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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…

———

A Time to Talk

By Robert Frost

Frost-3

Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963)

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

———

You Fit Into Me

By Margaret Atwood

Atwood M

Margaret Eleanor Atwood (b. 1939)

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

———

The People Upstairs

By Ogden Nash

Nash O

Frederic Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

The people upstairs all practise ballet
Their living room is a bowling alley
Their bedroom is full of conducted tours.
Their radio is louder than yours,
They celebrate week-ends all the week.
When they take a shower, your ceilings leak.
They try to get their parties to mix
By supplying their guests with Pogo sticks,
And when their fun at last abates,
They go to the bathroom on roller skates.
I would love the people upstairs wondrous
If instead of above us, they just lived under us.

———

Grown-Up

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Was it for this I uttered prayers
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?

———

Another

By Robert Herrick

Herrick R-2

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Here a pretty baby lies
Sung asleep with lullabies:
Pray be silent, and not stir
Th’ easy earth that covers her.

 

 

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The sci-fi short story below packs a lot into 500 words: an apocalyptic wasteland in the distant future, submerged continents, explorers armed with bows and arrows, a strange discovery. So much food for thought.

The author of this interesting nugget from half a century ago, Therese Windser, is a mystery; I Googled her and came up empty. Even the Google has its limits.

Although “Longevity” seems to be the only work for which Ms. Windser is credited, using a pseudonym is a common practice. Maybe “Therese Windser” doesn’t exist.

A curious mystery, but not in the same league as the one in the story.

———

Longevity

By Therese Windser
Published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, May 1960

A morality tale — 1960 style.

Legend had it, that many thousands of years ago, right after the Great Horror, the whole continent of the west had slowly sunk beneath the West Water, and that once every century it arose during a full moon. Still, Captain Hinrik clung to the hope that the legend would not be borne out by truth.

Perhaps the west continent still existed; perhaps, dare he hope, with civilization. The crew of the Semilunis thought him quite mad. After all, hadn’t the east and south continents been completely annihilated from the great sky fires; and wasn’t it said that they had suffered but a fraction of what the west continent had endured?

The Semilunis anchored at the mouth of a great river. The months of fear and doubt were at end. Here, at last, was the west continent. A small party of scouts was sent ashore with many cautions to be alert for luminescent areas which meant certain death for those who remained too long in its vicinity.

Armed with bow and arrow, the party made its way slowly up the great river. Nowhere was to be seen the color green, only dull browns and greys. And no sign of life, save for an occasional patch of lichen on a rock.

After several days of rowing, the food and water supply was almost half depleted and still no evidence of either past or present habitation. It was time to turn back, to travel all the weary months across the West Water, the journey all in vain. What a small reward for such an arduous trip… just proof of the existence of a barren land mass, ugly and useless.

On the second day of the return to the Semilunis, the scouting party decided to stop and investigate a huge opening in the rocky mountainside. How suspiciously regular and even it looked, particularly in comparison to the rest of the countryside which was jagged and chaotic.

They entered the cave apprehensively, torches aflare and weapons in hand. But all was darkness and quiet. Still, the regularity of the cave walls led them on. Some creature, man or otherwise, must have planned and built this… but to what end?

Now the cave divided into three forks. The torches gave only a hint of the immensity of the chambers that lay at the end of each. They selected the center chamber, approaching cautiously, breath caught in awe and excitement.

The torches reflected on a dull black surface which was divided into many, many little squares. The sameness of them stretched for uncountable yards in all directions. What were these ungodly looking edifices?

The black surface was cold and smooth to the touch and quite regular except for a strange little hole at the bottom of each square and a curious row of pictures along the top.

They would copy these strange pictures. Perhaps back home there would be a scholar who would understand the meaning behind these last remains of the people of the west continent.

The leader took out his slate and painstakingly copied:

Safeguard your valuables at
ALLEGHANY MOUNTAIN VAULTS
Box #454435678

Longevity

When I first read this story, the spelling of ALLEGHANY jumped out at me. I thought the correct spelling was ALLEGHENY, as in the Allegheny Mountains and the Allegheny River.

As it turns out, the spelling varies by location. Generally, the word is spelled ALLEGHENY in Pennsylvania, ALLEGANY in New York, and ALLEGHANY in Virginia and North Carolina.

Which implies that the wasteland where the story takes place is a future Virginia or North Carolina.

Ta-da.

 

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A few years ago, I posted two short stories by American author Kate Chopin (1850-1904): The Story of an Hour and Regret.” The first post, in case you’re interested, included a brief bio.

Chopin’s work appeals to me for two reasons.

First, her writing strikes me as more modern than most from her era. She comes across as ahead of her time, almost contemporary.

Second, when reading Chopin, I get the sense that I understand her thought processes and motivations, as if seeing into her brain. It makes her characters and plots seem more genuine. Truer to life. Closer to reality than fiction.

I get that feeling with “The Night Came Slowly.

———

The Night Came Slowly

By Kate Chopin
Published in Moods, Philadelphia, July 1895

I am losing my interest in human beings; in the significance of their lives and their actions. Some one has said it is better to study one man than ten books. I want neither books nor men; they make me suffer. Can one of them talk to me like the night — the Summer night? Like the stars or the caressing wind?

The night came slowly, softly, as I lay out there under the maple tree. It came creeping, creeping stealthily out of the valley, thinking I did not notice. And the outlines of trees and foliage nearby blended in one black mass and the night came stealing out from them, too, and from the east and west, until the only light was in the sky, filtering through the maple leaves and a star looking down through every cranny.

The night is solemn and it means mystery.

Human shapes flitted by like intangible things. Some stole up like little mice to peep at me. I did not mind. My whole being was abandoned to the soothing and penetrating charm of the night.

The katydids began their slumber song: they are at it yet. How wise they are. They do not chatter like people. They tell me only: “sleep, sleep, sleep.” The wind rippled the maple leaves like little warm love thrills.

Why do fools cumber the Earth! It was a man’s voice that broke the necromancer’s spell. A man came to-day with his “Bible Class.” He is detestable with his red cheeks and bold eyes and coarse manner and speech. What does he know of Christ? Shall I ask a young fool who was born yesterday and will die tomorrow to tell me things of Christ? I would rather ask the stars: they have seen him.

The Night Came Slowly

In the last paragraph, Chopin refers to “a man’s voice that broke the necromancer’s spell.” The meaning of that line eludes me. In this case, I’m not seeing into her brain very successfully.

 

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Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), known as the “dean of science fiction writers,” was brilliant, influential, and, throughout his career, controversial.

Heinlein was a libertarian, a nudist, and a proponent of the free love social movement. He believed that only a world government, ruling all nations, can prevent nuclear annihilation. Many of his personal beliefs were openly reflected in his novels and short stories.

