silk hat the young man is quite the tallest person there.
The Reverend Mr. Gideon, glancing up in the midst of reading the office for the burial of the dead, does wonder for a second
at the expression of icy triumph in the face of the young man, who is contemplating a group of wheezing elderly gentlemen;
but the Reverend Mr. Gideon has been at his business long enough to know that a lot of bizarre emotions break loose at funerals,
and he goes right on reading without missing a beat.
The deceased is laid to rest, and one by one the mourners file by the grave, some of them stooping to toss in a handful of earth
as they pass. The young couple are the last to observe this ritual, and the waiting sexton and his assistant fail to notice that,
while the young lady tosses in her handful of earth, the young gentleman tosses in what appears to be a small bottle of gold paint,
which falls between the casket and the grave-wall, out of sight. It isnít gold paint. It is about a teaspoonís worth of nanobots
designed to unleash extreme vengeance on Dr. Zeus Incorporated, on that distant day in 2355 when the world ends. Just now, however,
it is completely harmless.
On their way to the gate, the young couple draw abreast of one of the elderly gentlemen, who is making his laborious way
along with a cane. He trips on a marble urn, stumbles, is about to fall when the young man catches his elbow and sets him upright.
The old gentleman peers up into his face, scowling in an attempt to make it out. His jaw drops.
"Good God," he says hoarsely. "Bell-Fairfax!"
"I regret to inform you that you are mistaken, sir," says the young gentleman, smiling with formidable teeth. Eyes brightening
as an afterthought occurs to him, he adds: "Merely his bastard. Good afternoon!" He tips his silk hat, turns on his heel and walks away
swiftly to rejoin his young lady.
The old man gasps, his eyes roll back in his head, he pitches forward into somebody else's memorial wreath; and the daughters
and elderly wife who come running back to his assistance, crying out "Papa!" and "Ambrose!" wonder, in their consternation, why the
tall man is laughing as he strides on.
In a dance club in a cellar in Swinging London of the 1960s,
one young couple seems to be having less fun than their peer group. Perhaps they find their polyester and vinyl clothes ugly and uncomfortable.
Perhaps the very tall youth objects to having to duck continually to avoid hitting his head on the beams of the low ceiling. Perhaps the girl
is mortified by her appearance in the makeup of the era. Perhaps they find the atmosphere of packed mortal bodies, also wearing polyester clothing
in the stifling heat, oppressive; and perhaps they find the popular dances clumsy and graceless. The music is sublime, however, and so presently
they retire from the dance floor and find a quiet uncrowded corner, where they sit and listen appreciatively.
The reason their particular corner is uncrowded is because the wall behind it is broken out for some sort of electrical work in progress, and plasterboard,
earth and trailing wires are only carelessly fenced off with a sawhorse. And as the music throbs, as the dancers bounce and twist and shake their heads,
as the colored lights whirl in blobby patterns, the youth leans back casually and pokes something small into a dark recess between two bricks. Even in
the pandemonium, he can hear something rattling down inside the wall, and smiles at the girl.
As he leans back, however, something trailing a thin curl of smoke is thrust under his nose. He looks up, startled, at a person of uncertain gender
in beaded and fringed clothes, who murmurs something inaudible, but whose expression of all-embracing affection makes it clear an invitation is being offered.
He signs confusion. The person tucks the little twisted cigarette between his lips. Not wishing to be impolite, he takes it between his thumb and forefinger and inhales
The girl is distracted from her wistful contemplation of the bar by his snorting coughs, and though she turns instantly
the purveyor of peace and love has drifted off to offer it to others, and the youth's pupils have expanded to alarming size.
In response to her frantically signed question he mouths the word GANJA, and she rolls her eyes. Getting one arm around him,
she helps him to his feet and they leave. He hits his head on the beams four times before they manage to reach the exit.
Venice, bride of the sea! And though the Bridge of Sighs,
the golden Rialto and St. Mark's glimmer in the ripple-reflections as enticingly as they ever have in this year of 1797, and though the pigeons flutter in
clouds and cast their shadows as beautifully as ever on the paving stones of the square, the tourist trade is down, thanks to that annoying little man from
Corsica zooming about being the wonder of the martial world, and the fact that he has bestowed on the Venetians a brand-new constitution of their very own
doesn't quite make up for it.
