She was airborne! a miracle of engineering, even if centuries old engineering. Always, whenever an airship such as this lifted off, the sheer bulk of her overwhelmed the ground crews. They often stopped necessary, demanding work on the lines to stare upwards with sheer dumb amazement as something so colossal floated away, seemingly as light as a goose feather.
After going to the galley to see that her flock would be properly fed, Miss de Waals finished doing the roster, which normally was done by the captain or a lieutenant, after being handed officially to the bridge. Now the captain was in even worse shape than the Chief Steward to attempt an unscheduled return trip to Lakehurst, which would take them at least 17 hours with a fair tail wind, plus a 90-hour transatlantic crossing. The roster, under the circumstances, was the least of his concerns at the moment. After he had stumbled on board without a moment to spare, he was still in no condition to administer a ship, so while he was being drenched with coffee and cold compresses on the bridge Miss de Waals did his job for him.
The captain, lying outstretched on his couch, was finally enabled to croak out the command, "Ship Up," but only after repeated promptings by his first lieutenant and many coffees and cold compresses. Two officers in pristine white ducks and gold braid then began turning wheels, one at the helm of the bridge controlling the rudder, the other a portside elevator wheel that made the Atlantis go either up or down.
She took the opportunity to receive condolences as to the swift passing of her dear brother, and gave the delinquent commanding officer's apologies for the silly little to-do at the ticket counter. Perhaps the noble lady spoke too soon, or categorically. Unknown to her and the captain, at least three passengers remained unaccounted for aboard ship. Precisely when Miss de Waals was making rounds of staterooms and facilities and completing her last-minute, confidential errand with a bulging hot water bottle that contained no hot water, an unidentified person was in the woman's latrine on the lower B Deck of the control car. He had just tested out a fresh bottle of Jamaican rum newly arrived via a smuggling ring in Galveston and Vernon (Mexican Empire connection).
Wondering why he couldn't find the urinal, but resting on one of the handy seats in the loo, he had just concluded a private tour. Until the embarkation of Miss de Waals's group, his excursion had taken him through staterooms, galley, and even officer's quarters. No one in the crew stopped him since he was obviously, like the ship up to the last moment, Reno-bound.
A second passenger missing from Miss de Waals' revised roster boarded late. He was the only one aboard with a cool million.
He was so overcome he immediately forgot what he had said and began again. “Bless me, if it isn't old--"
After finding his way out of the loo, it was a happy event, indeed, to meet a golfing acquaintance.
"Got a decent smoke for an old buddy?" the nonplused Hodgkins shot back, rolling his eyes counterclockwise like Eddy Cantor. Sighing and shaking his head, Mr. Olson relented. Hodgkins was soon enjoying Olson's fine Inglebrooks. A cigar between strangers is impossible. It broke the ice and they began to chat. Both widowers more than comfortably well off, they might talk. Maybe, as businessmen, they would sooner or later find passable ground.
So they took up Prime Minister Culp's effort to save what was left of "Mother Europe" from the Red-Coats through the Culp Plan. Holding stadholder powers as well, Culp was as good as a dictator and everything he wanted to do scarcely ever required a vote. Hodgkins, espousing New Zealand over the free-spending federals at New s' Gravenhage, had plenty to say on the subject, while lifting his cigar to dump ash on the carpet.
Naturally, Olson waited with some impatience for Mr. Hodgkins to round out his political philosophy. The tractor magnate was less at a loss for words than Olson hoped. Apparently, endless boozing and womanizing had no adverse effect on the male tongue. "By the way," said Olson, tiring of politics, "do you think the Van Dodgers will sign on that Jackie Van Robinson rookie? He’s colored Dutch from Jaimaiky, you know. Yet I hear he'll get $50,000 a year! Woowie!"
Hodgkins gave a loud hoot, so loud it carried through the cabin wall and displaced Mrs. Clish's pheasant-feathered hat on a closet shelf. "Not on your life! Maybe he can bat and steal bases to beat all, but no Dutch major league is going to risk losing box office for one player, no matter how good he seems to be. They’ll soon learn to stick with types like Joe Van Maggio. The Yankees’ll go far with him yet in the American League. So think of what might happen to all the clubs if they once opened the door to Robinson’s likes! No, he’s a flash in the pan. He’ll be back pickin’ cotton in a month or two, mark my words!"
After taking a sip or two of fiery confirmation of his views from his pocket flask, Hodgkins went on to tell how his business, just because he wasn't pure Dutch, was being taxed to death. The farmers, of course, would be the big losers, if he had to raise his prices again on tractors and other gear just when the prices for blue corn plummeted to near zero. It was all the Dutch liberals' fault for sending the country's capital overseas as foreign aid, making it hard to find cash at home for the necessary investment. Another bad year like they had just had, and they were all finished!
He paused to take several, meditative draws on his cigar. The more characteristic, mellow side of him soon returned to the helm. "I've heard that sour-puss Culp, even if he is flatlander, has a sweet tooth and hankers for a dish of his mother's homemade frozen custard now and then." And that new factory of yours is nothing less than swank! Hodgkins gave his "buddy" a playful cuff.
Delighted, Olson acknowledged the tribute with a modest smile. His new factory had, indeed, given the aging face of Minn-Paul a badly needed makeover.
Now a bit more resigned to Hodgkins' being on board, Olson nudged the tractor dealer conspiratorially. "Believe me, Goof--er, Hoagy boy, it was touch and go getting where I am today, and not to mention, a lot of hard work! Many a time I had to go personally to the New Hague and stop some bill against speakeasies and custard--they seemed to think one led to the other--and talk to the prime minister if I could get past his raft of under-secretaries!" He heaved a great sigh, as one who had carried a very heavy cross, indeed. "But it sure was worth it! You are looking at the Twin Cities' one and only home-grown millionaire!" Business had, indeed, surged for Olson once the economy plummeted to record lows and clung there, pausing for breath, before the next drop.
Deeply impressed, Hodgkins stared at Olson. How could anyone gainsay success such as Olson's, who kept kicking a dead horse economy until he got results? He had heard the frozen custard business was doing well when even some big and solid banks underwritten with British gold were going belly up. He had seen the new improvements at the plant featured in the paper, but he had no idea why there was so much money to be made in something so contrary to the laws of good digestion. After all, wasn't the gooey, sticky stuff spun from tar and peat extracted from New Zeeland bogs? Not even hogs, which were smarter critters than many humans, would touch it. "You certainly have a way with that custard!" he murmured, manfully choking down envy. “I tried it once and was never sucker enough to try it again. How on earth did you market it so people kept on buying and buying? It’s all beyond me! Customers would never buy my tractors if the word got around they didn’t run. Besides, they’d all bring ‘em back on the warranty. You really got some angle, I must admit!”
From then on it was sheer frozen custard-flavors, ways to make it, market potential, and frozen custard futures. "Try this one on, Hoag. By 2451, say, sparing another really bad bear market, every household--Dutch, English, Scandinavian, whatever--can expect to consume, per capita, 53.7 gallons of my frozen delight. They'll even go without electric light and a horse for transportation rather than give up my custard!
At this point Olson was just getting warmed ut, but this had gone too far, perhaps, to suit Hodgkins. Even the good feelings generated by the well-thumbed silver flask had limits. The thought of processing 53.7 gallons of frozen custard with his own internal plumbing gave Hodgkins' stomach an ugly turn. He threw Olson a sly look. "Hey, that's only well and good about your making so much money off people, but do you really think they're getting their money's worth? What I mean is, why are you cramming this crap down people’s throats if you know it’s crap? Surely, you must know what this stuff is since you make it.”
Olson looked startled, then abashed. "Now that you mention it, I guess I don't. I took my last taste of it years ago, before we upgraded the product from dairy product to non-dairy. But it's been Dutch-hard work making a success of it. For my sweat I deserve my million or so, and just maybe I should think of selling out and taking it easy for a change." "Down south in the Old Antilles, Greater and Lesser, or Suri- With-the-Fringe-of-Palm Trees-on-Top Nam maybe?" suggested Hodgkins. "I heard the Dutch aren't way so keen on temperance down there--which I've got to see to believe."
"Why, yes, exactly. Any Northerner who can afford to get out is a fool to stay, isn't he? Though my business will probably keep making money and I needn't give it up for a song, I'd wager the general economy up here has only ten more years at the most. The weather! We'll be seeing polar bears before long on Minnpaul's main streets! And how, what with blue corn in the dumps, how the farmers keep going is a mystery to me! Of course, a lot of them aren't making it, I know."
"I hope you don't forget us when you're toasting your tootsies in the Sun down in the tropics," said Hodgkins. "After all, it's our money you swindled with that miserable custard of yours!" Olson's face took on a sour expression. His face reddened and heated up. "Now just a minute, bub," he fumed, his fists clenched for action, "Just because you may not like the taste, I don’t have to listen to you call me names. I made every plug nickel of my money with solid, hard work! I must of handled ten thousand 200 lb. custard barrels if I handled one!"
"Whoa, horsy," laughed Hodgkins, flicking ash on the carpet. "I know it's a moot point, but until you sell up and move, just what do you happen to pay your model work force--you know, the average, dumb Joe who's sweated like a swamp hog for you for years in your stinking--?"
What did "moot" mean anyway? Olson thought, distracted from a real fisticuffs momentarily by Hodgkin's fifty dollar word. And where did an ignorant, rum-guzzling, skirt-chasing, rubber-check-writing, gutter-wallowing tractor dealer get fifty dollar words? Despite his cool million, it was most irritating to be linguistically outgunned by such an inferior businessman! He himself had worked hard to upgrade his minimal, workingman's vocabulary, but Hodgkins made no effort at all and could bandy about the most impressive terms, as if he absorbed them out of the air. Dangerous flashes of anger again moved across the broad plains of Olson's face, which changed various hues of red and purple with every second. Stubbing out one half-smoked cigar, he lit another, stuffing it in his mouth and puffing furiously.
Silent for a time, the two businessmen, no longer afire with anti-Dutch camaraderie, continued puffing on their Inglebrooks until the air in the cabin was thick and blue. "Say, Old Buddy," said Hodgkins, "how about us taking a run to the saloon. Every ship has one. This one ain't any different, I wager!" Olson was in no mood to celebrate with Hodgkins' likes. "No, nothing doing, I'm comfortable here, if you don’t mind."
Hodgkins shrugged, but made no move to go alone. "Suit yourself!"
With that, the atmosphere grew strained to the consistency of frozen custard. Gradually, however, the excellent tobacco exerted its influence, and they smoked themselves back into civil conversation, on less flammable subjects than employee wages. After that the hours passed easily enough for the two Reno-bound gentlemen, so easily they failed to keep track of the time on what they knew would be about a ten hour flight. They kept on talking, mostly on women and politics. Meanwhile, the Atlantis, "Daughter of the Stars," cruising amidst giant columns of upwelling mist, continued across abandoned, forest-overrun provinces toward the eastern centers of American Dutchdom.
Later, when such talk could not longer entertain Hodgkins, he leaned more and more heavily on his private reserve of liquid cheer, which Hodgkins liked to call "my little scorpion". Its sting never failed to speed the process of getting to Fun City.
Olson, perusing a magazine he had brought along, yawned though he was more bored than sleepy "An hour--maybe two. Why?"
Hodgkins scratched his head, staring at Olson, then looked at his gold pocket watch. Staggering back to the porthole, he rubbed his eyes and searched again. "I can't see a tree for the woods!" he groused as he looked out at dark cloud-cover above and churning bog mist below. "Trees! You'd think that's all this country is good for these days! Too cold to grow anything but blue corn and trees--and as for the corn, who but hogs, horses, and Dutchmen wants to eat that?" He went back to his chair and again passed out, waking several hours later to find Olson still awake and looking at his magazine.
Hodgkins looked at his watch, which said 7 p.m. With a good tail wind they could have made Reno by 6:45. Ignoring Olson, he went out into the hall and tried to catch a passing stewardess. It was Thursday morning and high time the ship started circling the field at Reno for a landing. Except for himself, no passengers were up dressed and about--another strange thing about the trip--but Hodgkins saw a portress coming briskly down the hall with a pot of hot coffee. Glancing at him, she whipped into a cabin so fast Hodgkins failed to get a good look at her legs.
"Must be a bit too soupy at the moment to land the old tub," he muttered. "I could do it though, if they'd let me at the wheel!" He started for the bridge, then stopped, recalling previous attempts on other trips to Reno. He had gotten himself tied up for the duration of each voyage--which wasn't much fun. When the portress did not come again, he gave up and went back in the cabin and sat on Olson's bed.
He took another stiff jab of Jamaican sorcery from his flask and, seeming to forget where he was, he continued the conversation where they had left off. "Sales on my McKormicks and Rumleys, though a bit slow these days, are showing some prospects at the trade shows down south," he began lamely. "Actually, the trade shows are just to keep my name in the running in case I pull out and head that way. I do a lot better on repossessions through my bank up north here than selling the things the first time," he added.
Olson, grown tired of Betti Bangles, turned to Hodgkins and swinging his magazine whacked Hodgkins with a shot of the filmstar's famous derrière. "This is my advice to you. If you really want to avoid bankruptcy and turn a real profit, my boy, you'd better move fast and sell off your McKormicks and Rumleys for scrap before they turn to rust, and buy into frozen custard futures! I'll be floating a grand stock issue soon--just like they did in the old days. Sure things look bad up north--real bad with prices on corn so low these days. But I've heard the smart, really savvy farmers that are still making a buck are all turnin' to horses or mules these days--saves a fortune on upkeep and less need for stiff financing from banks."