Naturally, his themes about sexuality brought criticism. Some of his stories dealt with pedophilia. Several times, he employed a special workaround to make adult-child relationships less offputting: he transformed the child into an adult through time travel.

In the short story below, Heinlein used time travel and multiple paradoxes to take the issues of gender and procreation (not pedophilia this time) to a head-spinning extreme. The fact that the story makes any logical sense is a tribute to Heinlein’s creativity and skill.

At the end of the story, I’ve included a graphic timeline that may be useful. Also, a good plot summary is here, but, hey — read the story first.

———

‘–All You Zombies–‘”

By Robert A. Heinlein
Published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1959

2217 Time Zone V (EST) 7 Nov. 1970 NYC — “Pop’s Place”: I was polishing a brandy snifter when the Unmarried Mother came in. I noted the time — 10:17 P. M. zone five, or eastern time, November 7th, 1970. Temporal agents always notice time and date; we must.

The Unmarried Mother was a man twenty-five years old, no taller than I am, childish features and a touchy temper. I didn’t like his looks — I never had — but he was a lad I was here to recruit, he was my boy. I gave him my best barkeep’s smile.

Maybe I’m too critical. He wasn’t swish; his nickname came from what he always said when some nosy type asked him his line: “I’m an unmarried mother.” If he felt less than murderous he would add: “at four cents a word. I write confession stories.”

If he felt nasty, he would wait for somebody to make something of it. He had a lethal style of infighting, like a female cop — reason I wanted him. Not the only one.

He had a load on, and his face showed that he despised people more than usual. Silently I poured a double shot of Old Underwear and left the bottle. He drank it, poured another.

I wiped the bar top. “How’s the ‘Unmarried Mother’ racket?”

His fingers tightened on the glass and he seemed about to throw it at me; I felt for the sap under the bar. In temporal manipulation you try to figure everything, but there are so many factors that you never take needless risks.

I saw him relax that tiny amount they teach you to watch for in the Bureau’s training school. “Sorry,” I said. “Just asking, ‘How’s business?’ Make it ‘How’s the weather?'”

He looked sour. “Business is okay. I write ’em, they print ’em, I eat.”

I poured myself one, leaned toward him. “Matter of fact,” I said, “you write a nice stick — I’ve sampled a few. You have an amazingly sure touch with the woman’s angle.”

It was a slip I had to risk; he never admitted what pen-names he used. But he was boiled enough to pick up only the last: “‘Woman’s angle!'” he repeated with a snort. “Yeah, I know the woman’s angle. I should.”

“So?” I said doubtfully. “Sisters?”

“No. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Now, now,” I answered mildly, “bartenders and psychiatrists learn that nothing is stranger than truth. Why, son, if you heard the stories I do — well, you’d make yourself rich. Incredible.”

“You don’t know what ‘incredible’ means!”

“So? Nothing astonishes me. I’ve always heard worse.” He snorted again. “Want to bet the rest of the bottle?”

“I’ll bet a full bottle.” I placed one on the bar.

“Well –” I signaled my other bartender to handle the trade. We were at the far end, a single-stool space that I kept private by loading the bar top by it with jars of pickled eggs and other clutter. A few were at the other end watching the fights and somebody was playing the juke box — private as a bed where we were.

“Okay,” he began, “to start with, I’m a bastard.”

“No distinction around here,” I said.

“I mean it,” he snapped. “My parents weren’t married.”

“Still no distinction,” I insisted. “Neither were mine.”

“When –” He stopped, gave me the first warm look I ever saw on him. “You mean that?”

“I do. A one-hundred-percent bastard. In fact,” I added, “no one in my family ever marries. All bastards.”

“Oh, that.” I showed it to him. “It just looks like a wedding ring; I wear it to keep women off.” It is an antique I bought in 1985 from a fellow operative — he had fetched it from pre-Christian Crete. “The Worm Ouroboros… the World Snake that eats its own tail, forever without end. A symbol of the Great Paradox.”

He barely glanced at it. “If you’re really a bastard, you know how it feels. When I was a little girl –”

“Wups!” I said. “Did I hear you correctly?”

“Who’s telling this story? When I was a little girl — Look, ever hear of Christine Jorgenson? Or Roberta Cowell?”

“Uh, sex-change cases? You’re trying to tell me –”

“Don’t interrupt or swelp me, I won’t talk. I was a foundling, left at an orphanage in Cleveland in 1945 when I was a month old. When I was a little girl, I envied kids with parents. Then, when I learned about sex — and, believe me, Pop, you learn fast in an orphanage –”

“I know.”

“– I made a solemn vow that any kid of mine would have both a pop and a mom. It kept me ‘pure,’ quite a feat in that vicinity — I had to learn to fight to manage it. Then I got older and realized I stood darn little chance of getting married — for the same reason I hadn’t been adopted.” He scowled. “I was horse-faced and buck-toothed, flat-chested and straight-haired.”

“You don’t look any worse than I do.”

“Who cares how a barkeep looks? Or a writer? But people wanting to adopt pick little blue-eyed golden-haired morons. Later on, the boys want bulging breasts, a cute face, and an Oh-you-wonderful-male manner.” He shrugged. “I couldn’t compete. So I decided to join the W.E.N.C.H.E.S.

“Eh?”

“Women’s Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section, what they now call ‘Space Angels’ — Auxiliary Nursing Group, Extraterrestrial Legions.'”

I knew both terms, once I had them chronized. We use still a third name, it’s that elite military service corps: Women’s Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen. Vocabulary shift is the worst hurdle in time-jumps — did you know that a ‘service station’ once served oil fractions?

Once on an assignment in the Churchill Era, a woman said to me, ‘Meet me at the service station next door’ — which is not what it sounds; a ‘service station’ (then) wouldn’t have a bed in it.

He went on: “It was when they first admitted you can’t send men into space for months and years and not relieve the tension. You remember how the wowsers screamed? — that improved my chance, since volunteers were scarce. A gal had to be respectable, preferably virgin (they liked to train them from scratch), above average mentally, and stable emotionally. But most volunteers were old hookers, or neurotics who would crack up ten days off Earth.

So I didn’t need looks; if they accepted me, they would fix my buck teeth, put a wave in my hair, teach me to walk and dance and how to listen to a man pleasingly, and everything else — plus training for the prime duties. They would even use plastic surgery if it would help — nothing too good for our Boys.

“Best yet, they made sure you didn’t get pregnant during your enlistment — and you were almost certain to marry at the end of your hitch. Same way today, A.N.G.E.L.S. marry spacers — they talk the language.