There are practically no British tourists there at all. This suits the hoteliers and cooks just fine, grazie, because
the British complain ceaselessly about Venetian cuisine and notions of plumbing; but the gondolieri are feeling the pinch,
because Britons love gondola rides. So Vittorio murmurs a prayer of thanks as the tall Englishman and the young lady engage
his services, and poles out enthusiastically along the rank canals between the houses, and into the wider places where it
isn't quite so obvious that people have been emptying their chamberpots into the canal, or indeed simply thrusting their
bottoms out the windows for convenience. In his energetic haste he scarcely notices the Englishman dropping a small object
over the side of the gondola. People drop so many things into the waters of Venice.
And the fresh wind off the lagoon does the trick, because the Englishman and his lady are clearly not put off by the sights,
sounds or smells. Indeed, they grow quite actively romantic as the gondola rocks along, and Vittorio watches with one appreciative
eye as he bawls out a love-ballad in the time-honored gondolier tradition. So amorous do they become, in fact, that Vittorio begins
calling attention to their activity in a particularly amusing way he has devised: improvising new ballad lyrics in idiomatic Venetian
for the benefit of his fellow gondolieri and shouting them loud enough to be heard across the water. He doesn't look back at his passengers
as he describes the lady's attributes and the gentleman's amazing flexibility. Poling along, he begins to notice that his fellow gondolieri
are giggling and making cautionary signs to him.
He turns on a downstroke and goes cold all over to observe the expression with which the Englishman and his lady,
now sitting up, are regarding him.
Meekly he poles back to the landing and ties up his gondola. Glaring at him, the Englishman steps out and extends
his hand to the lady, who leaps up gracefully despite her billowing skirts; and as she passes Vittorio she advises him,
in flawless idiomatic Venetian and no uncertain terms, just exactly what he can do with his pole.
They don't tip.
Egypt in 2213 is just beginning to recover from a nasty war and horrifying air pollution. It needs tourist income as badly
as it ever has, and the bright animated brochures put out by the Tourism Bureau contrast the eternal pyramids, lit as though from within by their own ancient red light, towering above the modern metropolis of West Bank Cairo,
where little electric cars in every color of the rainbow zip through the wide clean streets. In fact the pyramids are shown from every possible angle except any likely to feature the Sphinx, which for the last sixty years
has had no head, due to an embarrassing incident involving a miscommunication between the presidential palace and the Egyptian Air Force.
But the resourceful itinerants who make their living from the romance of Egypt have worked around this problem: they have simply programmed their cameras
to provide the missing features in any shot taken of the unfortunate monument, which fact they scream helpfully at all persons arriving at the river taxi
dock in front of the Cairo Sheraton.
They're not sure what to make of the young couple in tailored white linen who arrive from Alexandria via some sort of hovercraft, but they do their best to sell
them portraits taken with the Sphinx in the background, portraits taken with the Pyramids in the background, portraits taken with donkeys, portraits taken with camels,
portraits taken with cutout figures of world leaders. The tall man strides through them, towing the fascinated young lady after him, and he waves them away with a firm
and practiced hand. He glances up occasionally at the hawk that circles above him, far against the blazing sun. He will not buy beads, he will not buy carpets, he will
not buy brass or copper; he will not even buy tequila, which is going at bargain rates since the Greenest-of-the-Green Party cut the subsidies to Upper Nile farmers of
blue agave in their continuing efforts to impose Prohibition.
All the young couple wish to buy, it seems, is a Pyramid Pizza. They make for the nearest branch of the nationwide chain, spotting from afar its giant winged pizza-disc logo,
and after ordering at the window they take seats on the outdoor terrace overlooking the Nile. It's a pleasant place to sit. The terrace is shaded at present by a photoreactive
transparent canopy, and will one day be shaded in a rather more natural way, for it is in the process of being landscaped. Palm trees are being planted along the edge of the
terrace even as the young couple are brought their iced tea. While they wait for their pizza, the young lady strikes up a conversation with the elderly gardener, who is setting
a baby tree in the deep hole that has been dug for it.
He's astonished to discover how well she speaks the dialect of his village, and how much she knows on the subject of date palms. They engage in a lengthy conversation
that ends only when the project foreman stalks up, demanding impatiently that the gardener finish planting the damned palm.