Hearing this, Hodgkins did not look impressed as his friend expected. Feeling out of sorts, Hodgkins engaged Olson in a long, drawn-out argument over the economic situation, claiming that the best thing for the country and its businessmen would be a revolution, not buying into frozen custard futures. An hour later they were still going at it strong.
Those fat-arsed Dutchies have had the upper hand over us far too long!" fumed the tractor dealer. "Far too long!" Olson agreed in principle only. "But a revolt now, when the economy is so low, is bound to ruin what business we have! You're just too desperate for a change--but the cure, secession and civil war, will be worse than just sticking it out as things stand. Give them time, the Dutchies will hang themselves! If you'd take the time to go to New Hague, you'd see what I mean!"
"Oh, I've had enough of 'sticking it out'! And the Dutchies are a lot better at that than us! No, I want to see some action! If you were a true, red-blooded American--"
The would-be revolutionary's attention was drawn elsewhere. Hearing a movement outside the door, he darted surprisingly fast out the door for his age and condition and caught the hard-muscled arm of the head portress. "Gotcha, my little gingersnap!" he laughed, but he got no further. No gingersnap, she not only released her arm but sent Hodgkins up against the wall with an expert hip movement that felt to Hodgkins like a brush against a speeding iron locomotive fender.
Blinking with surprise, Hodgkins calmed down a bit and tried reason. He glanced again at his watch and frowned. It was now 8 p.m. "Say, sweetheart, how much longer is it going to be anyway? I've never taken such a long flight to old Reno before.
We gained an hour flying. We should be seeing some bright lights by this time. I've got places to go, people to see, big jackpots to win!"
The head portress stared at Mr. Hodgkins with withering disdain. "Reno? Ach, nein! Das ist out! Kennen Sie nicht diese schiff ist going nach Palestine?"
Hodgkins' face took on a strange vacuity, as if sucked of all life and expression from something more powerful deep down. His bulging lower lip trembled. "Palestine? Is that what you said, Miss Krautlein? What happened to Reno? Reno?" Hodgkins sputtered.
His red face turned purple, then more green than purple. "R-E-N-O!" He spelled it out, fury mounting with each letter as he seemed to rise, dirigible-like, in the air momentarily, then settled gently back down in a state of shock.
He didn’t notice, or mind when a box fell out of his bulging pocket and burst on contact with the floor, catapulting a huge green worm.
The head portress put her foot down on the trick worm and shook her head at him. "Nein, nein! Nicht Reno, Jaffa jahr!"
Hodgkins seemed at last to take the harpoon of reality right where it might hurt a gambling man most. He pulled out a badly rumpled ticket and looked desperately at it and then at Olson looking out through the open door.
"What's going on here? I've been Liverpooled, I tell you! Fraulein, turn this scow around immediately, or I'll make wiener snitzel out of you, the captain, and the whole crew! I tell you Cornelius Peregrine Hodgkins is not flying one more lousy furlong on this gaseous vertebrate!"
"Verzeihung--excuse Sie mir, Herr Huggins, aber Lakehurst, New Gelderland, ist our next stop, und Ich have viele, viele ladies to vait on, nicht menschen!" said the shrugging portress. Ignoring further protests, she marched off.
There was nothing he could do but stand there and sputter, then take several deep fortifying draughts of his flask.
Mrs. Clish's hat jumped in the closet with a noticeable bump on the shelf. "Dear, did you hear that?" "No, Selmira, what is it?" inquired Miss de Waals without looking up. Mrs. Clish peered toward the closet. "I thought I heard men's voices just now. Didn't you hear them?" "But I don't have your hearing. Not for years. I'm just an old spinster and my ear is not as attuned to the male voice as yours, I'm afraid."
Mrs. Clish, however alarmed, did not pursue the matter as she readied herself for going to breakfast. Let someone else take action, she decided. The sense she had been entertaining lately, that her life of temperance might turn a corner, was still very much alive. It had begun, like a spark, about six months before at a temperance social thrown by a cohort. She had found herself so bored and stifled she had fled outdoors for air. Sojourner Abraham Lincoln Washington, a sixtyish but rather distinguished-looking Negro gardener, was just then sitting down for a spell on the porch of the house. They had a wonderful time, though not much could be said between a woman of her class and his. But S.A.L. Washington had a way of speaking about the weather, looking at her now and then for emphasis, that made her feel--made her feel...well, the little spark blazing deep in her heart, which she thought dead forever after J. Hubbard Clish's sudden passing, was relit! "Jist call me Sal," he confided to her. "Ev'rybody does since I was a boy. My people don't usually stand on too much cer'mony. Do you think we should too, Missus?"
Something struck and thumped hard against the cabin wall. Mrs. Clish glanced at Miss de Waals, but she hadn't yet put on her hearing aid and did not seem to notice anything. Mrs. Clish went out to investigate and saw her ears had been right--there was a man on board! Breathing hard, she failed to flee back to her cabin.
Hodgkins flopped about in the hallway between the first class cabins. He was singing some Pig's Eye Parrant saloon ditty at the top of his lungs. Ignoring Mrs. Clish’s stare, the tractor king staggered down the corridor, his orange and green plaid trousers fallen half way down his haunches revealing valentine-decorated briefs. And he did not seem to mind being stuck on the refrain to "Dinah, Won't You Blow Your Horn?"
"...fee fie, fiddle li-i-o! fee fie, fiddle li-i-o-ooo..."
Mrs. Clish controlled her initial shock and followed him to the grand marble staircase and then watched him tumble down the stairs to B Deck, bumping on his behind all the way from "fee fie" to "li-i-o!". Olson, coming out of his cabin, hurried to catch up and came upon Mrs. Clish looking down, just as Hodgkins, with hardly a break in his vocalizing after his fall, regained consciousness and launched immediately into "Be Kind to Your Fine Feathered Friends!" Only then did Mrs. Clish back away as if to flee.
"We have men on board?" she cried--the sight of the manly Olson confirming what she only suspected in Hodgkins. She ventured a shy smile. Olson was surprised by her in turn, a look of slight puzzlement on his face as he looked her over, from drab clothes to her amazing eyes. He shook his head in Hodgkins' direction. "On the other hand I didn't think I'd see any women. But never mind him! I guess I am stuck with him for the time being."
Intuiting something dreadfully amiss, Miss de Waals came out, her hearing aid firmly in place in her ear and her hand on the volume control suspended on a chain around her neck. "What is all the commotion about?" she called from down the hall with a volume that covered up whatever she might have heard. She too stared at Olson as if she had never seen a man, then at Mrs. Clish. "Men! Just as you feared, Selmira! Come inside at once, dear, for our morning Bible reading and exegesis. As for them, we'll most certainly inform the captain when we go for breakfast."
Mr. Olson made a bow and approached within speaking distance of Miss de Waals, who seemed reluctant to leave the hall just then. "A lot of good that will do! We paid our fares, same as you! And we'll certainly keep out of your way, if that is your desire!" Miss de Waals's stern expression, in response, indicated clearly that she wanted that very much, indeed. As for Mrs. Clish, her response was not so adamant. She actually looked crestfallen. "Oh, if there's been a mistake, it can be made up somehow," she said in a faint voice to Olson.
Mrs. de Waals went back in her cabin and shut the door. A huge Bible in hand, she stuck her head out a moment later. "Coming, Selmira? I have an excellent study in Deuteronomy completed, and you will gain a great deal spiritually from it." Mrs. Clish's dazzling eye lingered on Mr. Olson, and she seemed even more reluctant to answer her duty to the old woman.
"Wouldn't it be more proper to introduce ourselves first before we go?" she offered. "My name is Selmira Clish, from Topekah [pronouncing it: Toe-peck-kah]. My maiden name was Snype. Perhaps, you know of the Topekah Snypes, who were engaged in the riverboat trade over on the New Rhine until the last market Crash, when the English bought up all our boats? After that, when the corn froze, my people turned to raising the new blue variety like everybody else--though the prices haven't been as high as expected."
Mr. Olson in turn introduced himself, adding he was a businessman and, no, he had not heard of her family and its riverboats. "Coming dear?" Miss de Waals sternly interrupted, thumping the Bible against the door frame. "How absolutely fascinating!" observed Mrs. Clish, apparently not hearing her companion. "I've always been fascinated with business! You must tell me some particulars of it sometime, if we should meet again." "I'd be happy to--if it's in the stars, that is."
Slowly, as if the action cost her considerable pain, Miss de Waals went back in. She missed the an exchange of glances that could lead only one direction. Then, Bible in hand, Miss de Waals strode back into the hall, and it was Sir George changed to the female gender as she confronted the old dragon on his own turf.
“I must reprimand you, sir, for speaking to the delicate young woman in my charge. Really, you are out of order, and I may report you--”
“Beg your pardon! I had no idea I was inconveniencing her in any way.”
The snowy eyebrows arched, then relented.
"I believe I heard you are an astronomer?"
Mr. Olson laughed, turning away from Mrs. Clish's ardent eyes, for she had stuck her head round the doorframe. "Not exactly. I only meant--"
"My brother left some papers with me that speak of stars, and I need someone to read and explain them to me. Would you be willing? I would be very grateful for your help. There isn't a woman in my group who could do it." Olson again tried to explain he knew nothing about the subject, but Miss de Waals seemed not to have heard. He looked down the staircase in the direction of Hodgkins, who had hitched up his dropseat trousers and was now making motions toward the bridge and the captain.
"I'll stop by later as soon as I can," he said, wrenching himself away from Mrs. Clish's vicinity. "I think I have a little problem to take care of first."
Swallowing her disappointment, Mrs. Clish presently sallied forth with Miss de Waals and women from other cabins to the dining room, all toting Bibles and biblical commentaries for the Bible study immediately following breakfast. At table they talked about the men, with other tables listening in to every word as the sullen-faced Witherspoon saw to their orders.
"Well, perhaps the second stowaway is not quite so bad as the first?" offered Miss de Waals. "Now that I invited him to read my brother's writings, I can't very well report him to the captain as a stowaway, can I? I only hope it was a wise decision." "I don't think we have anything to fear," affirmed Mrs. Clish. "Unlike his friend, he seems a gentleman in every respect, and since he knows about astronomy he ought to be able to explain the papers to you."
This apparently casual suggestion was made most carefully, and Mrs. Clish waited, mouth partly open. Miss de Waals sighed, then turned to her friend with a smile. "What a dear you are! You seem to have thought everything out. Even without my dear brother, we do make such a good team against the forces of darkness, don't you think?" Mrs. Clish, in turn, was greatly relieved. It also flattered that Miss de Waals, spiritual and temporal guide of the tour, was turning to her for so much counsel.
Several women came up to their table before they were finished, wanting to know what Miss de Waals would do about the men on board. "Never mind, girls!" said Miss de Waals, bossing her unpainted mouth with a napkin. "Mrs. Clish and I have the matter firmly in hand! There is no cause for further alarm." "Oh, well, if you say so!" said one of the ladies, turning an envious eye on their leader's favorite. "Yes, I do!" affirmed Miss de Waals. "And I hope you ladies have read the thirty four chapters I assigned yesterday evening in preparation for our little Bible study this morning. My brother wouldn't have us getting lax in such matters, would he?" She glanced significantly heavenward.
The women, forgetting the stowaways, hurried back to their table and their Bibles and desperately turned pages trying to find Deuteronomy, the book in question. Miss de Waals turned back to Mrs. Clish and sighed. How fortunate Miss de Waals thought herself to have a young woman friend like Selmira! Her eyes, however, went to Mrs. Clish's hands across the table and she gave a slight frown. Bare again!
"All in all," she thought, "Selmira's a most commendable creature, except that her eyes should look more Dutch to be on the safe side, and she forgets to wear gloves and goes about naked-handed like a man! Must be too hot where she comes from and they don't take care to dress properly!" Taking command of the Public Reading Room, Miss de Waals gave the scheduled Thursday Morning Bible Lesson to the assembled tour group--a preview of which Mrs. Clish had escaped, thanks to the unpleasant Hodgkins' incident earlier.
A hour later, the lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy just concluded, Mrs. Clish and Miss de Waals retired to their cabin and the other ladies obediently followed suit, as their leader had scheduled the time as "Quiet Hour of Meditation and Private Scripture Reading." The time passed quietly as Mrs. Clish, to shed more light on her previous private reading of Genesis, Chapter 5, meditated on the Song of Solomon while Miss de Waals underlined large portions of Jeremiah and Habbukuk for the next after-breakfast Bible lesson. Finished with her preparation, the older woman looked over at her companion.
"I do not want to worry you, Selmira, but I had a strange experience yesterday after lift off, just before dinner when I left you to retrieve the Dearly Departed's ashes." Mrs. Clish looked up, her face rapt with the detailed account Solomon's "darky" concubine gave the world of her magnificent lover. "Oh?" she said. Miss de Waals continued. "You were in the Public Reading Rooms at the time I returned, so I was quite alone when I came back to our quarters for something and found a porter, here, at the bureau, his hands down in our drawers!"