“When I was eighteen I was placed as a ‘mother’s helper’. This family simply wanted a cheap servant, but I didn’t mind as I couldn’t enlist till I was twenty-one. I did housework and went to night school — pretending to continue my high school typing and shorthand but going to a charm class instead, to better my chances for enlistment.

“Then I met this city slicker with his hundred-dollar bills.” He scowled. “The no-good actually did have a wad of hundred-dollar bills. He showed me one night, told me to help myself.

“But I didn’t. I liked him. He was the first man I ever met who was nice to me without trying games with me. I quit night school to see him oftener. It was the happiest time of my life.

“Then one night in the park the games began.”

He stopped. I said, “And then?”

“And then nothing! I never saw him again. He walked me home and told me he loved me — and kissed me good-night and never came back.” He looked grim. “If I could find him, I’d kill him!”

“Well,” I sympathized, “I know how you feel. But killing him — just for doing what comes naturally — hmm… Did you struggle?”

“Huh? What’s that got to do with it?”

“Quite a bit. Maybe he deserves a couple of broken arms for running out on you, but –”

“He deserves worse than that! Wait till you hear. Somehow I kept anyone from suspecting and decided it was all for the best. I hadn’t really loved him and probably would never love anybody — and I was more eager to join the W.E.N.C.H.E.S. than ever. I wasn’t disqualified, they didn’t insist on virgins. I cheered up.

“It wasn’t until my skirts got tight that I realized.”

“Pregnant?”

“He had me higher ‘n a kite! Those skinflints I lived with ignored it as long as I could work — then kicked me out, and the orphanage wouldn’t take me back. I landed in a charity ward surrounded by other big bellies and trotted bedpans until my time came.

“One night I found myself on an operating table, with a nurse saying, ‘Relax. Now breathe deeply.’

“I woke up in bed, numb from the chest down. My surgeon came in. ‘How do you feel?’ he says cheerfully.

“‘Like a mummy.’

“‘Naturally. You’re wrapped like one and full of dope to keep you numb. You’ll get well — but a Cesarean isn’t a hangnail.’

“‘Cesarean’ I said. ‘Doc — did I lose the baby?’

“‘Oh, no. Your baby’s fine.’

“Oh. Boy or girl?

“‘A healthy little girl. Five pounds, three ounces.’

“I relaxed. It’s something, to have made a baby. I told myself I would go somewhere and tack ‘Mrs.’ on my name and let the kid think her papa was dead — no orphanage for my kid!

“But the surgeon was talking. ‘Tell me, uh –‘ He avoided my name. ‘did you ever think your glandular setup was odd?’

“I said, ‘Huh? Of course not. What are you driving at?’

“He hesitated. ‘I’ll give you this in one dose, then a hypo to let you sleep off your jitters. You’ll have ’em.’

“‘Why?’ I demanded.

“‘Ever hear of that Scottish physician who was female until she was thirty five? — then had surgery and became legally and medically a man? Got married. All okay.’

“‘What’s that got to do with me?’

“‘That’s what I’m saying. You’re a man.’

“I tried to sit up. ‘What?’

“‘Take it easy. When I opened you, I found a mess. I sent for the Chief of Surgery while I got the baby out, then we held a consultation with you on the table — and worked for hours to salvage what we could. You had two full sets of organs, both immature, but with the female set well enough developed for you to have a baby.

“’They could never be any use to you again, so we took them out and rearranged things so that you can develop properly as a man.’ He put a hand on me. ‘Don’t worry. You’re young, your bones will readjust, we’ll watch your glandular balance — and make a fine young man out of you.’

“I started to cry. ‘What about my baby?’

“‘Well, you can’t nurse her, you haven’t milk enough for a kitten. If I were you, I wouldn’t see her — put her up for adoption.’

“‘No!’

“He shrugged. ‘The choice is yours; you’re her mother — well, her parent. But don’t worry now; we’ll get you well first.’

“Next day they let me see the kid and I saw her daily — trying to get used to her. I had never seen a brand-new baby and had no idea how awful they look — my daughter looked like an orange monkey. My feelings changed to cold determination to do right by her. But four weeks later that didn’t mean anything.”

“Eh?”

“She was snatched.”

“‘Snatched?'”

The Unmarried Mother almost knocked over the bottle we had bet. “Kidnapped — stolen from the hospital nursery!” He breathed hard. “How’s that for taking the last a man’s got to live for?”

“A bad deal,” I agreed. “Let’s pour you another. No clues?”

“Nothing the police could trace. Somebody came to see her, claimed to be her uncle. While the nurse had her back turned, he walked out with her.”

“Description?”

“Just a man, with a face-shaped face, like yours or mine.” He frowned. “I think it was the baby’s father. The nurse swore it was an older man but he probably used makeup. Who else would swipe my baby? Childless women pull such stunts — but whoever heard of a man doing it?”

“What happened to you then?”

“Eleven more months of that grim place and three operations. In four months I started to grow a beard; before I was out I was shaving regularly… and no longer doubted that I was male.” He grinned wryly. “I was staring down nurses necklines.”

“Well,” I said, “seems to me you came through okay. Here you are, a normal man, making good money, no real troubles. And the life of a female is not an easy one.”

He glared at me. “A lot you know about it!”

“So?”

“Ever hear the expression ‘a ruined woman’?”

“Mmm, years ago. Doesn’t mean much today.”

“I was as ruined as a woman can be; that bum really ruined me — I was no longer a woman… and I didn’t know how to be a man.”

“Takes getting used to, I suppose.”

“You have no idea. I don’t mean learning how to dress, or not walking into the wrong rest room; I learned those in the hospital. But how could I live? What job could I get? Hell, I couldn’t even drive a car. I didn’t know a trade; I couldn’t do manual labor — too much scar tissue, too tender.

“I hated him for having ruined me for the W.E.N.C.H.E.S., too, but I didn’t know how much until I tried to join the Space Corps instead. One look at my belly and I was marked unfit for military service. The medical officer spent time on me just from curiosity; he had read about my case.

“So I changed my name and came to New York. I got by as a fry cook, then rented a typewriter and set myself up as a public stenographer — what a laugh! In four months I typed four letters and one manuscript. The manuscript was for Real Life Tales and a waste of paper, but the goof who wrote it sold it.

“Which gave me an idea; I bought a stack of confession magazines and studied them.” He looked cynical. “Now you know how I get the authentic woman’s angle on an unmarried-mother story… through the only version I haven’t sold — the true one. Do I win the bottle?”

I pushed it toward him. I was upset myself, but there was work to do. I said, “Son, you still want to lay hands on that so-and-so?”

His eyes lighted up — a feral gleam.

