Fiction: Charlotte Babbage and the Engine of Liberia

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By Andrew G. Dombalagian

A hen shrieked of night terrors in the distance. The spindly steeples caught glints of moonlight on the squat hill overlooking Monrovia harbor. Charlotte Babbage shuffled restlessly beneath the bleached veranda framing the church entrance. She huddled within the glow of a dying lantern at the Georgian doors. Madam Allegretta would only visit the church at night, when the hallowed and deserted house of God was hers alone.

Madam Allegretta was inside, introducing their latest crafted bauble to the blessings of holy water. She would also bring wine to anoint her gadgets, even though the Protestant reverend would raise Holy Hell if he discovered such Catholic wickedness in his parish. He did not approve of Allegretta’s “devilish” inventive work, either. Normally, she bade Babbage to await her return at home. This night, however, Allegretta instructed her employee to meet her at the church.

It was a queer night. In the wan light of the moon and sputtering lantern, Babbage could see a single schooner listing at the quay. The vessel bore black sails, but also carried odd iron along its bulkheads. The ship had been refitted to overcome storms with the might of steam, but it was unlike the steamships from America and Europe which called to port in Monrovia. These mechanisms were of an eccentric make. Only the scribbled pages in Madam Allegretta’s study bore witness to similar contraptions. Her employer’s work inspired wonder or incredulity; this ship only fostered wariness and suspicion in Babbage.

The burlap satchel in her tired arms suddenly doubled in weight, so she laid the bag down amongst the yellow dust that had collected on the veranda. At that moment, Babbage witnessed a trio of figures fleeing from the rear of the church like silent carrion birds spooked from a tree. Heavy shawls, too hot for even the warm night wind, cloaked their hunched, skittering gaits. Babbage watched as they fled toward the schooner, but the grind of wooden hinges heralded Allegretta’s muted exodus from the church. A small bag, stitched together from many-shaded swathes, swung in slow, gravid arcs from her right hand.

“Madam Allegretta, are we performing another favor for the Masonic Order?” Babbage asked, already knowing the answer. She could tell dead away that those unseemly men were not among the reputable Americo Liberians from the Masonic Lodge.

“Not this time, Charlotte. This is a far more special, more important commission. This will be the first component,” Allegretta said, hefting the pouch with her intact right hand. “What is that at your feet?”

“The waiting grew tiresome, so I stole away to the market to find some rice and cassava. The fool tried to gouge me on the price, but then he realized who I was – who I worked for – and he became very eager to donate to our private guild. A guild so exclusive, only we are welcome.”

Allegretta did not need to ponder how her cunning employee could have found any food in the deserted, midnight marketplace. With a step down from the church, she gestured for Babbage to follow, using her left hand to cut through the night air with her lone finger and four blunt stumps.

“I was afraid I would need your magic weapon again,” Babbage laughed. “Then I remembered that I never asked you to recharge it after I dispatched the bosun from the French steamer.”

“Is that where you found those brass-and-copper fittings?” Allegretta asked, letting the gadget in her pouch briefly swing in a less calculated arc. “Let me have the Hesperia; I will reset the mechanism tomorrow. There will be many more errands for you, soon, and you will need its protection.”

Babbage reached for the inside pocket of her fraying frock coat and drew out a fountain pen carved from a stout shaft of mangrove wood and inlaid with golden bracing too thick to be called filigree. The nib was gone and its absence revealed a dark cavity lined with intricately fashioned bits of metal. A heady, sweet aroma wafted from the secret workings of the Hesperia – the Sunset Pen.

“Will you tell me now how this tool works?”

“Would you believe me if I said that the Hesperia imprisons a faerie soldier who hurls a magic spear at your enemies?”

“What sort of simpleton do you take me for?” Babbage asked, using the derisive term Allegretta had taught her. “I’m smart enough to see that I have not yet earned this level of tutelage. I can also see that this new commission is something extraordinary. If not the Masonic Order, then perhaps a favor for President Cheeseman? Refitting some fishing boats into gunships? A special longarm to kick the Europeans in the seat of their britches?”