Mrs. Clish's matched set of Spanish brilliants popped wide open. "Really? Our drawers?"
"Yes, altogether shocking, isn't it? He was fumbling about in them, up to his elbows, when I caught him. Then the fellow ran off before I could get his name. I would report him but without any name--" "Yes, it wouldn't be worth the bother. They would just laugh. Did he get anything?"
"No, I went and checked through all my things and they are as they should be. As for your drawers, you will have to do a thorough inventory yourself." "Thank you, I will."
Her cheeks burning, Mrs. Clish turned back to her reading. The idea of a man in her intimate feminine apparel was strangely pleasant and reassuring after several years of deathly-proper widowhood. But Miss de Waals had more surprises.
"I don't mean to frighten you a second time, my dear, but I misstepped and almost took a fall into the next life. You see, I was returning from the port bow storage room with two crewmen and the urn, leading the way, when it happened. We had nearly reached the crew and passenger quarters when the fellow back of me yelled out for us to stop. It was a good thing he did! My foot was, I discovered, outstretched into sheer empty space! Think of that! Well, it appears someone removed a good six feet or so of the walkway after we had first safely passed that way. That left a gap anyone could have plunged through. I don't know how I managed it, but I regained my balance just in time. Otherwise, I would have pitched forward and--and--"
By this time Mrs. Clish was thoroughy distracted from her Bible reading. She could envision, without difficulty, the square, solid but shapeless frame of her travel companion hurtling through the fabric of the dirigible, taking out a considerable portion of the keel as she (and quite possibly the airship with her) plummeted out of control.
"We are all in the hands of a Divine Providence of the strictest Orthodoxy," Miss de Waals calmly concluded. "Surely, the voyage will turn out all right in the end even if things are going rather queerly at present, not at all like my dear departed brother's former tours where the spiritual tone was maintained at a much higher level than I can manage. Imagine, two stowaway men on board! What ever will we do with male members on the tour?"
She turned to Mrs. Clish, who was wise and kept silent. Now that Hodgkins knew where the flying "tub" was really headed, it took every ounce of Olson's brute muscle power (though he had plenty) to keep his fellow clubman and businessman from commandeering the airship. Hungry as a big man could be without eating since lunch the previous day, he had to put first things first, forego breakfast for the moment and attend to his "friend." Pushing him back away from the bridge, Olson tried hard not to be too rough, though he was strongly tempted to give Hodgkins a kayo for the trouble he had already caused.
Slippery as a greased pig at a fair, Hodgkins was almost impossible to hold for more than a few moments. Olson nearly lost him but caught him by his trousers and held on. "You're crazy if you think they're going to turn around for two passengers, when there's about thirty of the others who'll outvote us," he said to the squirmy tractor man. "We're going all the way to Lakehurst, New Gelderland, whether you want to or not. There we can get off and head straight to Reno."
Hodgkins calmed down somewhat at the thought. Not wanting to drag Hodgkins' dead weight back up the stairs, Olson steered him away from the dining room and encountered the open door of the Cafe Parisien, the ship's speakeasy. He looked in and saw immediately it was clear, the perfect place to keep Hodgkins from causing any more trouble as long as the ladies kept clear. Now Olson was even more surprised than Hodgkins concerning the change in flight. Other than holing up in the Cafe, he had no idea what to do about their questionable status aboard the airship. But he felt they could maybe talk and find a solution, if they gave the matter a change to resolve itself. "Let the captain wait, " he thought. "He doesn't seem to be in any hurry, whoever he is." On a ship so vast, the commander might well be too busy to deal with them, he reasoned. They might as well use the time to work on an explanation for being on the wrong flight. "Maybe a steward will come by and I can get some grub sent in," Olson said they entered the saloon.
"Grub? Sorry, old boy, I don’t feel the slightest bit hungry," said Hodgkins not surprisingly. "I have better things to do than stuff the old alimentary. And how can you think of matisculatory self-indulgement in our extremely tenuous situation? Besides, everyone knows the only decent steak to be had in this ludicrous rump of a country is in the incomparable, peerless realm of Reno."
Masticulatory? Tenuous? Ludicrous? Incomparable? Peerless? Was there no end in sight of his fifty dollar words?
"You must think we all can live on a liquid diet, " grumped Olson, smarting over Hodgkins’ amazing vocabulary.
Hodgkins, by this time, was already recovering from his rude shock. It was some help to him that the Cafe Parisien, after all, was his element, though there was at that moment no bartender in sight across the room of white wicker chairs, glass-topped wicker tables, and lush, ivy-trellised room dividers. Where was the fellow anyway? The question seemed to hang in the strangely silent room. But Hodgkins was not at a loss, as long as his private reserve held out. Taking another dose from the flask, Hodgkins fell into a wicker chair. He considered that, after all, due to someone's mistake, he was getting virtually a free ride across the country.
"Who knows?" he thought aloud. "My ticket is probably still good. I can always get to Reno, right?" A little more rum and he was more resigned to getting to New Limburg's casinos and Can Can girls via Lakehurst. Both he and Mr. Olson then talked about it and came to the conclusion that they might do worse than make no fuss and continue with the flight to Lakehurst, their last and only chance to turn around. They figured together that it might be only another six or seven hours before they reached the naval air station on the coast.
Hodgkins felt even better after a particularly long swallow. He stood up, a test of his balancing skills. "Lakehurst, aweigh !" he toasted Olson, lifting his trusty little scorpion for another bite. The next toast was religious in sentiment, "God bless our dear, depraved and decadent Reno." No simple "Reno or Bust!" for him. Warmed up, he even got started on his own version of New Zealand's rather unpopular provincial anthem, "Rise and Go Forth to Battle Red and Gory, O Ye Men of Good Dutch Heart and Steadfast, Noble Fury!" Suddenly, just as he was completing the first stanza out of the official twenty, the tone deaf, bawling tractor dealer's head fell with a loud clunk on the table.
Hearing a hearty snore, Olson was relieved. Without pausing to wait for a second snore, he move with amazing swiftness for such a large man straight back to the cabins, direct to Miss Bright Eyes.
Unfortunately, she wasn't alone, he discovered, but he had come and he had to go through with it after knocking, even if he had to endure the stare of a thorough-going old chaperone..
"So you are a stowaway after all!" said Mrs. Clish, after inviting Mr. Olson in with a flash or two of dark, glowing eyes that managed to take all of his bulk in. "How exciting!" She directed him to a horsehair chair which she thought large and strong enough, the other two being lightweight durlolumin.
After nodding to Miss de Waals, he sat down, nearly bending the arms off the chair, then shook his head. "Believe me, I hardly know how it could have happened. My secretary, a most trustworthy old ba-a--woman--arranged the flight, but somehow I ended up on this tour with you ladies. I haven't the slightest explanation."
"So you are going on back to Reno after all?" inquired Mrs. Clish, a keenly disappointed look in her eyes. "I really though you weren't that sort of man--a gambler at cards and...and wheels of fortune!" Mr. Olson had an injured look, remarkably touching on so bully a figure of a man. "Well, if you don't wish to associate with my likes--" He rose to go, taking parts of the chair with him.
Miss de Waals shook her head at Mrs. Clish as she went at her knitting with a vengeance. She paused to give her hearing aid a hard crank. "Oh, no, don't you dare go! I'm sure Selmira Sue didn't mean that. You didn't mean that, did you, dear?" Mrs. Clish surprised even herself at her quick response. "I don't know how that slipped out! Do forgive me, Mr. Olson! It was most uncharitable of me!"
Mollifed, Mr. Olson sat down on the groaning horsehair. They chatted about various happenings on board the ship, then it grew late and time for him to go. Mrs. Clish went with him to the door, but Miss de Waals called out.
"Oh, I nearly forgot. Our social intercourse was so pleasant, I must have been distracted. Please take a look at the papers before you go. Now, Mr. Olson, I want you to plug your ears! I have a very important communication to make that no one except my trusted traveling companion should hear."
She took Mrs. Clish aside (“aside” meaning a few feet behind Mr. Olson’s back. "I found the perfect place!" she whispered loudly to Mrs. Clish. "At least it was the perfect place." She then directed Mrs. Clish to the location of the papers with a whisper that must have carried through the walls of at least two consecutive staterooms.
"U-R-I-N-A-L!" she thundered out, letter by letter. Then, to make sure Mrs. Clish had got it correctly, she had her repeat the secret location in full voice.
Mrs. Clish, her ears and face crimson, went out. Several minutes later Mrs. Clish returned, breathing hard as if she had been running. She handed Mr. Olson the materials--which, fortunately, the perspicacious Miss de Waals had taken the precaution of putting inside a rubber hot water bottle for protection "against the elements."
Miss de Waals commented to the blushing Mrs. Clish while Olson glanced at the papers. "Thank you, dear. I know it must have been a rather difficult task for you, but I thought they'd be safe there, since there were to be only ladies on the tour." She turned briskly to Mr. Olson. "They are supposed to be my brother's composition. I really don't see how they can be, since he was a man of the Cloth and these seem more the products of science than orthodox truth. There really isn't time now for you to do them justice. Will you take and look them over, then explain the material if you will before you leave us at Lakehurst? And, by the way, it would be nice if you could attend our next Bible study in the Public Reading Rooms at 5 p.m. sharp. But be sure and read the assigned scriptures. I’ll be sure to call on you."
She held out a book-sized brochure of tour events, listing the particulars of the Bible study series.Saying he had to see to his friend and might not be free to do so, Mr. Olson grabbed the papers and took leave of the ladies. The matter of the papers dealt with, the ladies prepared to nap by reciting the Nicene Creed--the longer Reformed version. Normally, that would have put them both to sleep, but so much of an exciting nature had happened lately that the solemn creed didn't succeed in settling them down sufficiently.
Though well past their usual naptime, they continued to chat, chiefly about Mr. Olson. As for the papers, they were quite forgotten. When at last they fell silent, they both seemed to be thinking the same thing. Besides, a spark is one thing, a fire raging out of control is quite another. It was obvious, even to a spinster, that something was in the air between her companion and the man who had just left their presence. It was just as obvious to Mrs. Clish, though she was in a mind to try denying it. To head her off at the pass, Miss de Waals turned to Mrs. Clish.
"Dear, I know this may sound harsh, but I trust a respectable, temperate, God-fearing woman like you will take it in the spirit in which it is given. Now, this is my mind on the matter: even if he is helpful to me and seems a gentleman, I'm afraid I must do something I have put off, because it isn’t in my nature to be dominating. But someone must make the decision, and I have the responsibility, in lieu of my dear brother’s presence. So I’ve come to the conclusion that we really can't have a stowaway of the male sex running loose on board. I know how these things go. What would the other ladies think? Once they find out, they won't be able to sleep, for thought of the danger!"
Ordinarily, Mrs. Clish might have been crushed by such a clear directive. Everything had been going so well up to this point, that her companion’s announcement failed to penetrate fully. She had spent the last few minutes brushing up on Genesis, Chapter 5 (Revised Reformed Orthodox New Standard Version):
Miss de Waals got a little perturbed whenever people seemed not to hear her. Giving another adjustment to the volume on her hearing aid, the older woman looked across at Mrs. Clish the moment she put her Bible down. "Well, what do you think we ought to do, dear? We really can't have stray men on aboard this tour with us, can we?"
Still appearing as if she had not really grasped the significance, Mrs. Clish seemed to be fishing for something to say. "Stray men on board?! What a dreadful thought. Oh, I mean, perhaps Mr. Olson is a crewman. He isn't really a businessman. He only said that to impress us. You know how men are!"
Miss de Waals smiled and shook her head at this piece of weak female muddle-headedness. "No, he's not! What a silly idea! He would be wearing a uniform at all times. But don't you think we should report the fellow to the captain? After all, we are only ladies, helpless females, with no men to defend us. What if there are more than these two stowaways aboard?"
Mrs. Clish stared at her companion for a moment; at last the intent of the old woman’s words seemed to be on target. Slowly, a look of alarm spread across her face and her beautiful eyes darkened. "But he seems a rather nice man, for a stowaway. I'd hate to offend him again with my bad manners. As for the other fellow, I can see why Mr. Olson has to watch his every move and can't attend our Bible studies! It would do him so much good, but he has that other fellow to look after. Perhaps, the captain can be persuaded to put the other man under key so that Mr. Olson will be free to attend the Bible study. He would love that, I feel! I feel he is a very spiritual man at heart."
Shrugging off the implied flattery, Miss de Waals huffed at the suggestion. "Do you really think the captain will listen to us? I've never seen such incompetence on a modern airliner! The captain seems to take no interest whatever in our welfare. No one has even seen him since the voyage began. You would think he were deliberately avoiding our company! No, we frail and defenseless womenfolk will have to fend for ourselves in these trying matters. I attempted on several occasions to get word to the captain regarding my brother being put in the wrong place, but you see how useless it was. They have this big sign up. They won't allow passengers on the bridge! I had to go get the Ashes myself. In fact, all the crew will do is call the captain by telephone, and you know I would never talk to a strange man over a telephone! It's compromising enough to a lady to speak personally to a strange man, don't you agree?"