“Hold it!” I said. “You wouldn’t kill him?”

He chuckled nastily. “Try me.”

“Take it easy. I know more about it than you think I do. I can help you. I know where he is.”

He reached across the bar. “Where is he?”

I said softly, “Let go my shirt, sonny — or you’ll land in the alley and we’ll tell the cops you fainted.” I showed him the sap.

He let go. “Sorry. But where is he?” He looked at me. “And how do you know so much?”

“All in good time. There are records — hospital records, orphanage records, medical records. The matron of your orphanage was Mrs. Fetherage — right? She was followed by Mrs. Gruenstein — right? Your name, as a girl, was ‘Jane’ — right? And you didn’t tell me any of this — right?”

I had him baffled and a bit scared. “What’s this? You trying to make trouble for me?”

“No indeed. I’ve your welfare at heart. I can put this character in your lap. You do to him as you see fit — and I guarantee that you’ll get away with it. But I don’t think you’ll kill him. You’d be nuts to — and you aren’t nuts. Not quite.”

He brushed it aside. “Cut the noise. Where is he?” I poured him a short one; he was drunk, but anger was offsetting it. “Not so fast. I do something for you — you do something for me.”

“Uh… what?”

“You don’t like your work. What would you say to high pay, steady work, unlimited expense account, your own boss on the job, and lots of variety and adventure?”

He stared. “I’d say, ‘Get those goddam reindeer off my roof!’ Shove it, Pop — there’s no such job.”

“Okay, put it this way: I hand him to you, you settle with him, then try my job. If it’s not all I claim — well, I can’t hold you.”

He was wavering; the last drink did it. “When d’yuh d’liver ‘im?” he said thickly.

He shoved out his hand. “It’s a deal!”

“If it’s a deal — right now!”

I nodded to my assistant to watch both ends, noted the time — 2300 — started to duck through the gate under the bar — when the juke box blared out: “I’m My Own Grandpa!” The service man had orders to load it with Americana and classics because I couldn’t stomach the ‘music’ of 1970, but I hadn’t known that tape was in it.

I called out, “Shut that off! Give the customer his money back.” I added, “Storeroom, back in a moment,” and headed there with my Unmarried Mother following.

It was down the passage across from the johns, a steel door to which no one but my day manager and myself had a key; inside was a door to an inner room to which only I had a key. We went there.

He looked blearily around at windowless walls. “Where is he?”

“Right away.” I opened a case, the only thing in the room; it was a U. S. F. F. Coordinates Transformer Field Kit, series 1992, Mod. II — a beauty, no moving parts, weight twenty-three kilos fully charged, and shaped to pass as a suitcase. I had adjusted it precisely earlier that day; all I had to do was to shake out the metal net which limits the transformation field.

Which I did. “What’s that?” he demanded.

“Time machine,” I said and tossed the net over us.

“Hey!” he yelled and stepped back. There is a technique to this; the net has to be thrown so that the subject will instinctively step back onto the metal mesh, then you close the net with both of you inside completely — else you might leave shoe soles behind or a piece of foot, or scoop up a slice of floor. But that’s all the skill it takes. Some agents con a subject into the net; I tell the truth and use that instant of utter astonishment to flip the switch. Which I did.

1030 VI 3 April 1963Cleveland, Ohio Apex Bldg.: “Hey!” he repeated. “Take this damn thing off!”

“Sorry”, I apologized and did so, stuffed the net into the case, closed it. “You said you wanted to find him.”

“But — you said that was a time machine!”

I pointed out a window. “Does that look like November? Or New York?” While he was gawking at new buds and spring weather, I reopened the case, took out a packet of hundred-dollar bills, checked that the numbers and signatures were compatible with 1963. The Temporal Bureau doesn’t care how much you spend (it costs nothing) but they don’t like unnecessary anachronisms. Too many mistakes, and a general court-martial will exile you for a year in a nasty period, say 1974 with its strict rationing and forced labor. I never make such mistakes; the money was okay.

He turned around and said, “What happened?”

“He’s here. Go outside and take him. Here’s expense money.” I shoved it at him and added, “Settle him, then I’ll pick you up.”

Hundred-dollar bills have a hypnotic effect on a person not used to them. He was thumbing them unbelievingly as I eased him into the hall, locked him out. The next jump was easy, a small shift in era.

7100 VI 10 March 1964 Cleveland Apex Bldg.: There was a notice under the door saying that my lease expired next week; otherwise the room looked as it had a moment before. Outside, trees were bare and snow threatened; I hurried, stopping only for contemporary money and a coat, hat, and topcoat I had left there when I leased the room. I hired a car, went to the hospital. It took twenty minutes to bore the nursery attendant to the point where I could swipe the baby without being noticed. We went back to the Apex Building. This dial setting was more involved, as the building did not yet exist in 1945. But I had precalculated it.

0100 VI 20 Sept. 1945 Cleveland Skyview Motel: Field kit, baby, and I arrived in a motel outside town. Earlier I had registered as “Gregory Johnson, Warren, Ohio,” so we arrived in a room with curtains closed, windows locked, and doors bolted, and the floor cleared to allow for waver as the machine hunts. You can get a nasty bruise from a chair where it shouldn’t be — not the chair, of course, but backlash from the field.

No trouble. Jane was sleeping soundly; I carried her out, put her in a grocery box on the seat of a car I had provided earlier, drove to the orphanage, put her on the steps, drove two blocks to a ‘service station’ (the petroleum-products sort) and phoned the orphanage, drove back in time to see them taking the box inside, kept going and abandoned the car near the motel — walked to it and jumped forward to the Apex Building in 1963.

2200 VI 24 April 1963 Cleveland Apex Bldg.: I had cut the time rather fine — temporal accuracy depends on span, except on return to zero. If I had it right, Jane was discovering, out in the park this balmy spring night, that she wasn’t quite as nice a girl as she had thought. I grabbed a taxi to the home of those skinflints, had the hackie wait around a comer while I lurked in shadows.

Presently I spotted them down the street, arms around each other. He took her up on the porch and made a long job of kissing her good-night — longer than I thought. Then she went in and he came down the walk, turned away. I slid into step and hooked an arm in his. “That’s all, son,” I announced quietly. “I’m back to pick you up.”

“You!” He gasped and caught his breath.

“Me. Now you know who he is — and after you think it over you’ll know who you are… and if you think hard enough, you’ll figure out who the baby is… and who I am.”

He didn’t answer, he was badly shaken. It’s a shock to have it proved to you that you can’t resist seducing yourself. I took him to the Apex Building and we jumped again.