“You would never guess this project, Charlotte, nor should you try. It is of paramount importance and we shall leave it at that. I will instruct you on what to fetch, what to crank, what to fasten, and what to bolt. You will question our work, but do not hope for answers.”

#

Madam Allegretta had hired Charlotte Babbage after the gears in one of her creations crushed and severed every finger on her left hand, except the tiny end finger. With the loss of her gifted hand, she needed an assistant to complete her bizarre and gilded works. The neighbors, Americo Liberian and tribesmen alike, coined Babbage’s title: “Crank Servant.” Babbage thought of herself as Allegretta’s student, but spent days worrying that it was merely a delusion.

Even though she was one of their own, the Americo Liberians distrusted Allegretta. However, her utility to the ruling True Whig Party and the Liberian Masonic Order made Allegretta indispensable. While the neighbors fretted about maintaining the grandeur of their houses, parroting the trends of Europe and the American Plantations, Allegretta only busied herself with bizarre mechanical adaptations to her home.

A punctual steam boiler drove pulleys and hinges that latched the window shutters against the oppressive heat and eyes of the morning light, only to fling them open in wide welcome of the starlit wind. Instead of the Kpelle or Krus servants employed to shuffle tableware or linen up and down ankle-twisting staircases, Allegretta’s walls hummed with the workings of an automatic dumbwaiter.

Supposedly, Allegretta was a granddaughter of the freedman-turned-legendary sea captain, Paul Cuffee. A popular rumor around Monrovia claimed that the timbers from two of Cuffee’s schooners, Mary and the Sun Fish, were used to build her home. Locals were certain that the bones of several modern steamships had also been cannibalized to construct her house of mechanical oddities. The strongest evidence of her relation to the sea captain was the fact that Allegretta ciphered her notes and designs in a hodgepodge of an Akan dialect from Ghana and a Wampanoag native script from America, a blending of languages alluding to Cuffee’s own lineage.

Allegretta had met Charlotte Babbage – a name she gave her as a term of their “contract” – during the presidency of Hilary Johnson, four years prior. Everyone suspected the young woman was a common thief that Allegretta dredged up from Krutown, the neighborhoods fringing Monrovia where the “uncivilized” Liberians dwelled. A popular story passed around the markets and saloons recounted how Allegretta “caught” Babbage in one of her household traps: a device of winches and spools that spun like a dervish. Locals wrote the younger woman off as a Kru, or perhaps a Grebo, even though Babbage insisted her father was Dutch.

#

Babbage choked into the rag tied around her face. Her eyes watered behind specially treated lenses; her hair was pinned in a rough bun. The merciless heat refused to relent, even so late at night that the stars die from the sky to make way for the pending dawn. Beaded sweat raced down her cheeks as she pumped the handle to pressurize the storage vat. The atmosphere within the workshop was made all the more oppressive by the hellishly bubbling pitch excreted by the nozzle gun she used to seal the punctured flanks of the Charon. Earlier, near moonless midnight, Babbage had used her sleek, modified skiff to raid a Dutch ironclad anchored in the bay. The rogue had managed to “recover” all of the items on her errand list, but it was not an easy feat. European sailors, in their defiance of Liberian tariffs and taxes, made certain to be both wary and well-armed. During the escape, the Charon had sustained a fusillade along its hull and, more worrisome, the boiler and drive shafts powering its main propellers. The auxiliary propeller unit, some good fortune, and a moment of bare-handed paddling had brought Babbage to her only safe harbor.

A payment for one of her “favors,” Allegretta owned a small boathouse along a lonely beachhead. The boathouse – in reality, little more than a rambling shanty – concealed a waterlogged tunnel that slithered beneath Monrovia. In the tunnel, a harness of hooks and clamps conveyed the Charon to and from Allegretta’s cellar via a system of engine-driven chains and pulleys. Babbage could only walk from the boathouse; her feet still ached.