Listening to all this did what the Dutch Reformed Orthodox Creed (the abridged, more popular version for laymen and laywomen was still fourteen thousand words long in elite type) and more Bible reading failed to do--her eyelids drooped over her eyes and she couldn’t stay awake a minute longer. Ready for her nap, the yawning Mrs. Clish turned back the covers in order to get in, and then her face changed to a mask of rigid horror. A fried egg, staring sunnyside up at her, lay on the sheet.
Mrs. Clish’s scream was heard from one end of the ship to the other. Fortunately, the crew could not tell where it was coming from, and Miss de Waals soon had everything under control again, so their assistance was quite unneeeded. It turned out to be a clever plastic concoction, however, as Miss de Waals prodded it with her knitting needle while Mrs. Clish recovered from her shock, a damp cloth soaked with Miss de Waals’ famed vinegar-and-tartar sauce poultice across her face as she lay in bed.
"A childish, practical joke," Miss de Waals declared after sitting back comfortably on a huge black tarantula. "Now who could have done so distasteful a thing?"
The offending item removed to a pneumatic waste chute that routed it out of the vessel, the event slowly passed from mind, though the odor of vinegar and tartar sauce remained strong enough to make Mrs. Clish's eyes water furiously.
"Oh, one more thing, dear," said Miss de Waals as she finally turned in. "I want you to have that nice moleskin jacket I brought along. I hate to give it up, but it's grown too small for me in the shoulders, even after I had the feldspar shoulder pads removed. My mother, before she passed away, gave it to me. I've worn it to every church convention and temperance meeting since, not to mention the nineteen tours to the Holy Land organized and led by my brother. And still it has years and years of life left in it. To keep it looking nice as long as you are on this mortal coil and the Lord tarries, don't rub it the wrong way when you brush-clean it or the hair won't lie down smooth. Just the thing for you. And the color is quite suitable for a respectable widow like you. It's dark brown, but that color is just as proper and lovely as widow-black, in my book. If the other ladies don't think so and say something when you've got it on, tell me, and I'll put a stop to it immediately. Dear? Don’t tell me you aren’t listening after all I’ve said! Selmira? Are you sleeping?”
Mercifully succumbing to the effects of either the powerful poultice or the pressure of too much emotion, Mrs. Clish had dropped from consciousness by this time.
Even the staff was not left out. The chief steward, going for some egg white in the cold storage locker, nearly suffered a heart attack when he discovered a pair of plump, flamingo-pink buttocks, yet another rubber novelty of Van Zook's. Moreover, in the dining room, just after Miss de Waals and her companion departed, Miss Imogene Skaggs-Strubbs hurled a serving of Van Heyn Lime Jell-O to the floor. It had contained a novelty spider.
Growing frightened, the women kept to their staterooms and telephoned the captain when they found Miss de Waals could not be reached by phone. When the first frantic call came in, Captain Feuchtwanger was holding a novelty Ball with Boobs golfball, which had mysteriously popped up on his tee, trying to think how it might have gotten into the machine. Too distracted at the moment to give them anything but slim reassurance, the captain referred them to their group leader, so they started calling Miss de Waals, again to no avail. She had already taken the precaution against being called by a man by disengaging the line with a firm yank of the connecting wire from the wall.
The chief steward was not to be put off lightly by being assured, by an aide, that the captain would see to it immediately. Taking "it" to the captain, Witherspoon was amazed to find his commander thought he might be a stowaway. "Withers, did you say? But I don't know any Withers," said Calvert Bunce Feuchtwanger III. He was still puzzling over the Ball with Boobs golfball and not even interested in the flaming-pink buttocks which Witherspoon held out toward him at arm's length.
"Are you sure you're working for me? “ the skipper demanded in turn. “What happened to Throckmorton, Mr. Withers? Did you take him out with food poisoning, sir? Tell me the truth now! Was it poisoned food that got you your present position? I’m no fool you know! This is my ship, and I won’t have anyone being poisoned without my leave!"
"Wither-SPOON, sir,” responded the man, entirely too dignified to defend himself against such absurd charges. “Grenville Poindexter Witherspoon, to be precise. I am the new Chief Steward of your ship! Surely, you recall meeting me when I boarded and presented my breakfast and dinner menus. I recall that you were reclining at the time. But what I have come to inform you about is this outrage--”
He stuck the buttocks in the captain’s face to make his point all the more clear, but the captain was still not impressed.
"Oh, yes, you were the fast talker with the beady black eyes. I really don't cotton to fast talkers and beady black eyes, you know. Well, on your way, Withers! I’m not interested in your buttocks at the moment. I'm in the midst of a most important investigation! The fate of the ship may well depend upon it. And if I hear of one more case of food poisoning, I’ll have you locked up for the duration of the voyage! Now get out, dog! You’ve wasted enough of my valuable time!"
“What, sir? What did you call me? I don’t believe I heard you correctly.”
The captain gazed at the chief steward, then suddenly erupted with even more abuse, the substance of which inferred that Witherspoon was in rather urgent need of a mother of the human species, and as for his father...
Chief Steward Witherspoon exited the bridge, cheeks tingling. The plastic buttocks came flying after him, striking him on the back.
Continuing on away, Witherspoon was beside himself with shock and indignation. What could he say to a man who couldn’t speak one civilized sentence and who was more interested in a silly golf ball than doing his duty as captain?
"Perhaps, he's passed out there, hugging a commode for dear life," he thought, grinding his teeth. "If the old buzzard thinks I'm going to clean him up, he's sadly mistak--" Wrong again, he changed his mind about the Cafe Parisien and turned toward his cabin. He decided he had enough of Hodgkins' company. The guy was a born lush. Let him find his own way back to the Cafe Parisien!
He also intended to call the dining room to see about having breakfast being sent up, since he didn't want to create a disturbance by going in person--the ladies, he knew, still not accustomed to a male presence. As for Hodgkins, Olson hoped he would stay put for a while, wherever he was hiding himself, until after he had cleaned up and had a proper breakfast.
After having gone the whole night without sleep, he still felt surprisingly fit--but he had always been a dynamo where energy was concerned. His frozen custard business would have never gotten off the ground if he hadn't enjoyed boundless energy and will-power, able to work days at a stretch without stopping for food and rest.
Olson opened the door and found a porter standing in the room. Ordinarily, it would not have been a surprise. But before he saw anything else, something about the fellow’s furtive manner struck Olson as very, very fishy. In the small, confined space of the next few moments, a great deal happened or seemed to happen that mere human eye could not entirely catch, though it was day and the stateroom was far from dim at that hour.
Olson saw the open port window, a porter wearing a knapsack his back, and the fellow was in front of a dresser with the drawers pulled out. Most of the contents--Olson's shirts and underwear--were scattered on the floor. The porter was standing on his best shirt. If the custard magnate had any question, that decided it. No one stood on his best dress shirt costing $6.32 at Minnpaul’s finest men’s wear store.
"Hey, bud, get off my shirt!" was all Olson could think to say.
The porter made for the door, but Olson instinctively threw himself backwards, blocking the exit. When the porter made for the open window, Olson lunged and got there first. In a flash the man was on him, kicking and hitting him in his vitals. That was no problem. The burly custard king was more than a match for the slighter though taller man. A switchblade flashed out in the porter's hand as they fell apart, gasping for breath.
"Where are the papers?" the porter hissed like a spitting cobra, waving the knife in front of him. "I know you have them."
“What 'papers'? You mean the Minnpaul paper?" the surprised Olson replied quite honestly, as he had taken it with him to the Cafe Parisien and left it on a table with Hodgkins, intending to read later. He eyed his antagonist, a puzzled look breaking on his face. "What's so important about them, that you broke in here and are willing to slice someone up like bologna?"
"Shut up and give me the papers!" cried the porter, as he lunged forward and slashed out at Olson. Grabbing the man's wrist, Olson saved himself injury and they fell out into the hallway. Quick as a weasel, which he resembled closely in body, the fellow was up and away the moment Olson had the dropped knife in hand. It was then he saw the fellow had lost an even more lethal object--a silver plated German luger, dropped out of his jacket. But there was no time to examine the hardware.
Olson ran after him, but his bulk told against him and he had never been fleet of foot. The porter easily reached the Cafe Parisien before he did. Olson saw only the flash of white uniform at the far exit, but it told him the fellow had got away with the papers. He had left Hodgkins, head down on a table as if he would sleep out the rest of the way to Lakehurst. Now he was also out of sight, no doubt wandering off to any of a hundred different places in the vast maze of the dirigible. He might even be trying to abandon ship in a Sparrowhawk, and Olson knew it would be impossible to hold Goof Ball if he really wanted off.
Thinking he would have to do the job himself, even search the whole ship if necessary for the papers, Olson rushed after the thief. He plowed through blocking tables and chairs knocked over in his path, but as he ran back up the staircase from the Control Car he noticed a bright red gleam on the white marble. It came off on his finger. He remembered then how the knife had turned as he grappled for it. Perhaps his attacker had been nicked.
Several cleaning ladies carrying mops, buckets, and dusters, descending at that moment, looked at him, the knife, the red spots, and dropped all their paraphernalia, which clattered down the stairs. Ignoring them and their screams, he rushed past, his foot catching in a bucket until he gave it a kick that sent it crashing against the mural, APPROACH OF THE NETHERLANDER GOLDEN AGE. A few seconds later he was outside the passenger quarters in a vast, restricted region few passengers got to see. He paused to scan the ship, as much as he could see of it through the gloom. His ears told him more than his eyes. Hearing footfalls, he followed.
Then there was silence--not complete though, for his heart was pounding and he was gasping for breath. Here and there a bulb cast a yellow glow on giant folds of a gas bag. But most light came from outside the ship, as the Sun shone like the moon through the thin hull, its ghostly light filtering through the vacant spaces and billowing shapes of the enormous gas cell bags. Passing clouds, cutting the light, became huge shadows floating through from one end of the ship to the other, confusing Olson's vision as he searched for a sign of the thief. At first he thought the man could not be found. There was a thousand places to hide and a whole platoon of thieves could easily go undetected.
Then came his second break, the first being the spot of blood on the staircase. He heard scraping sounds above. In the ill-lit space between two cells, a connecting series of durolumin ladders enabled workmen to check the bags for leaks from top to bottom. It was a perfect means to escape into invisibility, for the bags billowed outwards, nearly covering the ladders. He touched the ladder and felt it slick and wet in spots.
Aha! A thoroughbred hound on the blood scent could not have gone faster. Up the big man went, twenty, thirty, then fifty feet, from one level to another--and it would have been impossible if he had not been so active a man all his life. Soon he would be reaching a platform just under the hull, where another short ladder took crewmen topside for repairs. He looked up and saw a dimly glowing object above on the platform. Yet he continued upwards until his quarry, come down to meet him, waited just ahead of him on the ladder. Kicking like a mule, the fellow almost succeeded in knocking Olson from the ladder since he had the advantage of being higher. Moving upwards against the foe with the pernacity of a champion bulldog, Olson continued despite kicks raining down on his head and shoulders. The porter was forced to give way, inch by inch. Finally, he scrambled up the last length of ladder and was out of reach of Olson, who came on more slowly. The porter spoke first. "You brainless cretin! One push from the platform from this height and you're dead meat."
The “brainless cretin,” with no intention of becoming anyone’s dead meat, kept climbing. He could see the fellow clearly, dark smears on his shirt and pants where he wiped his hands. Just as Olson climbed and reached for the platform, the porter stood and, instead of a fight, backed away, the bundled papers stuck partway into his coat pocket. He cursed and wrenched at the hatch to topside, but a heavy link chain and lock would not give way to the outside hull.
Olson knew he would have to act quickly, for the porter was next eyeing a girder nearest the platform. If he reached it, he could slide down quickly and get away, rather than have to fight him for the ladder or try kick him off to kingdom come. Here the light was poor, with only the hazy illumination of distant bulbs to help him distinguish shadow from substance, but Olson could see sweat glistening on the porter's face as he turned to him a last time and then swung off the platform. The quarry grabbed for the girder and succeeded. Struggling to keep hold, gasping with effort but getting no grip because of the cut hand, the porter slipped. The papers tumbled out of his pocket and most caught in a crotch of two girders half way down.
Olson gave out a loud jeer, but the porter mocked him in return. "See if I don't get them yet!" he spat back at Olson. Then he pushed off from the girder, purposely falling. As he dropped he reached out. It all happened so fast Olson thought that was it--the papers were snatched and gone forever. But he looked the second the porter had gone on by them. He had missed! The papers were still there. Olson leaned over the platform and watched the porter as he plummeted. Paperless, his head was thrown back and eyes locked on Olson's. There was only a second to this, but it was a long enough span for the enemy to exchange a look of utmost venom. Then there was a brief impact below. A tiny bit of wildly flapping starry sky showed in the the ship's fabric hull.
Too surprised to know what to do next, Olson simply stared. Should he report it immediately to the captain? No, even if someone had fallen to his doom, after all he had just experienced, Olson decided felt he needed to just stop and think. He would need to decide what might be made public, what not. After all, for him now the trip would never be the same, even with Hodgkins and his astounding ability for getting underfoot.