2300 VIII12 Aug. 1985 Sub Rockies Base: I woke the duty sergeant, showed my I. D., told the sergeant to bed my companion down with a happy pill and recruit him in the morning. The sergeant looked sour, but rank is rank, regardless of era; he did what I said — thinking, no doubt, that the next time we met he might be the colonel and I the sergeant. Which can happen in our corps. “What name?” he asked.

I wrote it out. He raised his eyebrows. “Like so, eh? Hmm –”

“You just do your job, Sergeant.” I turned to my companion.

“Son, your troubles are over. You’re about to start the best job a man ever held — and you’ll do well. I know.”

“That you will!” agreed the sergeant. “Look at me — born in 1917 — still around, still young, still enjoying life.” I went back to the jump room, set everything on preselected zero.

2301 V 7 Nov. 1970 NYC “Pop’s Place”: I came out of the storeroom carrying a fifth of Drambuie to account for the minute I had been gone. My assistant was arguing with the customer who had been playing “I’m My Own Grandpa!” I said, “Oh, let him play it, then unplug it.” I was very tired.

It’s rough, but somebody must do it, and it’s very hard to recruit anyone in the later years, since the Mistake of 1972. Can you think of a better source than to pick people all fouled up where they are and give them well-paid, interesting (even though dangerous) work in a necessary cause? Everybody knows now why the Fizzle War of 1963 fizzled. The bomb with New York’s number on it didn’t go off, a hundred other things didn’t go as planned — all arranged by the likes of me.

But not the Mistake of ’72; that one is not our fault — and can’t be undone; there’s no paradox to resolve. A thing either is, or it isn’t, now and forever amen. But there won’t be another like it; an order dated ‘1992’ takes precedence any year.

I closed five minutes early, leaving a letter in the cash register telling my day manager that I was accepting his offer to buy me out, to see my lawyer as I was leaving on a long vacation. The Bureau might or might not pick up his payments, but they want things left tidy. I went to the room in the back of the storeroom and forward to 1993.

2200 VII — 12 Jan 1993 Sub Rockies Annex HQ Temporal DOL: I checked in with the duty officer and went to my quarters, intending to sleep for a week. I had fetched the bottle we bet (after all, I won it) and took a drink before I wrote my report. It tasted foul, and I wondered why I had ever liked Old Underwear. But it was better than nothing; I don’t like to be cold sober, I think too much. But I don’t really hit the bottle either; other people have snakes — I have people.

I dictated my report; forty recruitments all okayed by the Psych Bureau — counting my own, which I knew would be okayed. I was here, wasn’t I? Then I taped a request for assignment to operations; I was sick of recruiting. I dropped both in the slot and headed for bed. My eye fell on ‘The By-Laws of Time,’ over my bed:

– Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow.
If at Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again.
– A Stitch in Time Saves Nine Billion.
– A Paradox May Be Paradoctored.
– It Is Earlier When You Think.
– Ancestors Are Just People.
Even Jove Nods.

They didn’t inspire me the way they had when I was a recruit; thirty subjective-years of time-jumping wears you down. I undressed, and when I got down to the hide I looked at my belly. A Cesarean leaves a big scar, but I’m so hairy now that I don’t notice it unless I look for it.

Then I glanced at the ring on my finger.

The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever. I know where I came from — but where did all you zombies come from?

I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I do not take. I did once — and you all went away.

So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light.

You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anybody but me — Jane — here alone in the dark.

I miss you dreadfully!

Ouroborus

 

 

All You Zombies

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More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…

———

Happiness
By Carl Sandburg

Sandburg C

Carl August Sandburg (1878-1967)

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life
to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer and an
accordion.

———

Pad, Pad
By Stevie Smith

Smith FM

Florence Margaret Smith (1902-1971)

I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind.
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.

———

Opportunity
By John James Ingalls

Ingalls JJ

John James Ingalls (1833-1900)

Master of human destinies am I;
Fame, love and fortune on my footsteps wait.
Cities and fields I walk. I penetrate
Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by
Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late,
I knock unbidden once at every gate.

If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise, before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate,
And they who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death; but those who hesitate
Condemned to failure, penury and woe,
Seek me in vain, and uselessly implore.
I answer not, and I return no more.

———

Text
By Carol Ann Duffy

Duffy CA

Carol Ann Duffy (B. 1955)

I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird

We text, text, text
our significant words.

I re-read your first,
your second, your third,

look for your small xx,
feeling absurd.

The codes we send
arrive with a broken chord.

I try to picture your hands,
their image is blurred.

Nothing my thumbs press
will ever be heard.

———

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
By Robert Herrick

Herrick R

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

 

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Considering the vast resources of the Internet, I thought Googling a name as distinctive as Albert Hernhuter would be fast and fruitful. I was wrong.

Albert Hernhuter is the author of a bunch of science fiction short stories from the 1950s. For reasons unexplained, he published them under five different names: Albert Hernhuter, Al Hernhuter, Albert Hemhuter, Albert Hernhunter, and Bert Ahearne.

Online, I found almost nothing about the guy. I learned that an Albert L. Hernhuter was born in Los Angeles in 1934; that an Albert Leopold Hernhuter published an “aviation weather study guide” in 1967; and that an Albert L. Hernhuter, age 84, now lives in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Is this our Albert Hernhuter? Is it three different Albert Hernhuters? It’s a puzzlement.

Anyway, with that meager introduction, here is one of the Hernhuter short stories, a quirky tale about the line between fantasy and reality, published under his apparent real name.

———

Texas Week

By Albert Hernhuter
Published in Fantastic Universe, January 1954

The slick black car sped along the wide and straight street. It came to a smooth stop in front of a clean white house. A man got out of the car and walked briskly to the door. Reaching out with a pink hand, he pressed the doorbell with one well-manicured finger.

The door was answered by a housewife. She was wearing a white blouse, a green skirt and a green apron trimmed with white. Her feet were tucked into orange slippers, her blonde hair was done up in a neat bun. She was dressed as the government had ordered for that week.

The man said, “You are Mrs. Christopher Nest?”

There was a trace of anxiety in her voice as she answered. “Yes. And you are…?”

“My name is Maxwell Hanstark. As you may already know, I am the official psychiatrist for this district. My appointment will last until the end of this year.”

Mrs. Nest invited him in. They stepped into a clean living-room. At one end was the television set, at the other end were several chairs. There was nothing between the set and the chairs except a large grey rug which stretched from wall to wall. They walked to the chairs and sat down.

“Now, just what is the matter with your husband, Mrs. Nest?”

Mrs. Nest reached into a large bowl and absently picked up a piece of stale popcorn. She daintily placed it in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully before she answered.

“I wish I knew. All he does all day long is sit in the backyard and stare at the grass. He insists that he is standing on top of a cliff.”