The young couple excuse themselves and finish their pizza. The old gardener goes back to shoveling earth around the roots of the little palm. He does not note the
flash of gold in the bottom of the hole, visible there for a split-second before his next shovelful buries it. He finishes planting the palm and says a quiet prayer,
hoping the new tree will thrive, as the young couple tidy up their table and leave.
His prayer will in fact be answered. The palm he has just planted will thrive, will grow to gigantic size and venerable age, to such an extent that tourists in
the year 2355 A.D. will still be pointing it out as a city landmark...
Portland, Oregon, its gray heart beating forever along two
great river arteries running to the North Pacific. Its Old Town is gritty and civilized in the midst of improbable forest. Autumn is already as cold as death when
the river fog rolls in, and drifts of oak leaves bury the sidewalks, bright as fire, red as blood.
Along the waterfront, not far from the Maritime Museum, there is a fine restored business block with a view of the Willamette, and there a certain legal firm
has its offices. In this year of 2023, the name is Dowling, Dowling and Spratt. Over the decades its name will change, but not its location or its purpose. It is
and will always be an unadventurous, reliable establishment.
So the elder Mr. Dowling doesn't think much of the business laid out before him by the cold-eyed young Briton in the impeccably cut three-piece suit. It's
the sort of silly idea that inevitably leads to problems for estate claimants years down the line. The young man, however, seems grimly serious about it. He is
willing to pay the hefty fee Mr. Dowling quotes him for the service he has requested. After all, no funds are involved: merely the delivery of a certain item
to a certain address on a certain date in the future.
Mr. Dowling would feel better about it, all the same, if he knew what the item was, without necessarily knowing all particulars. His client decides this
request is reasonable. Has Mr. Dowling two envelopes of differing sizes?
Mr. Dowling has. He reaches into a desk drawer and produces a plain white letter envelope and a larger manila one. He watches as his client withdraws an
antique silver card case from an inner breast pocket, and extracts what appears to be an ordinary ivory-colored business card. Has Mr. Dowling a pen?
Mr. Dowling offers his own Montblanc. The young man takes it and writes on the card, "I will be with you on your wedding night," With the compliments
of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax. As he writes, Mr. Dowling notes the antique brass cufflinks he wears: very nice fouled anchor design, with a matching pin worn
in his fine silk tie. The Englishman places the card in the white envelope and seals it. He writes a name on the white envelope, places it inside the manila one,
and seals that. Finally he writes a date on the manila envelope. He offers it to Mr. Dowling, who takes it and looks at the date. 9 July, 2355. Beautiful copperplate
hand, at least. He shakes his head, but when the young man returns the card case to his pocket and pulls out a debit card, Mr. Dowling is all respectful attention.
A considerable amount of money is transferred into the account of Dowling, Dowling and Spratt. As soon as the transaction has cleared, the young man stands,
towering over him, and leans forward to shake Mr. Dowling's hand. With mutual cordialities they go to the door, beyond which the young man's lady friend is patiently
waiting, sipping a cafť latte. She rises with a smile. They depart.
Mr. Dowling returns to his desk and, staring down at the envelope, shakes his head again. What an absurdly easy way to earn a month's income! But a client
is a client, and Mr. Dowling has every intention of seeing to it that this particular client's wishes are honored, so far as it is in his power. He and both his
associates, as well as every person in his employ, will be long dead by the delivery date specified on the manila envelope. Nevertheless, he pulls out his keyboard
and sets up a file with detailed and specific instructions. He scans the exterior of the envelope, and enters its image in the file. He saves and closes.
Having done that, he takes the envelope itself and locks it in his firm's safe.
On his way back to his desk, he pauses at his window. The young couple are still out on the waterfront promenade, walking arm in arm. They are smiling,
laughing at some private joke. Watching them, Mr. Dowling cannot say why he feels a shiver of apprehension, cold as death; but he does, and as they walk away
together a gust of wind sends oak leaves dancing eerily about them, bright as fire, red as blood.
A s a rule, if one walked along the beach at Monterey in
autumn, one would have splendid views. Emerald-green sea breaking white on dark rocks and shading to a deep and powerful blue farther out; to the south the serpentine
forest of cypress and pine rising on a peak, aromatic and haunted in the noonday sun. To the north, dazzling-bright sand hills, stretching away to a windy
sunlit glimpse of Santa Cruz.