Buzzed by fruitflies like Sparrowhawks round a mother airship, Hodgkins wavered on his feet as he stood in the Sparrowhawk hanger. He was looking past the protective railing at the hangar hatch, set like a huge glassless window in the floor. Just beyond the first of six Sparrowhawks was parked. He had given the armed sentry on duty a drink or two from his private reserve, and it had done wonders. Hodgkins knew flying would be snap, once he got the propeller started. Against strict naval air regulations that promised, at the least, court martial, the fellow turned so obliging he pulled a crank and opened the door to give Hodgkins a look from the biggest window in the ship at the wide and passing world below.
In clear weather, the hanger provided a magnificent view of the remaining cities and farms and ever increasing wilderness and glaciation--and, as it happened, a mail train robbery right then in progress was in putting out a good show extending over miles of track. Hodgkins watched to the end, as the White Indian band pursued the heavily armed government train to the inevitable conclusion, a previously dynamited train bridge. Would the federals ever learn and send a deputation ahead to pick off the dynamiters or at least check for bridges? Apparently not.
Unfortunately, the ship would not get involved, even with the Sparrowhawks, unless there was at least a full naval air colonel on board, and somehow he had been unable to board at Minnpaul. That left only a retired lieutenant colonel, Captain Feuchtwanger himself, who like others of his sort hadn't quite reached full bird, was retired from military ranks and had gone commercial.
But Hodgkins felt up to it and decided to take a plane out against the savages below, forgetting he would be fighting for the wrong side. Aside from a flimsy guard rail, Hodgkins stood a foot away from the roaring air and, before he could turn to get himself a plane, he saw something odd. A man in white uniform fell from the ship.
Getting down on his hands, Hodgkins took a better look and thought he saw the flower of a parachute open up. "Well, I'll be!" was the only thing Hodgkins could think to say. "Hey, did you see that, chum? Did you see that?" The obliging air navyman, helping himself to another drink from Hodgkins' private reserve, shook his head, heavy and slow. "Naw, wuddaya--wuddaya--wudday mean?" The navyman's eyes turned up in their sockets and he gave a silly, gap-toothed grin.
Hodgkins looked again for any sign of a parachute, but soon gave it up. He scratched his head, and wondered if he had imagined the whole thing. He was well aware he had imagined a lot of things after resorting maybe once too often to his private reserve. Still wondering, he completely forgot his brave plan to fly a Sparrowhawk down from the ship, machine gun blazing, directly at the White Indians. With a vague notion to rendezvous with Olson, he went back to the Cafe, but Olson was nowhere in sight. Going all the way up to the cabin, he found his buddy, spread out on his bed, shirt drenched with sweat as he gasped for breath and his hair badly mussed. More of interest, Olson's hand was marked with red stains. "My, oh my, did you cut yourself, dearie?" Hodgkins said.
Olson would not look at him. "Oh, bug off, Hoag! Can't you see I'm resting?"
"Now just a minute. Aren't we buddies and tell each other everything. So, pal of mine, what you doing with blood on you? Been in a fight with some pretty woman who scratched you?" Hodgkins now was very interested, as Olson was not only looking but acting most strangely. Hodgkins refused to be put off. He had to know. "And you look like you've been running laps all around the ship," he observed, peering at him. "What have you been up to anyway?"
Olson turned on his side, still breathing heavily. He looked at Hodgkins, as if seeing him for what he was for the first time. "Nothing! I told you, absolutely nothing!" Hodgkins eyed Olson a moment, glanced at the telltale stains, then gave a world-class belch that had won a number of contests in Minnpaul saloons. "Okay, I'll take your word for it. You wouldn't want to know what I saw anyway just a few minutes ago. It wasn’t a nice picture, lemme tell you!"
Olson lunged straight off the bed to his feet. "What did you see?" Hodgkins shook his head, amazement on his face. "I was in the hanger, looking out just when some poor devil fell clean though the ship. Imagine that! Straight through the ship! Suppose we should report it? Maybe someone ought to go and plug that hole, which will take some doing since it’s kinda far outa reach. And our little navy boy down--ha! He don’t seem in the best military condition to do it right now. Had too much lemonade to drink, I think. That juice’ll do it everytime--pure poison on the brain, I tell you! They might take his stripe and those fancy gold buttons of his when they find out. Why, I'm sure he would find that highly citrifying!"
Olson grabbed Hodgkins by the shirt, overlooking another fifty dollar word as he turned to pump the tractor swindler. "Well, don’t stop now. What else happened? What all did you see?"
Hodgkins laughed. "Hey, take it easy. I told you everything I saw. What got you so Dutched? I just saw someone fall, that's all, and his parachute opened. Hope he's lucky and don't land in an Indian camp about to go out on the war path! They plunk him right in the pot over a big fire and have him for dinner!"
Disgusted, Olson released Hodgkins and sank back on the bed. Hodgkins also sat down. "Maybe I saw it! Maybe I didn't. Lately, I've been seeing funny things." Olson turned away, making no objection. Hodgkins stood and looked at Olson, then shook his head and left, it would appear, for the Cafe Parisien. A short time later he was back, opening the door so fast Olson did not have time to shove the evidence out of sight.
“Gotcha, toots!” Hodgkins roared. "Okay, just what have you there?" Olson, with a sigh, handed over the papers. Hodgkins scanned the documents, but they looked gibberish to him. "What do you get out of these horse biscuits?" he demanded. "And ain’t this blood? What's going on anyway? As your old golfin' buddy who seen you through thick and thin, I stand shoulder to shoulder with you against the damn fool Dutchies that's ruinin' us coast to coast, so naturally I feel a bit put out when you keep things from me!"
Olson did not reply right away though his "buddy" sounded aggrieved, and rightly so. When he spoke, he did so slowly. "Hoag, I'm not keeping a blasted thing from you. Where did you get that idea? These are writings of someone by the name of Pastor de Waals. They have to do with his itinerary for a tour of the Holy Land. There's a map included, with the holy sites marked for the tour. As for the blood, I must have nicked my finger with my pen knife. (He stuck a finger in his mouth, sucked, then took it out) Just a little scratch, but it bled a lot at the time."
"Yes, yes, I remember hearing an old guy by that name just kicked the bucket at some big gathering in town," said Hodgkins impatiently. "How sad. But what does that mean to me? I mean, to us?"
Olson sighed again and shook his head slowly, as if he were feeling unfairly put upon by a line of questioning that seemed to question his sincerity. "Nothing really. It's some information about his travel plans. Now let me get some rest, will you?"
Olson’s ploy was lost, however, on the tractor shark. Hodgkins' whole face changed from impatience and injured pride back to deep suspicion. As far as he could see, Olson was still maneuvering to keep from explaining what the papers really meant and why he was such a mess.
"That's all, huh! Okay, if that’s the way you want it, I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt--just for old time’s sake, mind you. Well, how about us going for a nightcap? Those crazy women couldn't have found all the booze! (He took out his flask and shook it by his ear; he looked worried.) My l'l sweet baby's gettin' mighty low! That’s bad. One little nip or two more and I'll have to fly cold Dutch! That would be sheer tragedy! I might get upset too. But there's got to be a bottle or two stashed somewhere on this old gasbag. You look like you need a stiff one. I didn't know you went in for that much exercise. You looked like you got in a cat fight Sunday night in the parson's parlor."
Olson rose up. He smoothed down his hair and straightened his clothes somewhat. After he cleaned up at the washbasin, he was ready and they left the cabin. The moment Olson was out the door, Hodgkins excused himself. "You go on," he said, rubbing his grizzled chin. "I forgot I need to shave some of this off before we land at Lakehurst. It won’t take long, so you go on ahead. See you in ten or fifteen minutes."
Olson gritted his teeth. He seemed about to say something, but must have thought better of it, for he swung around and stomped off down the hall.
A couple moments later he kicked the door open on Hodgkins, breaking the lock. Hodgkins looked up like a boy with his hands in his mother’s cookies. He already had the map from the papers spread out on the floor. Olson threw him an expression that could have killed a more sober man.
"I just had to check and see where exactly the dear ladies were going in Jerusalem, according to this here," Hodgkins said, a wide grin on his face. Without a word, Olson wrenched the map away and put it in his luggage with the porter's luger and knife, then took a key and locked them up. "I'm sorry, I am responsible for these papers to the owner, and you have no right to touch them."
Olson went out, slamming the door so hard it fell back half off its hinges.
Hodgkins stayed in the room a few more moments, hungrily eyeing Olson's luggage. Cunning, a quality that had kept him and his ailing tractor business afloat so far, stole over his features. As Hodgkins was making up his mind what to do next, the ship continued to sail on toward Lakehurst, outwardly a picture of utmost serenity and harmony in relation to the elements.
But Hodgkins had other plans as well. Olson was just coming out from Miss de Waals's stateroom when Hodgkins went to knock.
"I've missed you. Where you been keepin' yourself, Old Pal? Thought you'd be off to New Amsterdam while we wait for the Reno flight," said Mr. Olson so cheerily he might have been Mr. Congeniality. "And by the way, I've never thought you could sober up quite this much. It actually makes you look human for a change!"
Hodgkins looked like he had snorted the wrong way, but he quickly recovered, and smiled broadly in return. "Oh, I find this area most interesting. The Dutch trees, and, ah, the Dutch flowers! Simply beautiful country around here on the coast! By the way, I see you're got thick as thieves lately with the ladies on board. Might you be planning, ah, a little excursion together?"
It was Olson's turn to sputter. "Don't get the wrong idea. I was just paying my respects like a gentleman." Hodgkins gave a silent but very breathy "ha!" in Olson's face. "Now if you'll just step aside, I got business with those ladies of yours."
Olson did not budge. "What kind of business, Old Pal?"
"None of your business, at any rate!"
The two men were huffing and puffing at each other when the door suddenly opened. Mrs. Clish looked out and smiled. "I thought I heard men's voices out here. Do come in. (She nodded to Hodgkins) Mr. Olson, you are most kind. Do come again. If we need you for anything, anything at all like you said, we'll be sure to call."
Throwing Olson a triumphant sneer, Hodgkins slipped around by him and entered. The business he had with the ladies was quickly concluded. Mrs. Clish showed Hodgkins to the door two feet away from the horsehair. "Don’t you worry yourself one bit about it! Of course, we'll speak in your behalf to the captain--if we can get through to him, that is. Now that your friend Mr. Olson has decided to join the tour, you really ought to go along to as his succoring companion. He said he was worried about you--that you had a certain problem that befalls so many unfortunate members of your gender?"
"Oh, that! I can assure you I turned a new leaf, seen the harbor light, as it were! It'll never happen again, I most solemnly swear!"
Both Mrs. Clish and Miss de Waals looked alarmed. "Oh, you needn't swear on it, Sir. Your word as a gentleman will do!"
"Yes, yes! My word as a gentleman. Absolutely right! Now ladies, I must wish you good day and go to town--if I can find one anywhere around here--to purchase items a gentleman might need to sustain him on such a long voyage as we have ahead of us. I hear we will be seeing many notable ruins along the way, however, which will lighten the hours no doubt and strengthen and improve body and spirit."
His store of civility and good behavior exhausted, Hodgkins fled back to his cabin and found Olson waiting with bared teeth.
Christian gentlemanliness completely dropped off both Hodgkins and Olson as they looked daggers at each other. Silent and grim, they eyed each other for a few moments, then when that couldn’t go on forrever turned to reading girlie magazines--or so it seemed.
"I didn't think it would be so easy," Hodgkins finally said, a cynical edge to his voice.
"What do you mean 'easy'?"
"Gettin' them holy-poly dames to sign me on, chum! They fell for my line, just like I knew they would!"
That was too much for Olson. Like a sprung catapult, he lunged up from his chair and pressed a huge balled fist in Hodgkins' startled face. "Why are you going anyway, you baboon? You were all hots for Reno, remember? That place suits you perfectly! What is there in Jaffa for your miserable likes? What? You tell me!"
Hodgkins, despite his respect for Olson's beefy fists and profiteering off sweetened-up poison desserts, was not about to let anyone badger him now in his moment of victory.
"You figure it out, Old Buddy," he gloated most bravely. "And just maybe it's the same reason why you cut out on me and went behind my back to get signed on this ignoranus, airborne Ladies Aid!"
Olson steamed visibly for a few moments as the words cut him to the quick. He seemed to seriously consider giving Hodgkins a full facial reconstruction, then reconsidered and sat back down with his magazine.
Yet Hodgkins was quite wrong. Olson had a reason Hodgkins could not have guessed he was capable of having. If not love, it was a bad crush--the kind that shatters elderly men over teen-age ingenues.
As for the papers, the tractor crook had manfully tried to make sense of them, but they told him nothing. So, after copying out the map, thinking it might be worth investigating when they reached Palestine, he had politely returned the documents to the ladies and they had put them back in their "secret storage place," as Miss de Waals had already whispered to half the ship.
Miss de Waals proved an able advocate. Without resort to a telephone, she penetrated to the captain, sailing right past the huge "SHIP STAFF ONLY. ABSOLUTELY NO PASSENGERS ALLOWED. UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS WILL BE PUT OFF THE VESSEL IMMEDIATELY."
She caught Feuchtwanger on his couch. The captain had caught a bad head cold from all the ice compresses. He held the unusual novelty company golf ball cupped in his hand, since he still hadn't figured it out. He was still a little surprised to hear that the ship was headed for Palestine instead of Reno. As for the two unauthorized men, that was quickly resolved. On Miss de Waals’ request and recognizance, they were allowed to reboard the airship, this time officially as Holy Land tour members.