Hanstark took out a small pad and a short ball-point pen. He wrote something down before he spoke again. “Is he violent? Did he get angry when you told him there was no cliff?”

Mrs. Nest was silent for a moment. A second piece of popcorn joined the first. Hanstark’s pen was poised above the pad. “No. He didn’t get violent.”

Hanstark wrote as he asked the next question. “Just what was his reaction?”

“He said I must be crazy.”

“Were those his exact words?”

“No. He said that I was –” She thought for a moment — “loco. Yes, that was the word.”

“Loco?”

“Yes. He said it just like those cowboys on the television.”

Hanstark looked puzzled. “Perhaps you had better tell me more about this. When did he first start acting this way?”

Mrs. Nest glanced up at the television set, then back at Hanstark. “It was right after Texas Week. You remember — they showed all of those old cowboy pictures.”

Hanstark nodded.

“Well, he stayed up every night watching them. Some nights he didn’t even go to sleep. Even after the set was off, he sat in one of the chairs, just staring at the screen. This morning, when I got up, he wasn’t in the house. I looked all over but I couldn’t find him. I was just about ready to phone the police when I glanced out the window into the backyard. And I saw him.”

“What was he doing?”

“He was just sitting there in the middle of the yard, staring. I went out and tried to bring him into the house. He told me he had to watch for someone. When I asked him what he was talking about he told me that I was crazy. That was when I phoned you, Mr. Hanstark.”

“A very wise move, Mrs. Nest. And would you show me where your husband is right now?”

She nodded her head and they both got up from the chairs. They walked through the dining-room and kitchen. On the back porch Hanstark came to a halt.

“You’d better stay here, Mrs. Nest.” He walked to the door and opened it.

“Mr. Hanstark,” Mrs. Nest called.

Hanstark turned and saw her standing next to the automatic washing machine. “Yes?”

“Please be careful.”

Hanstark smiled. “I shall be, Mrs. Nest.”

He walked out the door and down three concrete steps. Looking a little to his right, he saw a man squatted on his heels. He walked up to the man. “You are Mr. Christopher Nest?”

The man looked up and stared for a moment at Hanstark. “Yep,” he answered. Then he turned and stared at the grass again.

“And may I ask you what you are doing?”

Nest answered without looking up. “Guardin’ the pass.”

Hanstark scribbled something in his notebook. “And why are you guarding the pass?”

Nest rose to his feet and stared down at Hanstark. “Just what are you askin’ all of these questions for, stranger?”

Hanstark saw Nest was bigger than he and decided to play along for a while. After all, strategy…

“I’m just interested in your welfare, Mr. Nest.”

Nest shrugged his shoulders. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a sack of tobacco and some paper. Holding a piece of paper in one hand, he carefully poured a little tobacco onto it. In one quick movement he rolled the paper and tobacco into a perfect cylinder.

He put the sack of tobacco and paper back into his pocket and took out a wooden kitchen match. He scraped it to life on the sole of his shoe and applied the flame to the tip of the cigarette. He puffed it into life and threw the match away. It burned for a few moments in the moist grass, then went out. A thin trail of smoke rose from it, and then was gone.

“Why are you guarding the pass?” Hanstark asked again.

Nest resumed his crouch on the grass. “News is around that Dirty Dan the cattle rustler is gonna try to steal some of my cattle.” He patted an imaginary holster at his side. “And I aim to stop him.”

Hanstark thought for a moment. Strategy — he must use strategy. “Mr. Nest.” He waited until Nest had turned to him. “Mr. Nest. What would you say if I told you that there was no pass down there?”

“Why shucks, pardner. I’d say you’d been chewin’ some loco weed.”

“And if I could prove it?”

Nest answered after a moment’s pause. “Why then, I guess I’d be loco.”

Hanstark thought it was going to be easy. “Mr. Nest, it is a well known fact that no one can walk in mid-air. Is that not true?”

Nest took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke out of his nostrils. “Shore.”

“Then if I were to walk out above your pass you’d have to admit there is no pass.”

“Reckon so.”

Hanstark began to walk in the direction of Nest’s “cliff.” Nest jumped to his feet and grabbed the official psychiatrist by the arm.

“What’re you tryin’ to do,” Nest said angrily, “kill yourself?”

Hanstark shook free of his grasp. “Mr. Nest, I am not going to kill myself. I am merely going to walk in that direction.” He pointed to where the cliff was supposed to be. “To you it will look as if I were walking in mid-air.”

Nest dropped his hands to his sides. “Shucks, I don’t care if you kill yourself. It’s just that it’s liable to make the cattle nervous.”

Hanstark gave him a cold glare and began to walk. He took three paces and stopped. “You see, Mr. Nest. There is no cliff.”

Nest looked at him and laughed. “You just take one more step and you’ll find there is a cliff!”

Hanstark took another step — a long one. His face bore a surprised look as he disappeared beneath the grass. His screams could be heard for a moment before he landed on the rocks below.

Nest walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the mangled body. He took off his hat in respect. “Little feller had a lotta guts.” Then he added, “Poor little feller.”

He put his hat back on and looked down at the entrance to the valley. A horse and rider appeared from behind several rocks.

“Dirty Dan!” Nest exclaimed. He reached down and picked up his rifle.

Bye-2

 

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It occurs to me that I haven’t posted a story by W.L. Alden in a coon‘s age. (The lifespan of a raccoon is several years, so that estimate is about right.)

If you aren’t familiar with William Livingston Alden (1837-1908), you can correct that by reading his stories I posted in 2014 and 2015.

Alden was an interesting character from an era that, to us thoroughly modern folk today, seems decidedly quaint. As quaint, in many ways, as Alden’s humor.

———

The Explosive Dog

By W. L. Alden
Published in Chapman’s Magazine of Fiction, Christmas 1895

I had shut up my own house, and was keeping bachelor’s hall with Professor Van Wagener one summer while his wife was away on a visit to her mother. Whenever Van Wagener went in extensively for chemical experiments, Mrs. Van Wagener always went to stay with her mother.

She used to say that she never knew from one minute to another when Van Wagener would blow himself up; and to sit in her room waiting for an explosion, and wondering whether there would be enough of her husband’s remains left to satisfy the life insurance company that he was really dead, was more than a weak woman’s nerves could bear.

There was nobody in the house except the Professor and I, and his big St. Bernard dog. We used to get our own breakfast with a spirit lamp, and go to the nearest hotel for our dinners. Van Wagener was in his laboratory nearly all day, and as my room was in another part of the house I was not much disturbed by the small explosions that I heard now and then.