The empty workbench along the wall distracted Babbage from her muscles’ cries and the stench of pitch. After several years, Babbage had grown accustomed to working beneath the predatory gaze of the eyes seemingly grafted into the back of Allegretta’s head. Allegretta gave exacting directions to Babbage without needing to raise her head from the ever-changing lines and angles on her papers. Allegretta had reached the level where she could recognize progress merely by the grating of iron, the shriek of steel, and the groan of Babbage’s wrench arm.

Now, Allegretta was an absentee overseer. They devoted their efforts solely to this mysterious commission. Every morning, Babbage found schematics for components that her madam could not construct herself. Each evening, Allegretta made a terse exchange: offering a new list of parts and materials, and confiscating the completed mechanisms into her study. For the first time in their history, Babbage found herself forbidden from the study. In fact, Allegretta gave orders that, in the unlikely event that she should see her Madam shuffling about the house, Babbage was to ignore her.

These new procedures and customs revolted her. Babbage was somewhat resigned to being but an employee, but the undeniable sense of solidarity with Madam Allegretta – their “guild” as Babbage called it – had always made the work enjoyable. Now, Allegretta’s secrecy and absences left a taste in Babbage’s mouth fouler than the stench of pitch. In the recesses of her mind, there was a place where superstition still held sway, despite her madam’s attempts to purge its depths. It was the corner where the Hesperia’s imprisoned faerie hurled spritely spears at her enemies and where the Charon skimmed the water on the back of an ensorcelled djinn. Seeking comfort in that corner of her mind, Babbage convinced herself that her madam – her mentor, her friend – had been bent by wicked magic.

There were too many oddities. Two raids on schooners used to be a busy week for her. Now Babbage raided two ships a night, and they were always steamers and ironclads. The pace had worn down both the Charon and its pilot. The oddly curved rods and fluted arches crafted from the stolen materials were unlike their usual manufactured fare, too. Babbage could not fathom the invention that required so many impossibly angled, many-faced geometric shapes in place of gears and cogs. Then there were the sounds.

Allegretta’s manor was always a symphony of noises. Whistles, hisses, clinks, grinding, creaks, pops, and crackles heralded the household machinations. They soothed Babbage to sleep. In the past few nights, however, coldly unfamiliar scratchings haunted her rest. At first, Babbage assumed an infiltration by a rat or two. Increases in volume, frequency and severity urged her to suspicions of larger, more sinister animals.

Babbage tossed herself onto the corner cot. The pitch on the Charon’s hull needed time to set and Babbage could not repair the minute drive mechanisms on the skiff without Allegretta, so the limit to her labor was reached and a few hours’ rest was earned.

#

Babbage awoke when she rolled off the cot and onto the wood planks of the floor. While coughing into the plume of sawdust rising into the air, she found a note pinned to her shirtwaist: a list of materials to be collected. Babbage’s sleep had been fitful. Those animal scratchings reverberated through her dreams and she half-remembered a sinister growl in her ear. Babbage found the foyer deserted and unnaturally cold; the mechanical shutters exiled the morning light. Babbage shouldered her satchel and tools, and braved the outside world.

#

Babbage returned in the eerie stillness of deepest midnight. Monrovia was silent as a tomb city. Below, Krutown roared with distant music. The rattle of hollow gourds, the mystic chiming of the Yomo Gor’s wooden bars, and the call of song sounded as though rising from the depths of the sea. The moon and stars hid their frightened faces behind a blanket of clouds. Babbage sliced through the darkness with the Hemera, the “Wand of the Daylight Goddess.” It was one of the first contraptions on which she had assisted Allegretta; the intricate curls of wire and the assembly of the battery components were too exacting for her mentor’s ruined hand. Even the cultured and educated Americo Liberian neighbors were superstitious of the women’s “ghost light.”