“My thanks to you, captain, for a speedy decision. I trust this is not an inconvenience.”
“By no means,” replied the obliging skipper, anxious to get her off the bridge as soon as possible. “In fact, I’ll notify them right now, directly.” He picked up the bridge telephone.
Hodgkins and Olson, receiving the news, both decided on the spot they wanted to go on with the tour just as their Reno flight arrived--a recommissioned Superfortress come to take a load of servicemen on L&R. By this time the captain was so rattled by the bothersome ripping of the old hull down at the keel he saw no reason a couple stray, originally Reno-bound gentlemen should not continue with the tour if they so wished. Triumphant at every point, even controlling her inclination to deliver a broadside concerning the captain’s scandalous plaything, Miss de Waals sailed back out.
As for a missing porter lately reported to him, the captain took that too in stride, just as he had taken the change in destinations like a true cavalier and gentleman. "MIMFs," he advised to the First Officer on the subject of Missing in Mid-Flight incidents, "happen ever so often and are an annoying occupational hazard--annoying because it renders me short-handed in repairing leaks in our hull. But there is no way to eliminate them--unless you can erase simple carelessness from ordinary human nature!"
The First Officer had heard this several times before from the captain, and always had the proper responses ready. Again, he agreed with the voice of wisdom as he watched his superior, revived by a glass of refreshment immediately after Miss de Waals' departure, perfecting his stance as he got ready to perform on the putting tee.
"You are so right, Captain. There is absolutely nothing in the regulations we can do too keep such "early retirements" from happening to careless young crewmen. No amount of our warning can make men any more cautious than they want to be when climbing about inside the ship. Every year we lose several, and now and then a passenger who might have been drinking too much and stumbled off the walkways. It was a good thing Lloyds of London no longer underwrites insurance for such things. The premiums would have long ago run airships out of business!"
(Whoosh! went the BALL WITH BOOBS)
On the other hand, another reason the captain had no problem with letting Hodgkins and Olson continue the flight was that disgruntled patrons with less grievance about company gaffes in airship scheduling had been known to sue Handley-Clarke for huge amounts. Normally, such claims were settled out of court one way or another, but they still cost the company time and trouble to resolve. Thus, he did not feel it necessary or even politic to consult with the tour leader other than to receive her written request.
Later, without any more ado, the captain waved them aboard and wished them godspeed to Jaffa. He did not wish to offend the women if he could help it. They could be counted on to strongly object to smoking in public as a threat to the ship's safety. So the men were urged, “Gentlemen, please smoke out of the way of 'No Smoking--Explosive Gas' signs as much as possible. And confine all cigars to the Gentlemen's First Class Smoker.” This was well said in a stern, no-nonsense captain’s manner, though he himself smoked any place he pleased, discarding lighted cigars and matches by the dozens without the slightest reservation.
January 18. After the surprising reversal of the Olson and Hodgkins' plans, in the wee hours of the morning after a late lift-off the previous day, Olson turned round toward the bar counter to investigate an odd, faintly gurgling noise. He left Hodgkins (how could he avoid him?) with his face down on a table to see for himself and found someone down on the floor taking swigs from a big jug. "You down there, yes, I'm calling you!" he growled, routing out a fat, white-jacketed fellow from under the counter.
A terrified Mexican looked up at Olson as if he feared instant decapitation (the very fate he had fled, breaking bail in a court case gone bad, from his native "New Azteka Empire). From the first, Santiago Maria Universalos Studios Gonzalez had, despite his formidable and cinematic name, proved no match for female gringo temperance. For the sake of his life, he had hidden out the whole voyage to Lakehurst, undergoing a kind of liquid hibernation.
"You can get up now. It's late and the ladies have all gone to bed, no doubt. How about fixin' us up something to take the edge off all this scenery and travel? How about some Italian sherry? No? Now what kind of establishment is this anyway? I never drink anything stronger--a trifle peptic, you understand. Now I suppose you people down south never heard of frozen custard either, and you call yourselves civilized!"
“Oh, senor, I give you something mucho better! Please to taste it! Magnifico, you will like very mucho!” Gonzalez served them drinks with a shaking hand that involuntarily performed all the mixing necessary. Olson did not get his sherry after all. They had to be content with tequila from the bartender's own bottle--everything else had been ferreted out and poured down the sink of the wet bar, which emptied through drains connecting with the toilets, the whole discharged at an appropriate duct near the stern.
Lakehurst would have replenished the bar's supplies, only the bartender was too fearful to make a run to the equally terrified Chief Steward and so remained in hiding under the bar until it was too late.
But his effort would have proved vain anyway. The women's vigil at the door all during the stopover had paid off for temperance. Not one drop of illegal spirits got past them--except what Hodgkins spirited on board concealed in his clothing--an easy thing to do because his girth could cloak even a large quantity without drawing attention..
Hodgkins had an idea as he viewed the depressingly empty bottle racks above the bar. He grabbed the bartender and gave him a push toward the mirror glass dance floor. "Can you sing and dance, you little monkey? Would you happen to know ‘Peg O’ My Heart’?"
The bartender stared at Hodgkins, who then sprinkled some salt on the floor and improvised a few steps of soft shoe to give him the idea. The amiable Mexican began to revive under Hodgkins' prodding, smiled for the first time, then began crying "Si, amigo!" as if he had found his best friend. A moment later, there was no stopping the bartender, accompanied by Hodgkins' antics as Olson looked on, clapping his hands like a good sport.
Taking a seat at the durolumin piano, with the big-tipping Hodgkins' five spot in a glass on top, the reviving bartender sweep aside the score of “The Tales of Hoffman” and began to play the top tune “Peg O’ My Heart” very badly. From there he followed Hodgkin's bawling lead through a medley of old drinking tunes, from the venerable Dinah Cycle of "Dinah, won't you blow?" to "Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah." They ended, inevitably, with a rousing "Be Kind to Your Fine Feathered Friends" that threatened to rouse all the tour ladies from their beds.
During a lull in the festivities, after Hodgkins and the bartender got their breath after whooping it up so agreeably together, he and Olson found time to talk about decisions to go on with the Holy Land tour. Despite the savage edge their differences had taken, the good times the Mexican's antics had its effect of drawing them back together--sort of. At least they were speaking civilly to each other again. "I really think I did the sensible thing," commented Hodgkins, eyeing Olson speculatively. "A tour like this is very educational and uplifting to a man like me. I can learn a lot about people and cultures and see things I would never see if I stayed home, don't you think?"
"Oh, yes, I agree, you old swine," agreed Olson perhaps too quickly. He was eyeing Hodgkins in turn, particularly when he thought Hodgkins was not aware of it. Hodgkins shot Olson a particularly close scrutinizing look. "Flattery will get you no where with me. Now that I've given my reason, I would naturally like yours, Old Buddy."
Olson glared at Hodgkins for some time without replying at first. He had a sour look, but finally he spoke. "It's the same as yours, only I'm telling the truth. I thought it would be educational and uplifting. I can learn a great deal from this tour. Reno can wait. An opportunity like this doesn't come along just any day."
Good time Charley forgotten for the moment, Hodgkins' disappointment was written all over his face. It was soon replaced by a sly look. "And then I hear there's plenty of good-lookin' women among the A-rabs. They're trained from the time the dam drops the foal to please menfolks too. There isn't one that can't put on a first class belly dance with a hookah balanced on her middle nipple. How about that?" Olson managed a smile. "I'm not against that. I have the time and, to be sure, the money. Why not?"
"That's the kind of talk I like to hear from a man!" Hodgkins declared with energy, though without much enthusiasm. "You'll be absolutely amazed how luscious those Oriental broads--" His voice trailed off. It was clear he was not much interested, strangely enough, in the subject at that moment. Instead Hodgkins' eyes were peering most intently at Olson's face, as if searching for some clew.
Finally, Hodgkins could think of nothing else and asked him about the practical matter of joining the tour. "Do you think you could ask a little favor for the both of us, since you seem to--seem to already have gotten their confidence first?" Olson nodded doubtfully. "Depends on what you are asking."
"Oh, you bet your little red buttons! I won't argue with that! Well, what I am wondering, would it be all right if we don't go on every sight-seeing trip they dream up. My corns wouldn't take it! The humidity on these flights is gettin' to them, and they're actin' up something awful. I'm in unspeakable pain--perpetual agony--and can't hoof it more than ten feet at a stretch. Tell them something like that, would you?"
"Don't worry about it. I'll ask when I feel they've gotten used to us. Only be careful. Try to act like a gentleman. If you make a grab for any of the ladies, it is all over with your joining the tour, understand?" Hodgkins looked horrified and insulted at such a suggestion. "Oh, of course, I wouldn’t dream of not acting like a gentleman!"
Olson smiled in spite of himself and shook his head. "I'm certain you meant every word of that," he commented dryly. "But be sure you are careful, particularly around Mrs. Clish, or--" Olson made several menacing movements that looked like a mellon being twisted off the vine and crushed between his powerful hands.
Taking the hint, the tractor gouger felt of his head and paled a bit. "I give you my solemn, Dutch Scout word!" he vowed, head thrown back, chin in, and a hand over his private reserve.
In spite of their best efforts to cloak it, they were always catching each other's scrutinizing eye. This kind of wariness and suspicion signaled a most awkward change in their relationship. After it crept in, it quickly grew to dominate everything they did or said to each other. Lakehurst had already proved a trying time for both. Every minute they were in each other's company, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth, they were watching each other. Even with London their next port of all, unless something happened, there was every reason to think the game would go on for some time to come--spoiling every possibility of enjoying what London had to offer.
As for Pastor de Waals' papers, Olson said nothing, and Hodgkins asked nothing more, though the subject was constantly on his mind apparently because of the furtive way he kept glancing at Olson whenever he thought the custard king was not off guard.
January 18. Whenever he could escape Hodgkins' oppressive company, Olson sought out the new object of his affections as soon as it turned a decent hour for such calls. Mrs. Clish in turn tried to see him. But it was impossible. Miss de Waals seemed to cling all the harder to her companion, who quickly ran out of reasons why Miss de Waals and she should part for a moment or two.
To "go public" at this point in their relations was also impossible. Mrs. Clish was not about to risk her sterling reputation. Ten years of bereavement in blackest widow's weeds was not considered very long, in the circles in which she moved, and any new attachment of a romantic sort would be rigorously censured as behavior more fitting to a streetwalker than a temperance leader.
Yet somehow love finds a way where there is no way, though they lost all of Saturday, Moon Day, and the first Wednesday. It was the normal run of life that produced the opportunity.
As it happened, on UnReformed Church Fool's Day, Wednesday II, the 21st, Miss de Waals thought of a reason to go see a particular tour lady, who was having trouble with a pineapple crochet stitch. Since it was her specialty, she felt her services were required.
"You won't be terrified if I leave you for a few minutes alone here, my dear? Dorothea Klumm wants to do a nice shroud for her mother, who is 102 this month but can't be expected to live much longer."
"Oh, no, dear! I have my Bible for reassurance--claiming Leviticus 28:2--and the Daily Book of Golden Dutch Rules for Daily Life you lent me to read in spare moments. No male member would dare to force his way in here!"
Miss de Waals, particularly satisfied by the iron-clad assurance of the biblical reference, departed without further misgivings.
A moment later Mrs. Clish sprang to the door and threw it open. "Darling, at last we’re together!" she cried. There was no one. She gasped and shrank back inside, bolting the door after her. She thought she heard a slight tap once again. This time she heard right but just let it happen, without leaping as before.
Olson slipped in, breathing heavily. Suddenly, Mrs. Clish was all shyness, her absolutely ravishing black eyes turned down. She put out her hand, indicating the horsehair chair, but she took it and he had to make do on a collapsing duroluminate. “Coffee? Tea? I can call the portress or the steward for some."
Olson shook his head. He hoped she'd look up. He couldn't get enough of her eyes. He couldn't even sleep because of them. "No, I'm fine. Just fine."
They looked at each other. For a widower and a widow, they seemed to be at a total loss at how to begin courting. A slight sound at the door made Mrs. Clish clap a hand over her mouth and spring to her feet. Olson, without thinking, hit the light switch. The next moment they were in each other's arms. Then they stood there, waiting to be discovered like chickens at the plucking stage--not that they wasted any time while waiting.
Someone entered, man or woman, it was hard to tell in the gloom. The person strode directly to the closet without looking around, then stopped abruptly as Mrs. Clish let out a small, muffled cry against Olson's chest, which somehow in the confusion had come bared to his belt. Olson, freeing a hand from somewhere in Mrs. Clish’s apparel, switched on the light.
It was the German portress!
"But isn't it a bit unnecessary?" burst out Mrs. Clish. "They were already changed, by you, I believe. I can tell you the exact time, if you like."
"Ja, das ist richtig! Anybuddy made ein mistake!" The portress smiled even more and then scurried out the door.
Demoralized, Olson and Mrs. Clish could hardly look at each other. Though they would have been at a loss to explain it, a terrible chill seemed to have entered the room, fallen between them like a sheet of ice.
Mrs. Clish seemed to remember something that was even more alarming than some relative stranger sneaking in on them and seeing all. The most beautiful eyes Olson thought he had ever seen on a woman flashed at him. “You must go now! She'll be back soon! I mean, Miss de Waals!"