One evening the Professor came into my room while I was smoking my after-dinner cigar, carrying a tea-cupful of a sort of thick bluish paste. He set it down on the table, and then, dropping into a chair, informed me that he had just succeeded in perfecting the greatest invention of the age.

“I have known you to do that at least thirty-four times,” said I. “What sort of an invention is it this time?”

“I have invented,” said Van Wagener solemnly, “the most powerful explosive in the world. As compared with nitroglycerine it will explode with at least two hundred times greater violence. You see that teacup. It holds just about an ounce of my explosive. Well, sir, if that was to explode at this minute there wouldn’t be a piece of this house left large enough to submit to chemical analysis.”

“And you calmly bring the diabolical thing into my room and put it on my table!” said I. “Van Wagener, I must bid you good evening. I’ve an engagement down town, and I shall probably have to go to Chicago tonight.”

I meant what I said, for I hadn’t the least confidence in Van Wagener’s inventions, and I was expecting that his tea-cupful of the new explosive would get its work in before I could escape from the house.

“That’s all nonsense!” said the Professor. “My explosive is absolutely safe. You can set fire to it, or you can pound it with a hammer, and you can’t make it explode. The only thing you have to be careful about is not to bring it into contact with any animal fat. Drop the smallest particle of lard, or butter, or anything of that sort into that teacup, and you’ll see the most tremendous explosion that has taken place since Krakatoa blew up.”

I didn’t make any reply, but I just took that teacup and its contents and carried it out to the extreme end of the backyard, and set it down under a gooseberry bush, saying my prayers meanwhile. Then I came back to the house and told Van Wagener that if he didn’t manage to get rid of it the first thing next morning, I would not only leave him, but would have him arrested as a dangerous lunatic.

I will say this for him, that he was the sweetest tempered man in the world. He only laughed at me, and promising to dispose of the explosive in some safe way, proposed that we should walk down to the post-office, so that he could mail a letter to his wife.

We were gone about an hour, and when we returned I went with Van Wagener into the backyard to see him bury his explosive where it would be perfectly safe, and where he could dig it up after Mrs. Van Wagener had returned, and I was out of the house.

We took a tin can and a spade with us, but when we came to the gooseberry bush we were knocked all in a heap, as you might say, to find that the teacup was empty, and as clean as if it had been washed in hot water.

Van Wagener couldn’t understand it, but he was inclined to think that some rival scientific man had got wind of his invention, and had stolen the explosive in order to analyze it.

I didn’t take any stock in this theory, for I knew that if any one had stolen the explosive he would have stolen the cup as well. Even a first-class scientific man would have sense enough to do that, so I made up my mind that no man had stolen the thing.

“Has your explosive any taste?” I asked.

“It tastes very much like warm ice cream,” said Van Wagener, though where he ever saw any warm ice cream he didn’t condescend to explain.

“I suppose you mean that it is soft and sweet?” said I.

“Exactly,” he replied. “I think you’d rather like the taste of it, and it wouldn’t do you any harm to eat it — that is, if you didn’t eat any fatty substance at the same time.”

“Then I can tell you what has become of it,” said I. “That idiot of a dog of yours has eaten it up. I’ll run over to my house for a gun, and we’ll shoot him at once, before he explodes.”

“You won’t do anything of the kind,” said Van Wagener.

“Why, my wife thinks almost as much of that dog as she does of me, and I’d as soon commit murder as kill him.”

There wasn’t anything more to be said, and the Professor and I turned back towards the house. There on the front step was sitting that infamous dog, licking his chops and wagging his tail with the general air of having earned a good dinner by hard and honest labour.

Van Wagener stopped suddenly, and said:

“Come to think of it, there is a possibility that the dog may explode. If he were to get hold of a bit of butter, or a greasy bone, before he digests the explosive, he might manage to blow himself and all the rest of us into the next county.”

“If you won’t kill him,” said I, “at least chain him up as far from the house as possible.”

“You may chain him up if you can,” said the Professor, “but he doesn’t like me, and will never let me touch him.”

“No, thank you!” said I. “You don’t catch me meddling with an explosive dog. I prefer one with the hydrophobia. Let’s get into the house and lock the brute out, and hope that the stuff will poison him before morning.”

It was very easy to propose to get into the house, but the dog didn’t see it in that light. There he sat on the step, and we didn’t dare to go near him, for Van Wagener kept remembering that he had seen the beast licking a greasy plate sometime in the afternoon, and even while we were talking about him he began to lick his paws, to which it was very likely that something of a fatty nature had adhered.

So we sat down to wait till the dog should get good and ready to come down off of the front-step, and permit us to go into the house.

We waited for at least an hour, and that dog made himself comfortable on the doormat, and never paid the slightest attention to our wishes. About eight o’clock, however, the idea seemed to strike him that perhaps he had not been quite as sociable as he ought to have been, and that possibly he might have hurt our feelings.

So all of a sudden he got up, and came running over to us to make his apologies. We didn’t stop to listen to him, but seized the opportunity to make a run for the house, telling the dog to “get out, you brute!” in a tone that would have convinced any sensible beast that we didn’t wish for his society.

But he was a forgiving animal, and affecting to regard our manner towards him as a mere joke, he trotted after us, and squeezed by us into the house. I didn’t care to kick him, for I wasn’t by any means sure that the Professor’s new explosive couldn’t be exploded by concussion; and as for the Professor himself, he knew that the dog would pay no more attention to his requests than would Mrs. Van Wagener herself.

We managed to get upstairs and into my room a yard or two ahead of the dog, but no sooner had we shut the door and bolted it than he sat down, began to paw the panels, and whined for us to let him in.

“How long will he stay there?” said I.

“Probably all night,” replied my friend; “that is, if the explosion doesn’t take place in the meantime.”

“We’ve got to get him downstairs and outside of the house,” said I. “He’s your dog, and you ought to brace up, and make him mind. Try him with one of those biscuits that are there on my table. Walk in front of him and show him the biscuit, and the chances are that he will follow you downstairs, especially if he thinks that you prefer to have him stay here.

“If that plan don’t work we must just let ourselves down out of the window by tying the sheets together. It would be bad enough to be blown up by an Anarchist, but to be blown up by a fool of a dog would be simply disgraceful.”

Van Wagener said he would try the biscuit game, but that he hardly thought it would be a success. It wasn’t. No sooner had he opened the door with a biscuit in his hand than the dog snatched it away from him, and then, being full of gratitude for what he supposed was an act of kindness, he jumped on the Professor, knocked him over, and sprang over his body into the room.

Van Wagener picked himself up, remarking that he hoped there was nothing of a greasy nature about that biscuit, but he rather thought that it felt as if it had been slightly in contact with butter. Then he came over to the corner of the room where I was crouching behind the sofa, and said he was most sincerely sorry for the annoyance he had inadvertently caused me.