The Hemera did not grant Babbage the usual sense of protection she always derived from her mentor’s mechanical artifacts. The wind was dead and the air was chilled. Babbage was certain that the sailors of the H.M.S. Indigo never detected her presence when she collected the items on her list. Nevertheless, the sensation of being stalked was unshakable. The peculiarity of the scavenged prizes she carried heightened her paranoia. Previous raids had procured brass, copper, zinc, ammonia, and other materials of mechanical or alchemical endeavors that were in short supply around Monrovia. The Indigo, however, was a merchant’s paddle steamer bearing incense, spices, herbs, and other rarities from parts unknown. Allegretta’s need for such things was an enigma to Babbage.

The Hemera’s light finally fell upon home. Every shutter was sealed tightly by its pistons. Glowing hints of emerald light crept out from behind the shutters of one room: Madam Allegretta’s study. Babbage had no time to puzzle over the strange luminance as the scratchings and growls of her night terrors sidled up behind her. The sound of claws and paws padded along in the dark. Babbage waved the Hemera’s beam through the gloom to frighten the beasts skulking just out of sight. It was futile and the young machinist grew afraid as she realized that no mere wild dogs hunted her.

Babbage dashed for the workshop door, which never looked so inviting nor so far away. She was too focused on the teeth and claws at her back to notice that the green glow momentarily brightened and deepened in intensity. Babbage reached safety as the unseen creatures’ pursuit slackened. She kicked the door closed. Immediately, flywheels spun and the locking bars slid into place to seal the door. Babbage wanted to catch her breath, but an unearthly howl rattled the walls and her nerves. When the door to the foyer shrieked open, she nearly shrieked, herself.

Madam Allegretta stood silhouetted in the doorway. She beckoned for Babbage to hurry. She waved with her crippled hand, which now shone in the gas-lit foyer. Babbage did not require coaxing, for the savage beasts pounded and slashed at the doors and walls. As Babbage bounded into the foyer, Allegretta seized upon a nude statue of Eros beside the staircase; with a swift, brutal twist of his lever, the house’s strongest guards activated. Bars of native-wrought iron slithered free from hidden ports, thus securing every exit with a portcullis of enmeshed metal. The old injury to Allegretta’s gifted left hand, having snapped the statue’s lever into attention, was now corrected with artifice. Her arm culminated in a veritable gauntlet of gold and iron, ending in carefully crafted digits of precise dexterity. Between her mentor’s new appendage and the gross injury Allegretta had just inflicted upon Eros’s appendage, Babbage was hard pressed to finally notice the third woman in the foyer.

The heavy gown and shawl this woman wore brought back memories of those three figures fleeing from the church, the night seeming like a distant nightmare. The moonlight paleness of her flesh contrasted with the earthen tones of Babbage and Allegretta’s skin. She appraised the “crank servant” with one eye of contempt and one eye of utter indifference. In return, Babbage only offered two eyes of creeping distaste for the strange woman.

“Dear Charlotte, this is our guest, Lady Garrity,” Allegretta introduced. “She was sent by our contractor – her mistress, Ezinma – to assist with the completion of the project.”

“What are those creatures outside?” Babbage asked, ignoring the stranger. She had dropped the Hemera torch in the workshop and heard its electric eye shatter on impact. Babbage drew the Hesperia from her shirtwaist pocket. The pen elicited a sneer from Lady Garrity.

“That toy will have no effect on the Hounds,” Garrity said.

“Hurry, we must activate the Engine,” Allegretta breathed, already halfway up the stairs.

Lady Garrity, practically hovering, ascended the stairs without so much as a ripple in her petticoats. Babbage followed behind, dragging along a hefty iron wrench she had seized from the umbrella stand. As she slammed the study door behind her, Babbage heard the roar of splintering wood, then the clang and clash of so many tools tossed aside in the workshop.

A monolithic machine dominated the room. Babbage could only scarcely compare it with the printing press that she and Allegretta had assembled for the Liberia Herald. Whereas the Herald‘s print press appeared like a torture device for newspapers, the closest analogy for the present mass of gilded parts was an altar of worship to artifice itself. This image was reinforced by the choir of light convoked by the numberless candles arrayed around the study. Sloughed and hardened wax suggested they had been burning for some time. Within the glittering monstrosity, Babbage could hardly recognize the individual pistons, gears, coils, hoses, and wires she had fashioned. The arched and fluted housing resembled a Gothic cathedral Babbage had once seen in a French news print. The spidery internal machinations of this engine had already begun to operate with click-clack efficiency and celerity.