She might have been warning him of a coming outbreak of bubonic pestilence to judge from the way her lover flinched.
Olson did as she said and sat later in his room wondering how a grown man, a widower for five years, could be so rattled by a woman with snowy eyebrows and a commanding presence. Then there was that other woman--the portress. It was so annoying, her bursting in on them at such a moment! Actually, he thought, it wasn't her so much, it was her reason for coming in that bothered him.
And then the porter’s intrusion came to mind. It gave him a jolt, since the sneaking but bold manner of the portress was so much the same they might have been brother and sister. What was the pair up to? What were they seeking?
Life, he knew, held unexplained, strange things. However routinely it went on most days of the years, odd happenstances occurred. But this business surrounding the papers of Pastor de Waals seemed more than strange happenstance. It was getting more strange with each passing moment--maddening him because it was somehow spoiling his chances, it seemed, with the darling Mrs. Clish.
In case there was something remarkable to see, all along one side were set large slanting windows. But the view contained mostly empty expanses of scudding, gunmetal waves and drifting pack ice. Scenery or the lack of it usually mattered little to two men whose thoughts were riveted on other, conflicting objects. But it might be late Friday before they arrived at London, and they still had Thursday to get through somehow without driving each other crazy with their various spying and romantic games. The zest of male companionship--if it had ever existed-- had gone out of their relationship. They had nearly worn out the passengers' putting tee on the portside promenade deck and smoked their last cigar when, on Friday, they began passing over the British Isles. By that time they were very, very close to flying at each other's throat.
From the Cafe Parisien, they looked out upon landscape gone to ruin, a now thoroughly cold, polar-chilled waste with no hope of recovery as long as the bad weather held--which it showed every sign it intended to do. This was the country that ruled the world with its amassed, seemingly inexhaustible stockpiles of gold, but the countryside below, every roofless mud hut, dungheap, and mangled donkey cart with a missing or broken wheel sticking up out of ice and snow, provided eloquent witness that this was no place for human beings. Here and there some poor starved goose left behind by retreating citizenry was bathing in a barnyard puddle temporarily thawed from the frigid scene. Yet that single bit of barnyard life made the desolation seem absolute and complete.
It looked even worse than conditions at home, where the glaciers had smothered what had once been the thickly-trafficked U.S.-Canadian border and were threatening to pour down into the very heart of Middle Western farm country. Here ice sheets from the Arctic had inundated Scandinavia and most of the North Sea, running over the Baltic as well, so that permanent ice locked up northern Germany, Poland, vast stretches of Russia, and Britain down to the revived Hadrian Wall and its forts in northern England. Even France and southern lands around the Mediterranean had not escaped the big chilling. Alas, world-renowned French wineries were no more--the memory of their glory days fading rapidly as huge volcanoes erupted and terraformed the landscape all around with immense lava flows amidst the ice.
Fortunately, Hodgkins's rum reserve did not seemed to be affected by world conditions. Jamaica, Cuba, Hispanola, Puerto Rico, the Virgins, and the other Antilles islands enjoyed year-round sunshine and good rainfalls. They had no trouble producing enough rum to export and the local Dutch administrators with an eye on slim state revenues looked the other way. The flask performed its usual wonders, casting a bit of rosy glow over the worst that the view could offer. Yet even rum had its limits, however, in restoring a ruptured relationship. Hodgkins' eye lost its normal tinge of humanity as the wary, semi-professional spy fully took the reins.
He turned to remark to Olson about a particularly bad sight just over the border of Scotland and England, where the ice sheet ended in a 2,000 foot escarpment of dirty ice and boulders and remnants of crofters' huts. "For the sake of your bank account, Old Buddy, I hope old Culp doesn't see that woman down there in the yellow scarf pulling that wooden plow up that hillside," he commented, just for something to say while he took a close look at Olson. "Why, it's still half-thawed! New Zeeland, compared to this, looks like a paradise!"
Olson, at Hodgkin's seemingly innocent remark, turned on him with a furious expression. A bad moment passed, when it seemed they would rise and go at each other with guns and knives. But it passed, with nothing more happening.
Miles south of glacier-buried Scotland, as the light waned, they saw somewhat improved but still impoverished English countryside. The captain called a halt, since at the speed they were going they would reach London at an hour when no one would be up to receive them--a dangerous situation for a gigantic but tender-skinned airship. Circling at low throttle, they spent the night, then began their approach in the early hours of the new day, Saturday the 24th.
Hours later, they approached what looked a maze of trickling streams and swamp amidst which a badly cracked teacup sat half afloat--modern London. Growing unspeakably immense as they approached, the Christopher Fry Geo-Dome looked impressively intact at first. But the closer they came the more they could see gaping fissures and cracks, evidence of ravages that centuries of total neglect inflicted. But none of the domed cities looked very well these days.
Captain Feuchtwanger's voice broke in. Obviously doing better, he himself announced their imminent arrival at Clarke International Airdrome, London. They had just passed over a big, half-thawed muddy field and were slowly turning back. "Merrie olde England at last!" crowed Hodgkins. "I knew we'd make it! Now let the good times roll!" He smiled at Olson, a not very warm smile for all his enthusiasm for London. "I've been here plenty times, and this is a grand old country--all it used to be! We ought to have a fine time here!! Only Reno has a bit more wine, women and song! You can believe me when I say the Limey women--"
"Yes, I believe you," Olson broke in with an undisguised surly tone. "Would you mind shutting up about it? I've had as much as I can take from your big trap!"
"Suit yourself!" laughed Hodgkins.
A moment later, the now fully revived captain, after a late breakfast tot or two of brandy to get his work day started right, turned to one of the men at the wheels. "Ship down!" he ordered, in four, possibly five syllables. Looking at the rising ground, Hodgkins and Olson could see a sea of mud filled with men running out from haphazardly planted huts. Off to one side of the field stood a tall wooden contraption that looked as if it would collapse in the breeze from a passing duck's wings. "You don't mean we're going to tie up to that old thing!" expostulated Hodgkins as if he had never seen it before. "It'll never hold us and we'll land in the river and drown like unweaned kittens!"
Olson too was mortified. "I thought you said you had been here before and knew all about it," he said accusingly. Hodgkins looked at him, color drained from his usually apple-red face. “But it’s been years, I tell you! When I was here last, they were as modern and up to snuff as you could wish. I have no idea why they've turned to wood construction instead of steel and iron. Must be cheaper or something, though they have so much gold in this city they shouldn't need to save money."
A horsedrawn taxi carriage (also wood) picked them up at the airdrome and flew them into the city at breakneck speed. London, they found once they were in the city, was still jolly enough despite the filth and squalor of countless, nature-cut canals. Tides running up the Thames and though the Dome's inoperative river gates could not be held back, and had not been held back for over two centuries, transforming London into a Venice of the north--though the image was not very clear, since the namesake was gone, generating a lot of bubbles up from the mud of its lagoons. Thus, the change had enhanced the romantic aspect though making normal business very difficult, since everything had to go by boat or bridge--and there were few negotiable bridges.
They all made at once to their hotel and had dinner. It was too late to do any sight-seeing. Moon Day, gravitating toward London's shrines, the ladies of the tour trooped to a much smaller, restored version of St. Paul's Cathedral. The original had collapsed, undermined by surrounding canals. The next day they rose early and toured art-choked museums that English gold had brought in from every declining land and defunct nation. When Olson announced he was going with the ladies on Moon Day, Hodgkins intended to go along too, so Olson had to quickly change his itinerary. It did not improve his temper and mood. Olson & Hodgkins then confined their touring to various clubs and casinos which paid utterly no attention to blue laws.
London, during their two-day stopover, turned out to be a city greatly diminished in size but still jolly and luxury-loving, full of everything a North American male could want--for double or triple the price the same article could be got at home. Two whirlwind days in the capital’s dives depleted their pocketbooks considerably as Olson tried to ruin Hodgkins to the point where he would have to return to the ship, leaving him free to join the ladies, if only for a few minutes. Expenses ran such that the resourceful Hodgkins had to resort to some counterfeit bills, which he carried just in case he were ever really hard-pressed.
Olson, of course, had no cash-flow problem. Yet, with his interests elsewhere, he found his capacity to sin had its limits. For him depravity turned into a deadly dull business when the forbidden fruit cames too easy and his mind was divided. No stickler concerning such nice distinctions, Hodgkins had dragged Olson to The Elephant, a club and casino in an architectural monstrosity built way back in the fabled Chillingsworth era.
Some local engineering genius had installed a train system to deliver drinks to the club members and their guests. Though a hundred years old already, it still worked, more or less dependably. Growing thirsty, he had only to push a button and a drink would be sent to the closest station. While Olson sipped coffee and frantically tried to think of ways he could get away and leave Hodgkins without a trail to follow, he could tell the tractor dealer had not forgotten about the papers, from the numerous glances that were coming his way on the sly.
Hodgkins had returned to the more practical pursuit of treasure, and even pleasure had to play second fiddle!--a switch Olson could plainly read in the expression of Hodgkins' beady, red eyes, always darting to anticipate the crafty custard manufactuer’s every move. "The clowning old fool!" Olson thought. "He must still think there's money involved with those papers!"
Yet when they boarded for their trip to the fabled Middle East, they were still scrutinizing each other. Nothing, not even the whole of London's high jinks and night spots, had changed between them. Suspicion ran just as deep as ever, made all the worse because Olson was so frustrated and could not get rid of Hodgkins. He even tried to get the tractor dealer thrown off the tour because of his behavior, which he described in full detail to a shocked group of ladies including Miss de Waals and Mrs. Clish.
The custard Croesus was certain they had to reject Hodgkins, which they did, but Miss de Waals took command as she was known to do and overruled the group. "Mr. Hodgkins is staying on with us!" she declared to everybody in the dining room.
Mr. Olson could not believe it. But he thought he might save the day by becoming even more morally indignant? He tried to adopt the highest moral tone. "But surely you don't mean it, Miss de Waals! I tell you this man is a total moral reprobate, as I just described. I kept back the worst things, for fear of offending your delicate sensibilities!"
Choosing the sensible thing, Mr. Olson bowed to her ruling on the matter, then went off shaking his head. As soon as he could, he complained to Mrs. Clish privately. "But this man is depraved and shouldn't be on your tour with us!" he protested with great vehemence. "He simply can't be trusted around ladies such as you. Can’t you get that old--er, Miss de Waals to change her mind?"
The unspeakably lovely eyes were turned away. The voice was not particularly sympathetic. "But you went along with his behavior! You encouraged him in it! I had no idea you--"
"But I did nothing of the kind, darling! I had to go with him! He’s a shameless leach and wouldn't leave my company!" He was just about to explain about the papers being the cause of the whole thing when Mrs. Clish made her escape and hurried off.
The next day, at mealtimes, he tried to catch her eye, but she always eluded him, her face set grim and stern. Then she seemed to relent and shot him a glance and a tiny careful nod. He had to make do with that until he got a free moment with her later in the voyage, not long after the ship sailed across southern France--what had been France before a dozens of active volcanoes got going, looking so strange as they spewed fire and smoke against a leaden, glacial sky and frozen landscape. .
Clish told him what had happened when she approached Miss de Waals concerning his request she reconsider. Heloise had waved Olson's case against Hodgkins aside as so much fluff.
Olson tried to get her to press the the case anew. "Don't you see you have to do it?" he implored. "We'll never be able to get together if the filthy, meddling swine is forever tagging after me!"
When he said that she seemed to reconsider. "I know you've been trying hard to see me," she said hesitantly. "I really didn't believe you kept away so you could wallow in the mud with that terrible man!"
"Well, you’re seeing the light, so will you please try to get away from Miss de Waals so we can--"
She pressed his hand, which wasn't exactly in a respectable spot, and rushed off.
Olson stood watching her go, ecstatic.
Soon after that interview, Mrs. Clish approached Miss de Waals, the supreme arbiter of human fate on board the airship, a third time. Miss de Waals, on her part, showed no annoyance, though her friend had come with an uncharacteristic urgent appeal that made her whole body tremble. On hearing that Olson had conspired, indulged in moral wantonness and then turned viciously on his friend, the older woman's eyes only took on a darker tint that could be the beginning of a storm, or a passing cloud with no rain, or the makings of lightning--all depending on what the woman behind the weather decided was the right thing to do.
"But that's not what I meant!" protested Mrs. Clish. "You're taking a wrong construction of his actions! Really you are, don’t you see?"
Miss de Waals shook her head. She really did see how things stood--all too plainly. "I appreciate your concerns, my dear Elly, but we must remember these poor men, if what you say is true, are fellow Americans, notwithstanding their sad and reprehensible behavior in that wicked, wicked city of London. And it might do their poor, darkened souls some good we can't now foresee. No, Mr. Hodgkins stays! I shall not change on that, for I see no real difference between him and this Mr. Olson, despite the favor he did us." If that were not crushing enough to a woman in love, the older woman had added, "Besides, I have prayed long and hard upon the matter, and I truly feel Providence is in their passage with us. Would you have me stand in the way of what must be, my dear? Would you?"
How could Mrs. Clish answer that except to give in, miserably, to divine Providence and Miss de Waals. And so Mrs. Clish who had taken Olson's part and cast mud on Hodgkins only to see them share the mud equally. Her entrancing eyes squeezed shut as she clearly saw the result. Painful as it was, she knew where her duty lay. If she had any choice, she might have chosen differently, but there was no real option for a woman in her circumstances. None at all.