The dog meandered around the room in a most genial frame of mind, upsetting small objects with his tail, and now and then barking in a cheerful and friendly way. Presently he caught sight of Van Wagener and myself squeezed together in the corner, and he came and sat down in front of us with his tongue hanging out, and an expression of imbecile goodness in his face that was simply sickening.

“We must get out of this house at once,” said I. “If that brute explodes here we won’t have the ghost of a chance, but an explosion in the open air might not be as certainly fatal as you say it will be. Come along, Professor! Perhaps we can manage to set the dog on a stray cat, and slink away from him while his mind is occupied.”

So we went downstairs again, and out of the house. The dog kept close to us, running around us in a circle, and trying now and then to jump up and put his paws on our shoulders. Nothing I could say could hurt his feelings and depress his spirits. When we came to a street lamp I took a newspaper out of my pocket, and read out loud part of a speech made by an Irish Congressman, showing the ease with which the American-Irish could send two hundred thousand men to England and exterminate the entire English population.

The speech would have sickened any ordinary dog, but that dog of Van Wagener’s never turned a hair. I even made Van Wagener sing a verse of a funeral hymn, but it had no sort of effect.

We walked about a mile away from the house, but we didn’t meet a cat, or anything else that might have distracted the dog’s attention. So at last we gave up all hope, and sat down by the side of the road to rest, and wait for the worst. The dog sat down close beside us, and tried to lick my face. He was the most infernally affectionate brute that I ever saw.

We had been sitting there about ten minutes when I saw the light of a bicycle coming down the road. Now if there was one thing that the dog hated more than another it was a bicycle, and he had got Van Wagener into no end of rows by chasing every bicycle that passed the front gate. I called the dog’s attention to the approaching machine, and when it was close to us, I remarked, “sic it!” in a low tone.

For the first time in his life that infamous dog looked at the bicycle in silence, and never moved a muscle. However, the man on the bicycle made up for the dog’s want of interest. He had heard me say “sic it” to the dog, and he informed Van Wagener and me that we were a couple of murderous tramps, who had tried to set a dog on him; and that he should recognize us the next time he saw us, and have us arrested for trying to upset his machine in order to rob him.

By this time it was getting pretty late, and I was getting tired and reckless. I told the Professor that I was going to my own house to get my gun, and that I would shoot that dog, no matter what he or anyone else might say. Van Wagener made no objection. He was a sensible man in some few things, and he recognized the fact that our only chance of saving ourselves and New Berlinopolisville from an explosion was to kill the dog.

We walked rapidly back towards Van Wagener’s house, which we had to pass in order to reach my own house. The dog trotted along with us, keeping close to my legs, and trying to rub his nose against my hand. It did seem a little cowardly to kill an animal that was so full of affection and confidence in me, but it wasn’t the time to lavish sentiment on an explosive dog. Besides, other people’s lives were at stake as well as mine and the Professor’s; for if the dog should explode within range of the nearest houses, they would be wrecked, and their inmates would perish in the ruins.

But when I got to my house a new difficulty turned up. I had left the key of my door in my room at Van Wagener’s house, and in order to get my gun, I must first get my key. So I gave up the idea of shooting the dog, and being pretty angry with myself, and all the rest of the world, I told Van Wagener that I should go to my room and go to bed, and that if he survived the explosion, and I didn’t, he should put on my tombstone an inscription, saying that my life had been fooled away by a stupid dog and a mad scientific person.

Van Wagener said that of course he would be happy to comply with any wish that I might express, and we opened his front gate and went in without any further words.

We had hardly entered the front yard, and had not yet shut the gate, when a big black cat rushed out past us, and bolted down the road with the dog in hot chase of her. Hope sprang up once more in the bosoms of the Professor and myself. We made haste to shut the gate, and to get into the house. Thanks to that cat there was a chance that our lives would be spared!

The dog was safely outside of the yard, and the fence was so high that we knew he could not jump over it. At the worst he couldn’t explode within thirty yards of our front door, and proud as the Professor was of his new explosive, he admitted that an explosion at that distance would not be absolutely certain to destroy the house.

My own hope was that the dog would chase the cat for a mile or two, and then blow up at a safe distance from any house or person. It was what he owed to us after his idiotic conduct that night, but of course I couldn’t feel any real confidence that he would do his duty.

I sat down in my room to smoke another cigar and calm my nerves a little, and Van Wagener sat down with me, and made no end of apologies for his dog’s aggravating conduct.

I let him talk on for a while, and was on the point of telling him that I wasn’t in the least alarmed, and didn’t believe his new explosive would explode at all, when there took place the most tremendous explosion that I had ever heard — and I had heard a good many tidy explosions in my time; having once been blown up in a powder-mill; and having been quite near to Butler’s powder-ship when it blew up opposite to Fort Wilmington.

This explosion was like three powder-mills and half-a-dozen tropical thunderstorms rolled into one. It broke every pane of glass in the house, and made the whole building rock as if an earthquake had shaken it.

The Professor’s face was just beaming with delight.

“That’s the dog at last!” said he. “I do hope nobody has been killed; but you must admit that an ounce of my explosive is the only one in the world that could possibly have made such a tremendous noise.”

“We’ll go out and see what damage has been done,” said I. “If you’ll listen to me, Van Wagener, you’ll not say a word to anyone about your explosive. There won’t be dog enough left to be identified as yours, and if you keep quiet no one will suspect that you have had anything to do with the explosion.”

We opened the front gate to go out, and nearly fell over the dog, who was sitting there waiting to be let in, and looking as innocent as if no explosion had ever taken place.

“I see it all now,” said Van Wagener. “That poor dog never touched the explosive. It was a stray cat that ate it, and has paid the penalty, and we have been suspecting the dog wrongfully all night.”

That was just what had happened. That dog was as innocent as a child unhung. He was no more liable to explode than a frozen Eskimo, and yet Van Wagener and I had been living for the last eight hours in mortal terror of him.

I didn’t know whether to apologize to the animal or to kick him; I did know, however, that I should have liked to kick myself, if it had been feasible.

That explosion made a great deal of talk in New Berlinopolisville. It didn’t do any harm, for when the cat exploded she was at least a mile from any house, and she merely made a hole in the ground about as big and as deep as the cellar of a house.

The police made an investigation, and decided that the explosion was the work of Anarchists, and that in all probability the wretches had themselves fallen victims to their own dynamite.

Well, I don’t know that they weren’t right, for as a general rule a cat is about as thoroughgoing an Anarchist as can be found, with the single exception that a cat washes herself.

St. Bernard

 

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