“My input of the Pattern Sequence and Frequency Translations is almost complete,” Lady Garrity murmured.

“I only have to prepare the power supply and the harmonic resonator. The all-important broadcast unit is ready,” Madam Allegretta said, never stopping her fingers’ nimble work. Babbage had never known her mentor before her accident and she considered it a privilege to see her talented hands in action, thanks to their newfound improvements. “Garrity, do you realize what we have here? The Menlo Wizard, that pompous hack, would eat a bucket of screws if he saw this. He’d probably try to purloin the design, as though his mind could fathom this complexity.”

“History shall never again see the likes of this engine for decades,” asserted the unsympathetic European dame. “Our goal lies higher than mere tools.”

A cacophony rocked the walls. The crashing and howls never subsided, but this sound was more catastrophic than the rest and resounded from the basement. The gas lights sputtered and began a slow death.

“They’ve struck the gas supply,” Babbage hissed. “I think they hit the boilers and the Charon, too.”

Allegretta abandoned the power supply, now rendered useless, but she found reassurance with her employee, her student. Without missing a beat, Babbage seized upon the small crank-driven turbine beside the grand engine. Her arms fed electricity into the machine with the strength of a cyclone. Lady Garrity, heedless of the chaos consuming the house, connected coppery and bluish wires between the engine and a wooden box mounting a horn of beaten, shaped gold. Madam Allegretta pilfered a small wrench from the pocket of Babbage’s waistcoat and set upon final adjustments to the engine.

“Charlotte, I am sorry for keeping you so distant on this project. Since you share our danger, you rightly deserve to share our knowledge on this creation.”

“You did not pick a simpleton; I recognize notable elements of this device. Our guest is tinkering with a phonograph of strange design, as evidenced by the amplifier horn. The absence of any obvious mount or port for a wax cylinder seems to be a design flaw. As for this impressive centerpiece, I have seen the sketches accompanying your correspondences abroad; of course I would recognize a scion of the Analytical Engine, that child of Lovelace and my own namesake. I have taken to heart one of your philosophies.”

“It is good to seek answers…”

“…but it is better to know them,” Babbage completed her mentor’s axiom. “What I have yet to fathom, beyond the beastly cads besieging our home, is the intended interplay between these disparate components.”

Lady Garrity sneered above her ministrations to the hybridized phonograph. Babbage’s inability to understand the whole picture was anticipated, yet satisfying, all the same.

“Our rendition of the Analytical Engine,” Allegretta explained to Charlotte, “extrapolates some of Countess Lovelace’s theories regarding the incorporation of machine, mathematics and music. It will calculate a specific and rather complex algorithm sequence, which, in turn, will be translated and etched into a sound recording. The wax cylinders are sealed within the phonograph interior, which is shielded against even minute outside interference to preserve the integrity of the recording.”

The sound of claws clambering up stairs distracted Babbage from the explanation. Chipping and scratching threatened at the door. Babbage turned her eyes to the statue of Hymen kept near the door. Long ago, when Babbage was a novice in Allegretta’s house, she had taken a grease pencil and smeared grotesque facial hair upon the youthful overseer of marriages. Allegretta caught Babbage in the midst of this lark. Rather than expressing anger, Allegretta took the grease pencil and scribbled garish pubic hair upon the classical nude. The raucous laughter that followed on that day sealed an unbreakable pact. Now, in the face of impending doom, Babbage struck upon a hunch.

Without interrupting her rhythm at the crank turbine, Babbage lashed out with a kick square to the marriage god’s low-hanging, burning torch. In an inspired move that made the whole male pantheon wince and earned a nodding smirk from Allegretta, just as with Eros downstairs, a safeguard activated. The iron bars shot forth to bar the door with a portcullis; however, such an important room deserved greater protection. Hidden batteries were also triggered, filling the bars with a harmonious voltaic hum.

