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Way Station, Chapter Two (1)

Chapter Two (1)

Chapter Two

Dr. Erwin Hardwicke rolled the pencil back and forth between his palms, an irritating business. He eyed the man across the desk from him with some calculation.

“What I can't figure out,” said Hardwicke, “is why you should come to us.”

“Well, you're the National Academy and I thought …”

“And you're Intelligence.”

“Look, Doctor, if it suits you better, let's call this visit unofficial. Pretend I'm a puzzled citizen who dropped in to see if you could help.”

“It's not that I wouldn't like to help, but I don't see how I can. The whole thing is so hazy and so hypothetical.”

“Damn it, man,” Claude Lewis said, “you can't deny the proof—the little that I have.”

“All right, then,” said Hardwicke, “let's start over once again and take it piece by piece. You say you have this man …”

“His name,” said Lewis, “is Enoch Wallace: Chronologically, he is one hundred and twenty-four years old. He was born on a farm a few miles from the town of Millville in Wisconsin, April 22, 1840, and he is the only child of Jedediah and Amanda Wallace. He enlisted among the first of them when Abe Lincoln called for volunteers. He was with the Iron Brigade, which was virtually wiped out at Gettysburg in 1863. But Wallace somehow managed to get transferred to another fighting outfit and fought down across Virginia under Grant. He was in on the end of it at Appomattox …”

“You've run a check on him.”

“I've looked up his records. The record of enlistment at the State Capitol in Madison. The rest of it, including discharge here in Washington.”

“You say he looks like thirty.”

“Not a day beyond it. Maybe even less than that.”

“But you haven't talked with him.”

Lewis shook his head.

“He may not be the man. If you had fingerprints …”

“At the time of the Civil War,” said Lewis, “they'd not thought of fingerprints.”

“The last of the veterans of the Civil War,” said Hardwicke, “died several years ago. A Confederate drummer boy, I think. There must be some mistake.”

Lewis shook his head. “I thought so myself, when I was assigned to it.”

“How come you were assigned? How does Intelligence get involved in a deal like this?”

“I'll admit,” said Lewis, “that it's a bit unusual. But there were so many implications …”

“Immortality, you mean.”

“It crossed our mind, perhaps. The chance of it. But only incidentally. There were other considerations. It was a strange setup that bore some looking into.”

“But Intelligence …”

Lewis grinned. “You are thinking, why not a scientific outfit? Logically, I suppose it should have been. But one of our men ran afoul of it. He was on vacation. Had relatives back in Wisconsin. Not in that particular area, but some thirty miles away. He heard a rumor—just the vaguest rumor, almost a casual mention. So he nosed around a bit. He didn't find out too much but enough to make him think there might be something to it.”

“That's the thing that puzzles me,” said Hardwicke. “How could a man live for one hundred and twenty-four years in one locality without becoming a celebrity that the world would hear about? Can you imagine what the newspapers could do with a thing like this?”

“I shudder,” Lewis said, “when I think about it.”

“You haven't told me how.”

“This,” said Lewis, “is a bit hard to explain. You'd have to know the country and the people in it. The southwestern corner of Wisconsin is bounded by two rivers, the Mississippi on the west, the Wisconsin on the north. Away from the rivers there is flat, broad prairie land, rich land, with prosperous farms and towns. But the land that runs down to the river is rough and rugged; high hills and bluffs and deep ravines and cliffs, and there are certain areas forming bays or pockets that are isolated. They are served by inadequate roads and the small, rough farms are inhabited by a people who are closer, perhaps, to the pioneer days of a hundred years ago than they are to the twentieth century. They have cars, of course, and radios, and someday soon, perhaps, even television. But in spirit they are conservative and clannish—not all the people, of course, not even many of them, but these little isolated neighborhoods.

“At one time there were a lot of farms in these isolated pockets, but today a man can hardly make a living on a farm of that sort. Slowly the people are being squeezed out of the areas by economic circumstances. They sell their farms for whatever they can get for them and move somewhere else, to the cities mostly, where they can make a living.”