Unfortunately there's been an El Nino condition in this year of 1879, and the summer fogs have lasted well into autumn, so all one would see on this particular
day is a grayed-out closed-down perspective, like a Victorian photograph of a landscape. Sea the color of ashes, sand the color of ashes, wet fog hanging in wreaths
through the tops of the twisted and spectral cypresses, all the jewel colors lost. Naturally enough, the frail man, himself more than half wraith as he picks his
way among the tidepools, is depressed. But then, he depresses easily.
He cheers up easily, too. His moods could best be described as hysterically mercurial, which is only one of the reasons the motherly lady he's courting hasn't
quite made up her mind about him. He perches now on a prominence of rock and rolls his trouser legs up again, for they have become soaked. He can roll them up quite
a distance on his pipestem legs. It isn't just that he's emaciated from illness; his whole graceful body, slender feet and long expressive hands, is weirdly attenuated.
That, and his enormous eyes-- too wide, too bright, in his thin face-- contribute to his otherworldly appearance.
He notices the whaleboat appearing out of the fog. From whence has it come? A shadowy something on the obscured horizon suggests an immense ship, big as a clipper
at least but phantomlike. Why is it standing on and off so far out in the bay? And why are there only two persons in the whaleboat, which is of considerable size to be
rowed by only one man? He begins to tell himself a story about the occupants of the whaleboat.
To his delight, they are rowing straight for the cove where he sits. They near him and his imaginings go from crime to romance, for he observes that one of the two
is a lady. He leans his chin in his palm and stares at them, fascinated, as they approach his rock. The lady has bright hair, is simply dressed in brown calico and a shawl.
It is impossible to tell her age, for though her face is rounded and young her gaze is mature, assessing.
The man is striking in appearance too, wearing sea-boots and rough serviceable clothes cut well. How effortlessly he bends to the oars and sends the boat flying along!
Too homely really to be a hero, but a character and no mistake. What kind of character?
They pass their observer, as dolphins play in their bow wake, and a moment later they make landfall. As the man leaps out to pull their boat up on the sand, splashing
through the surf foaming about his boots, it becomes evident that he is remarkably strong. And quite tall, towering above the young lady! The frail man rises and hurries
across the rocks to get a better look at the couple, trying to make it appear as though he is just sauntering in a casual sort of way.
He is in luck, for the pair stand there several moments beside the boat, discussing something. They seem irresolute. Are they worried about leaving their boat?
Why are they going into the old Spanish capital? Her long braid and golden earrings suggest that the lady is Iberian, despite her pallor. The daughter of an exiled
Spanish don, returning in secret to claim some birthright? She reaches up to stroke back the sailor's lank hair in an unmistakable gesture of intimacy.
Are they lovers? Must be!
The frail man halts, for he is out of breath. He stoops to pretend to examine a clump of sea-wrack. Unfortunately this brings on a coughing fit, which is the
end of his unobtrusive scrutiny. The young lady turns and fixes her black stare on him and it connects like a blow, not hostile but terrifyingly intense.
She advances and asks him a question, in beautifully aristocratic Castilian. He knows enough Spanish to understand that she is asking him if he'd like to
earn a few dollars watching the boat while they go ashore, but he isnít proficent enough in that tongue to reply gracefully, and so he stammers:
"Perdon yo, por favor, Senorita, pero-- parlez-vous francais?"
"Mais oui, certainement," she says, in the perfect accents of a native Parisienne. Then she puts her head on one side, frowning at him.
"Ete-vous ecossais, Monsieur?"
"Oui, Mademoiselle," he admits, thinking peevishly that his accent can't be that pronounced.
"Well then, we can talk in English!" she concludes, in flat American. At that moment the sailor gasps
as though he's seen a ghost, and he cries:
"Robert Louis Stevenson!"
And to Louis's astonishment the sailor strides forward and seizes him by both fragile shoulders,
and stares down into his eyes with burning adoration.
"Er--" says Louis, as the woman looks swiftly from him to the tall sailor and back again.
"Ah! Of course. You must be the author of-- " She appears to be thinking rapidly, "An Inland Journey.
Are you not? That very entertaining travel narrative, Alec."