Not nearly as serene were the discordant whine, buzz and hiss that issued forth from the golden horn. The sounds tormented Babbage for reasons deeper than simple disharmony. Something was intrinsically wrong, even frightening, about the sound waves produced. Allegretta also suffered, clutching her ears. Lady Garrity stood unaffected and her bizarre smile spoke of pleasure from the strange signals.

Caught between the disharmonious broadcast and the interminable clicking of the engine plotting out those terrible sounds, Babbage noticed that the battered door was now quiet and still. The house stood peaceful, albeit haunted by the machine’s aural output. Whatever wonders the three women had produced in that room, they had seemingly driven their attackers back into the dark recesses from which they had crawled.

“They will not return,” Lady Garrity answered the unspoken question. “Not for some time, at least. The prayer transmissions have sealed their avenues of entrance to our world and the opening of new doors will be difficult for their masters. Queen Ezinma thanks you for your service, Madam Allegretta. We shall return tomorrow evening to accept delivery of the device.”

“Will you need a proper power source?” Allegretta asked, while signalling her student to rest her heroic arms. “We could construct a very efficient steam boiler to operate the engine.”

“That will not be necessary. We have our own reliable source of energy. I will now take my leave of you both.”

#

Charlotte Babbage spat on the floor to cleanse herself of the latest cascade of sweat to invade her mouth. Allegretta rolled her eyes behind her welding visor; she noted that another sweep would be necessary with the rotary-powered hot scouring mop. The aftermath of their catastrophic victory was a shambles of a house. Doors had been torn asunder and walls were gouged with fang and talon. The only other tangible legacies of the Hounds were a caustic slime and an odious odor that clung to the scarred walls and floor.

“It smells as though every ironclad in the world just fired off their main guns loaded with brimstone,” Babbage said, swabbing her brow with a bare arm. “After the great commotion last night, do you suppose the neighborhood opportunists, bandits and looters will be too frightened to come poking their noses around our business?”

“Never underestimate greed. Greed conquers all.”

“Speaking of which, do you suppose we’ll get any credit for building that engine?”

“I never said this was about fame or notoriety.”

“Yes,” Babbage sighed. “I suppose we should become accustomed to obscurity. We are neither fully African, nor European, nor even American – yet they all distrust us just the same. It would be a kick to know where we stand in the world, though.”

“We stand in a wretched-smelling foyer where, even behind this visor, the morning light and heat give me a terrible throbbing at the temples.”

Babbage leered at the wisps of noxious smoke rising from the head of the push-broom she wielded against the slime left by the Hounds. Spitting again, this time on the sizzling bristles, she tossed the ruined tool into the pile of debris they had heaped. Babbage surveyed the metallic restoration of her madam’s talented hand. She could not fathom how such a precise replacement was possible. Allegretta caught her student staring again.

“Another part of the payment for our work,” she explained. “Deuced if I can explain how it operates. If I seemed rather scarce over the past fortnight, part of it was the secrecy to which I was held by Lady Garrity and her mistress, Ezinma.”

“It appears that my work is no longer needed, since you can screw your own bolts and splice your own wires anew with your repaired hand. Once I’m done mucking out this house of yours, I suppose that will be the end of me.”

“Indeed, this triumph must mark the end of your employment contract…and your apprenticeship. After last night, I would feel proud to call you my equal and elevate you to full membership in this silly guild of ours which you always speak of.”

“Hear hear! Let’s have the birth of the…of the Liberian Women’s Machinists Guild. May its ideals be upheld by its right and honorable membership.”

“Yes, all two of them.”

Bio: Andrew Dombalagian lives, works and dreams in the Philadelphia area, although Innsmouth has become his second home. He works as a writing tutor at his alma mater, Penn State Brandywine, and he keeps away the night creeps with the help of his fiancee, Ellen, and their three cats. Andrew hopes readers will look forward to Charlotte Babbage’s return in her next adventure.

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IFPFiction: Charlotte Babbage and the Engine of Liberia