Hardwicke nodded. “And the ones that are left, of course, are the most conservative and clannish.”

“Right. Most of the land now is held by absentee owners who make no pretense of farming it. They may run a few head of cattle on it, but that is all. It's not too bad as a tax write-off for someone who needs that sort of thing. And in the land-bank days a lot of the land was put into the bank.”

“You're trying to tell me these backwoods people—is that what you'd call them?—engaged in a conspiracy of silence.”

“Perhaps not anything,” said Lewis, “as formal or elaborate as that. It is just their way of doing things, a holdover from the old, stout pioneer philosophy. They minded their own business. They didn't want folks interfering with them and they interfered with no one else. If a man wanted to live to be a thousand, it might be a thing of wonder, but it was his own damned business. And if he wanted to live alone and be let alone while he was doing it, that was his business, too. They might talk about it among themselves, but to no one else. They'd resent it if some outsider tried to talk about it.

“After a time, I suppose, they came to accept the fact that Wallace kept on being young while they were growing old. The wonder wore off it and they probably didn't talk about it a great deal, even among themselves. New generations accepted it because their elders saw in it nothing too unusual—and anyhow no one saw much of Wallace because he kept strictly to himself.

“And in the nearby areas the thing, when it was thought of at all, grew to be just a sort of legend—another crazy tale that wasn't worth looking into. Maybe just a joke among those folks down Dark Hollow way. A Rip Van Winkle sort of business that probably didn't have a word of truth in it. A man might look ridiculous if he went prying into it.”

“But your man looked into it.”

“Yes. Don't ask me why.”

“Yet he wasn't assigned to follow up the job.”

“He was needed somewhere else. And besides he was known back there.”

“And you?”

“It took two years of work.”

“But now you know the story.”

“Not all of it. There are more questions now than there were to start with.”

“You've seen this man.”

“Many times,” said Lewis. “But I've never talked with him. I don't think he's ever seen me. He takes a walk each day before he goes to get the mail. He never moves off the place, you see. The mailman brings out the little stuff he needs. A bag of flour, a pound of bacon, a dozen eggs, cigars, and sometimes liquor.”

“But that must be against the postal regulations.”

“Of course it is. But mailmen have been doing it for years. It doesn't hurt a thing until someone screams about it. And no one's going to. The mailmen probably are the only friends he has ever had.”

“I take it this Wallace doesn't do much farming.”

“None at all. He has a little vegetable garden, but that is all he does. The place has gone back pretty much to wilderness.”

“But he has to live. He must get money somewhere.”

“He does,” said Lewis. “Every five or ten years or so he ships off a fistful of gems to an outfit in New York.”

“Legal?”

“If you mean, is it hot, I don't think so. If someone wanted to make a case of it, I suppose there are illegalities. Not to start with, when he first started sending them, back in the old days. But laws change and I suspect both he and the buyer are in defiance of any number of them.”

“And you don't mind?”

“I checked on this firm,” said Lewis, “and they were rather nervous. For one thing, they'd been stealing Wallace blind. I told them to keep on buying. I told them that if anyone came around to check, to refer them straight to me. I told them to keep their mouths shut and not change anything.”

“You don't want anyone to scare him off,” said Hardwicke.

“You're damned right, I don't. I want the mailman to keep on acting as a delivery boy and the New York firm to keep on buying gems. I want everything to stay just the way it is. And before you ask me where the stones come from, I'll tell you I don't know.”

“He maybe has a mine.”

“That would be quite a mine. Diamonds and rubies and emeralds, all out of the same mine.”

“I would suspect, even at the prices that he gets from them, he picks up a fair income.”

Lewis nodded. “Apparently he only sends a shipment in when he runs out of cash. He wouldn't need too much. He lives rather simply, to judge from the grub he buys. But he subscribes to a lot of daily papers and news magazines and to dozens of scientific journals. He buys a lot of books.”