"Man, oh, man, I love your stories," says the sailor hoarsely, with tears standing in his eyes.
He seems to be English, and though his voice is pleasant his accent is strange and uncouth.
"Yes, he does," affirms the lady in a nervous sort of way. She thinks again and rattles off:
"We've read A Lodging For The Night, Will O' The Mill, The Sire de Maletroit's Mousetrap,
The Latter-Day Arabian Nights, and Providence And The Guitar; and that's all we've read, of course,
because that's all that's been published at this time, Alec," she adds, with what might be a warning in her voice.
"But we enjoyed them very much and do hope you'll write more."
"Oh, we do," says the man, letting go Louis' shoulders and grabbing his hand to pump it vigorously.
"You-- er-- you won't mind if I shake your hand?"
"No," Louis says, for the extraordinary warmth of the man's skin seems to go right through his own thin
chilled fingers, and anyway he wouldn't care if the fellow had the clammy grip of death, because he's read
Louis's stories! "Actually I've a number of new pieces drafted, you know. I'm, er, gathering material from life."
"Brilliant." The man shudders pleasurably. He can't seem to take his eyes off Louis. Suddenly he turns his
head a little to one side, just as the girl had done. His nostrils dilate, he inhales, and a puzzled look comes
into his eyes. "Oh-- you're diff--" he begins, and then stops himself.
"Well, rather obviously we can't ask you to watch our boat for an hour or so," says the girl quickly.
"Oh, I wouldn't mind-- er, Ma'am--" Louis says, and she throws out her hands in a gesture of slightly theatrical chagrin.
"And how remiss of us! We haven't introduced ourselves. This is my husband, Alec-- Harpole, and I am-- Mrs. Harpole."
It is too obviously an alias, and Louis' eyes gleam with understanding.
"Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Harpole," he says in a conspiratorial sort of way. She looks at him consideringly, for a long moment.
"Mr. Stevenson," she says, "May we rely on your discretion? We are here under something of a cloud. We had hoped to run
ashore swiftly and accomplish, ah-- what we had hoped to accomplish, and get away again to our ship before--" her eyes glaze over
slightly in rapid thought. "--Before my father's enemies could come to know of our presence here. I trust I need say nothing further,
other to assure you that our intentions are completely honorable?"
"Nothing at all," Louis cries, thrilled to the marrow of his bones. "Look here, I'll be delighted to stay with the boat."
"Oh, sir, how gallant," she replies, with a charming smile. She puts her hand on her husband's arm. "We are very much obliged to you.
Let us haste, then, Alec dear. We won't be more than an hour or so, Mr. Stevenson, I promise you."
And the tall man lets go Louis's hand only reluctantly, with more protestations of high regard, and Louis watches as the two of
them run away in the general direction of the Customs House. When they are gone, he clambers a little self-consciously over the gunwale
of their boat and sits at the oars, gazing out at the gray sea-phantom in wildest speculation. Some sort of Flying Dutchman, perhaps?
The dolphins have remained, circling in the near water, almost as though they were waiting.
Louis tries the oars once, utterly failing to move them, and marvels at the strength of the oarsman. He can't define to himself
just what is so striking about the man, other than a peculiar quality of being not quite human.
Which is a little ironic, in light of the fact that Alec has been thinking exactly the same thing about him.
In just over an hour the couple return, flushed and gleeful, and they have brought him a present: a bottle of the best brandy
Sanchez's Tavern has to offer. The tall man presents it to Louis shyly, as a hawk comes swooping low out of the fog above them and
vanishes again. Louis makes a valiant pretense of helping the man push the boat off into the surf. He stands waving from the shore
as they cut away through the gray water, dolphins leaping after, until at last the fog obscures them.
Louis returns to his bare corner room in the French Hotel, clutching the brandy bottle to his skinny chest, and curls up
on the floor in his blanket in the gathering dusk. He does not notice, now or ever, the tiny dab of new plaster on the adobe wall
above his head, and even if he did it's unlikely he would examine it closely enough to learn that it conceals a vitrified tube
containing a tiny bottle of something resembling gold paint.
He warms himself with the brandy and with working out, in a dozen different ways, the imaginary adventures of the couple from the phantom ship.
His last thought, before he drifts off to sleep, is a question: Will their story have a happy ending?
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