“Technical books?”

“Some of them, of course, but mostly keeping up with new developments. Physics and chemistry and biology—all that sort of stuff.”

“But I don't …”

“Of course you don't. Neither do I. He's no scientist. Or at least he has no formal education in the sciences. Back in the days when he went to school there wasn't much of it—not in the sense of today's scientific education. And whatever he learned then would be fairly worthless now in any event. He went through grade school—one of those one-room country schools—and spent one winter at what was called an academy that operated for a year or two down in Millville village. In case you don't know, that was considerably better than par back in the 1850s. He was, apparently, a fairly bright young man.”

Hardwicke shook his head. “It sounds incredible. You've checked on all of this?”

“As well as I could. I had to go at it gingerly. I wanted no one to catch on. And one thing I forgot—he does a lot of writing. He buys these big, bound record books, in lots of a dozen at the time. He buys ink by the pint.”

Hardwicke got up from his desk and paced up and down the room.

“Lewis,” he said, “if you hadn't shown me your credentials and if I hadn't checked on them, I'd figure all of this to be a very tasteless joke.”

He went back and sat down again. He picked up the pencil and started rolling it between his palms once more.

“You've been on the case two years,” he said. “You have no ideas?”

“Not a one,” said Lewis. “I'm entirely baffled. That is why I'm here.”

“Tell me more of his history. After the war, that is.”

“His mother died,” said Lewis, “while he was away. His father and the neighbors buried her right there on the farm. That was the way a lot of people did it then. Young Wallace got a furlough, but not in time to get home for the funeral. There wasn't much embalming done in those days and the traveling was slow. Then he went back to the war. So far as I can find, it was his only furlough. The old man lived alone and worked the farm, batching it and getting along all right. From what I can pick up, he was a good farmer, an exceptionally good farmer for his day. He subscribed to some farm journals and was progressive in his ideas. He paid attention to such things as crop rotation and the prevention of erosion. The farm wasn't much of a farm by modern standards, but it made him a living and a little extra he managed to lay by.


Chapter Two (1)

Chapter Two

Dr. Erwin Hardwicke rolled the pencil back and forth between his palms, an irritating business. He eyed the man across the desk from him with some calculation.

“What I can't figure out,” said Hardwicke, “is why you should come to us.”

“Well, you're the National Academy and I thought …”

“And you're Intelligence.”

“Look, Doctor, if it suits you better, let's call this visit unofficial. Pretend I'm a puzzled citizen who dropped in to see if you could help.”

“It's not that I wouldn't like to help, but I don't see how I can. The whole thing is so hazy and so hypothetical.”

“Damn it, man,” Claude Lewis said, “you can't deny the proof—the little that I have.”

“All right, then,” said Hardwicke, “let's start over once again and take it piece by piece. You say you have this man …”

“His name,” said Lewis, “is Enoch Wallace: Chronologically, he is one hundred and twenty-four years old. He was born on a farm a few miles from the town of Millville in Wisconsin, April 22, 1840, and he is the only child of Jedediah and Amanda Wallace. He enlisted among the first of them when Abe Lincoln called for volunteers. He was with the Iron Brigade, which was virtually wiped out at Gettysburg in 1863. But Wallace somehow managed to get transferred to another fighting outfit and fought down across Virginia under Grant. He was in on the end of it at Appomattox …”

“You've run a check on him.”

“I've looked up his records. The record of enlistment at the State Capitol in Madison. The rest of it, including discharge here in Washington.”

“You say he looks like thirty.”

“Not a day beyond it. Maybe even less than that.”

“But you haven't talked with him.”

Lewis shook his head.

“He may not be the man. If you had fingerprints …”

“At the time of the Civil War,” said Lewis, “they'd not thought of fingerprints.”

“The last of the veterans of the Civil War,” said Hardwicke, “died several years ago. A Confederate drummer boy, I think. There must be some mistake.”

Lewis shook his head. “I thought so myself, when I was assigned to it.”

“How come you were assigned? How does Intelligence get involved in a deal like this?”

“I'll admit,” said Lewis, “that it's a bit unusual. But there were so many implications …”

“Immortality, you mean.”

“It crossed our mind, perhaps. The chance of it. But only incidentally. There were other considerations. It was a strange setup that bore some looking into.”

“But Intelligence …”

Lewis grinned. “You are thinking, why not a scientific outfit? Logically, I suppose it should have been. But one of our men ran afoul of it. He was on vacation. Had relatives back in Wisconsin. Not in that particular area, but some thirty miles away. He heard a rumor—just the vaguest rumor, almost a casual mention. So he nosed around a bit. He didn't find out too much but enough to make him think there might be something to it.”

“That's the thing that puzzles me,” said Hardwicke. “How could a man live for one hundred and twenty-four years in one locality without becoming a celebrity that the world would hear about? Can you imagine what the newspapers could do with a thing like this?”

“I shudder,” Lewis said, “when I think about it.”

“You haven't told me how.”

“This,” said Lewis, “is a bit hard to explain. You'd have to know the country and the people in it. The southwestern corner of Wisconsin is bounded by two rivers, the Mississippi on the west, the Wisconsin on the north. Away from the rivers there is flat, broad prairie land, rich land, with prosperous farms and towns. But the land that runs down to the river is rough and rugged; high hills and bluffs and deep ravines and cliffs, and there are certain areas forming bays or pockets that are isolated. They are served by inadequate roads and the small, rough farms are inhabited by a people who are closer, perhaps, to the pioneer days of a hundred years ago than they are to the twentieth century. They have cars, of course, and radios, and someday soon, perhaps, even television. But in spirit they are conservative and clannish—not all the people, of course, not even many of them, but these little isolated neighborhoods.

“At one time there were a lot of farms in these isolated pockets, but today a man can hardly make a living on a farm of that sort. Slowly the people are being squeezed out of the areas by economic circumstances. They sell their farms for whatever they can get for them and move somewhere else, to the cities mostly, where they can make a living.”

Hardwicke nodded. “And the ones that are left, of course, are the most conservative and clannish.”

“Right. Most of the land now is held by absentee owners who make no pretense of farming it. They may run a few head of cattle on it, but that is all. It's not too bad as a tax write-off for someone who needs that sort of thing. And in the land-bank days a lot of the land was put into the bank.”

“You're trying to tell me these backwoods people—is that what you'd call them?—engaged in a conspiracy of silence.”

“Perhaps not anything,” said Lewis, “as formal or elaborate as that. It is just their way of doing things, a holdover from the old, stout pioneer philosophy. They minded their own business. They didn't want folks interfering with them and they interfered with no one else. If a man wanted to live to be a thousand, it might be a thing of wonder, but it was his own damned business. And if he wanted to live alone and be let alone while he was doing it, that was his business, too. They might talk about it among themselves, but to no one else. They'd resent it if some outsider tried to talk about it.

“After a time, I suppose, they came to accept the fact that Wallace kept on being young while they were growing old. The wonder wore off it and they probably didn't talk about it a great deal, even among themselves. New generations accepted it because their elders saw in it nothing too unusual—and anyhow no one saw much of Wallace because he kept strictly to himself.

“And in the nearby areas the thing, when it was thought of at all, grew to be just a sort of legend—another crazy tale that wasn't worth looking into. Maybe just a joke among those folks down Dark Hollow way. A Rip Van Winkle sort of business that probably didn't have a word of truth in it. A man might look ridiculous if he went prying into it.”

“But your man looked into it.”

“Yes. Don't ask me why.”

“Yet he wasn't assigned to follow up the job.”

“He was needed somewhere else. And besides he was known back there.”

“And you?”

“It took two years of work.”

“But now you know the story.”

“Not all of it. There are more questions now than there were to start with.”

“You've seen this man.”

“Many times,” said Lewis. “But I've never talked with him. I don't think he's ever seen me. He takes a walk each day before he goes to get the mail. He never moves off the place, you see. The mailman brings out the little stuff he needs. A bag of flour, a pound of bacon, a dozen eggs, cigars, and sometimes liquor.”

“But that must be against the postal regulations.”

“Of course it is. But mailmen have been doing it for years. It doesn't hurt a thing until someone screams about it. And no one's going to. The mailmen probably are the only friends he has ever had.”

“I take it this Wallace doesn't do much farming.”

“None at all. He has a little vegetable garden, but that is all he does. The place has gone back pretty much to wilderness.”

“But he has to live. He must get money somewhere.”

“He does,” said Lewis. “Every five or ten years or so he ships off a fistful of gems to an outfit in New York.”

“Legal?”

“If you mean, is it hot, I don't think so. If someone wanted to make a case of it, I suppose there are illegalities. Not to start with, when he first started sending them, back in the old days. But laws change and I suspect both he and the buyer are in defiance of any number of them.”

“And you don't mind?”

“I checked on this firm,” said Lewis, “and they were rather nervous. For one thing, they'd been stealing Wallace blind. I told them to keep on buying. I told them that if anyone came around to check, to refer them straight to me. I told them to keep their mouths shut and not change anything.”

“You don't want anyone to scare him off,” said Hardwicke.

“You're damned right, I don't. I want the mailman to keep on acting as a delivery boy and the New York firm to keep on buying gems. I want everything to stay just the way it is. And before you ask me where the stones come from, I'll tell you I don't know.”

“He maybe has a mine.”

“That would be quite a mine. Diamonds and rubies and emeralds, all out of the same mine.”

“I would suspect, even at the prices that he gets from them, he picks up a fair income.”

Lewis nodded. “Apparently he only sends a shipment in when he runs out of cash. He wouldn't need too much. He lives rather simply, to judge from the grub he buys. But he subscribes to a lot of daily papers and news magazines and to dozens of scientific journals. He buys a lot of books.”

“Technical books?”

“Some of them, of course, but mostly keeping up with new developments. Physics and chemistry and biology—all that sort of stuff.”

“But I don't …”

“Of course you don't. Neither do I. He's no scientist. Or at least he has no formal education in the sciences. Back in the days when he went to school there wasn't much of it—not in the sense of today's scientific education. And whatever he learned then would be fairly worthless now in any event. He went through grade school—one of those one-room country schools—and spent one winter at what was called an academy that operated for a year or two down in Millville village. In case you don't know, that was considerably better than par back in the 1850s. He was, apparently, a fairly bright young man.”

Hardwicke shook his head. “It sounds incredible. You've checked on all of this?”

“As well as I could. I had to go at it gingerly. I wanted no one to catch on. And one thing I forgot—he does a lot of writing. He buys these big, bound record books, in lots of a dozen at the time. He buys ink by the pint.”

Hardwicke got up from his desk and paced up and down the room.

“Lewis,” he said, “if you hadn't shown me your credentials and if I hadn't checked on them, I'd figure all of this to be a very tasteless joke.”

He went back and sat down again. He picked up the pencil and started rolling it between his palms once more.

“You've been on the case two years,” he said. “You have no ideas?”

“Not a one,” said Lewis. “I'm entirely baffled. That is why I'm here.”

“Tell me more of his history. After the war, that is.”

“His mother died,” said Lewis, “while he was away. His father and the neighbors buried her right there on the farm. That was the way a lot of people did it then. Young Wallace got a furlough, but not in time to get home for the funeral. There wasn't much embalming done in those days and the traveling was slow. Then he went back to the war. So far as I can find, it was his only furlough. The old man lived alone and worked the farm, batching it and getting along all right. From what I can pick up, he was a good farmer, an exceptionally good farmer for his day. He subscribed to some farm journals and was progressive in his ideas. He paid attention to such things as crop rotation and the prevention of erosion. The farm wasn't much of a farm by modern standards, but it made him a living and a little extra he managed to lay by.