When she looked up and gazed at Miss de Waals, her eyes were not quite so beautiful. They had some of the hardness of her temperance costume, and they got harder with each passing moment. Once taking that tack, Mrs. Clish rose to the promise of her military dress. Where before she was Mr. Olson's devil's advocate, she now favored casting him loose rather than having to look upon fulfillment denied.
"Well, then, if that is how things mjust be, then you simply must dismiss those men, those stowaways, from--" Mrs. Clish began. But Miss de Waals was evidently ready and saw no reason to argue with a younger woman whose feelings had been, only a moment before, engaged to a rather compromising degree by the Enemy. She raised an embroidered cambric handkerchief to the corner of her eye and mentioned her dear brother. His ashes were still on board, resting in the lovely cenotaph by the grand staircase as they awaited the solemn ceremony when they would be committed to the winds of heaven.
The mere mention of a man so solicitous toward strays and tramps and Mrs. Clish's move against Hodgkins and Olson was thrown from the docket. The temperance leader was revived, but at a price of great frustration and vindictiveness.
With no idea he was partly the cause of so much pain and denial among the female sex, Hodgkins turned in a confidential and comradely manner toward Olson. “‘Tis funny how certain little things happen to give us a different direction in life, ain't it, Ollie? To think we’re goin’ to old Jaffee together! We may not have planned it this way, but what have two old codgers like us got to lose? I don't know about you, but I've still got some spark left, and this is my first trip abroad. Maybe being widowers won't be all that bad. But if the good wife were still alive and kickin'--"
Olson was in no mood to hear a word of it. Somehow Hodgkins had ruined his chances with Mrs. Clish. He was sure of it, and so the man had earned his undying hate.
Olson moved his face cloth aside, giving Hodgkins a red and glaring eye. "I don't care to know what you're talking about, but whatever you did, it's too late to make amends at this date, isn't it?"
Hodgkins nodded, pleased he had got Olson to break silence. "I guess you're right, Old Buddy. I'm torturing myself for nothing, just as you described. Yes, indeedy, she's much better off now. I mean, we were never really happy together, and a drink or two never hurt any man--"
Olson groaned, pulling the face cloth closer in such a way to stuff his ears with hot, wet towel. With things romantic going awry, he was in a particularly foul mood at the moment. The airship, full of the frustration of thwarted lovers and the suspicion of fiercely competing gentlemen, passed over the eastern Mediterranean. They had swung round the ramshackle remnants of Italy and Greece and drifted past the almost completely uninhabited wilderness island of Cyprus to the coast of the Holy Land. Despairing of Mrs. Clish, Olson's torment was nearing its end, for he meant to turn around at the port of Jaffa and take the first steamship home.
He did not know that behind the facade was the most despairing lover. Olson was counting the minutes from the time they left London, his frustration growing with each passing moment because he could not escape, unless he went and made a hole and stuck his head in a gas bag.
Yet when Jaffa hove in sight the over-talkative, tenacious Hodgkins brought out a last closet in reserve. Finished telling all he could safely tell, knowing the rest could get him in trouble, he was yet so desperate to get Olson to divulge something about the papers he plunged into even greater depths of subtlety--truly a feat for a man who normally wore life, like his heart, on his sleeve. As if thinking back, he recalled to the long-suffering Olson how faithfully he had provided for his spouse--perhaps too faithfully to the point of spoiling the woman and her fancy mutts.
Market crashes had come and gone, leaving her untouched because farmers, even poor ones, always needed tractors or at least plows if they were to continue working their land and not starve to death.
Hoping for some little accident to carry her off, it occurred to him that somewhere, such as the Van Grand Canyon, when he left her alone in the car, it might slip gear. Such mishaps had been known to happen even in the most established and successful marriages. That kind of patience would eventually pay off, he had reasoned.
Once it had, he was all action--running wildly about to flag down any car he could and telling them the tragedy. This he described to Olson in full detail. Any misgiving he might have felt over a premeditated demise of more spectacular dimension was then swallowed up in sheer gratitude. He was, after all, only fifty five, charmingly gray-haired in his opinion, and not too ample in girth to think about starting over with some young thing.
What was Olson's response as he looked down and saw Jaffa, his release and liberation, sliding into view beneath them? "I always knew you were a fiend who only thought of indulging his vices. At least my wife died of natural causes. A kernel of corn stuck in her throat at dinner. We rushed in a doctor, but it was too late."
"But you’re completely missing the point!" expostulated Hodgkins, sorry he had exposed so much of his life for nothing. "Didn't I tell you I was only considering bumping Annabelle off? What married guy doesn't think of doing it once in a while? But even if I sometimes thought it, I swear I would never have lifted a hand to the old battle--er--woman, if she hadn't gone off that cliff! It was fortuitous, that was."
"Sure, tell me about it," observed Olson, highly annoyed more at the fifty dollar word than the unabashed crime. At this point, Hodgkins gave up defending himself. Having done all, he fully realized he had failed with Olson. The custardcrat would get the treasure without counting in his best friend. If there was a fiend on board, truly it was Olson!
What to do? Hodgkins had plenty of time to think of next moves. Having once seen the papers, he recalled that a map included the Holy Land. There were lines drawn on it, just like the lines drawn across the continents. He naturally reasoned that Olson would be following one of those lines, straight to a treasure trove. If Hodgkins could just keep Olson in sight every minute of the day, he'd win the treasure!
At this happy thought, it is no wonder Hodgkins looked vastly relieved, and he soon began to enjoy life again despite the unfair interpretation Olson had cast on his actions and character.
Olson, once he saw Jaffa, colored dangerously. He stood up and paced back and forth, glancing at Hodgkins from time to time. Then he smacked his big fists together and left Hodgkins to wonder what had gotten into him after giving him so much silent treatment. Back in his stateroom, Olson continued his pacing. No, he wouldn't do it! He had decided not to turn and run, tail between his legs. Somehow he would ditch Hodgkins and get the woman of his choice. Somehow! With that resolved he returned to Hodgkins in a much better mood.
In fact, he looked and acted like his old, convivial self and Hodgkins noticed the difference immediately.
"My friend, buddy, old chum," said Hodgkins lifting his lively scorpion toast the spirit of reconciliation, "here’s to you and me in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness!”
But first, before landing, Pastor de Waals' remains had to be committed to the elements. It was the event most everyone had forgotten, except for the principal participants. Miss de Waals and the captain appeared at the Cloud Car hangar dressed in suitable black garb. She had dragged him out of his hideaway, more or less in proper attire, and together they prepared to strew the remains of Rev. de Waals over the land he had come to loved nearly as much as his native country.
Hodgkins and Olson and the rest of the tour watched from the portside promenade deck through the windows set in the floor.
So while Hodgkins took a couple more sips just in case, the members of the tour watched as the Cloud Car was slowly lowered, holding Miss de Waals, Mrs. Clish as witness, the captain, and the cinerary urn. The simple Dutch-style ceremony was soon completed in an hour.
A little dust cloud trailed from the Cloud Car for a brief time. Its solemn task completed, starting its turn of descent to Jaffa's aerodrome, the airship swung ponderously about to face toward the hallowed site of Jerusalem in the southeast.
At this time the men finally had to return to the Cafe Parisien and retrieve whatever things they had left there, for the ladies had organized under Mrs. Clish in order to give it a final "cleansing" before they landed. Without a single glance at Olson, Mrs. Clish arrived first to start setting it in order. At first he tried to get her to talk, but she wouldn't look at him and went about her business. He stood helplessly looking after her, while Hodgkins made a run to their cabin to take a look for the map.
He would have liked to memorize it for the treasure, which he planned to share with his old golfing buddy!
After the women had satisfied themselves that the Cafe was again put to rights, with sufficient temperance tractates stacked as high as the Reno-style hitching post napkin holders on each table and the bar counter, they left the men and went to dress for touring Jaffa.
The entire A Deck lounge and other public rooms were also vacated by the ladies, and so the two had them all to themselves. They were there for some time, as the dirigible made its slow and careful approach to the aerodrome.
"Are you sure you're seeing it clearly?" Olson said. "Let me help you." His face frozen to a mask of cruelty, he increased the lens' power ten-fold. A moment later, Hodgkins staggered back away from the telescope. His eyes seemed to have shot backwards into his skull. Slowly, he revived, then gazed at Olson, with a dumb, beseeching look. He had just witnessed something never seen in Minnpaul, impoverished and struggling as it was on what farmland that remained. Here a landless mass of Jaffa citizenry gathered on the port docks were all attacking what looked like a muddy crust of bread--which he could see thanks to Olson's kind help with the lens.
"Holy Moses, what could make them that hungry?" was all he had time to say before the crust was reduced to worthless atoms and the mob fell to attacking one another. Shocked beyond the power of words to express, he did not notice that his cigar was burning the carpet.
A look of disbelief swept over his features. He tried laughing, then turned to Olson."I swear I never imagined the times were this bad! I guess I need to get out more and see how things really are. But maybe I imagined it. Must be something I ate or drank, or I just don't know how to use this telescope." He paused to rub the back of his thin head of hair. A puzzled expression broke slowly on his face. "Maybe people are that hungry here--the poor devils! I guess--”
He shut his eyes and rubbed his head, and so never finished what he had in mind to say. Jaffa was right up ahead of them. Beyond the thick woods crowding to the very edge of the city, minarets and Byzantine Greek domes, Roman-style temples and port warehouses all looked like they had been built just the day before.
Befuddling the eye, they rose amidst tumble-down ruins from the Crystal Age. Obviously, there would be much to tour in Jaffa!
The captain's voice came over the loudspeaker system, steady and reassuring, announcing immediate landing. Down went the captain's little signal parachute from the bridge, and a man on a sway-backed donkey crawled toward it, so slowly Hodgkins wondered aloud if they would land before he ever got to it. Only it turned out to be another novelty, sent forth from the bridge unintentionally, for the man who collected the parachute found yet another self-inflated pair of Van Zook's buttocks, this one sporting a dartboard pattern.
It really cut him that Clish was maintining her aloof tactics and wasn't speaking to him. Would he have any success the more he pressed her? Or would she just get harder, as she seemed to be doing?
It was enough to cast a chill on things and make him forget everything else. Along with increasingly dark thoughts, his peptic condition was bothering him more and more. Though he had come with a vague idea following Pastor de Waals' itinerary to the source of whatever lay at the clearly marked discovery site, while gaining Mrs. Clish in the bargain, he soon discovered he was in no position to do any such thing.
If the tiresome Hodgkins did not leave him at Jaffa, if he could not make satisfactory amends with Mrs. Clish, then he was headed home and the tour could go to--!
A thought struck him suddenly with a cold thrust. "What was he to do with himself if he returned home and found his factory shut-down for repairs or because of a strike?" he wondered.
Sure, he had a cool million dollars to play with, but what good was it if he couldn't keep his business going? He might lose his investment in London stocks in a Crash, then what? He might even go bankrupt and end up on the streets! Think of that!
The owner of the custard works on the streets, like any beggar or unemployed working stiff!
He also knew the airship was on its last legs, stout as she still appeared, and she would probably remain for servicing in Jaffa for some weeks. And he could not fly home on her until the tour was concluded. Going home some other way meant a long, long haul on some old freighter reeking of sardines and unwashed armpits across the Mediterranean and then the ice-choked Atlantic, since the bigger, safer passenger liners had been discontinued for lack of profit and passengers.
What had seemed a good way to get free of the unpleasantness of the tour was not such a bright idea after all.
No, he decided over again. He would have to see if Mrs. Clish would quit thinking so meanly of his intentions and come round to him. Hodgkins or no Hodgkins! But first he had to ditch him! He would give them both one last college try.
Hodgkins, however, was not the man to give up easily and run with his tail between his legs. He seemed not to entertain any misgivings about his prospects, dim as they were. Somehow he had a knack for bobbing to the surface after being dunked. He could make the best of the worst situations in ways that continually astounded himself. Why was this situation any different? His business had been sinking for years, but one way or another he had kept afloat, hadn’t he? And that had taken a lot of hoodwinking with both customers and banks.
In a particularly bouyant mood, he proved not long in finding out that starving, forest-strangled Jaffa, their first port of call in Asia, included the usual attractions that go with ships and sailors. With enough women and song, let the world go hang! was Hodgkin's response to the world's ills.
Though the aerodrome was struggling for existence against the galloping trees, they would find the seaport busy enough. Coal and wood-burning paddlewheel steamships lay taking on cabbages and potatoes--oranges and lemons had been frosted out in earlier times--which were stacked in crates in their holds.
The produce, grown in the only productive strip of land left, the relatively sweltering Jordan Valley, went abroad to feed the few remaining cities that could find the money to buy it.
Instead they intended to examine certain well-preserved military artifacts from the 19th and 20th Centuries, items laid out for the tourist trade in 21st Century's museums, which now were in far worse shape than the artifacts. Casting them in a vivid religious light, Miss de Waals pointed out how they figured in "wars and rumors of wars" that were a true sign of the End Times. Not interested in End Times Eschatology, Olson and Hodgkins played pook ball--an Oriental version of pool--at the hotel until nightfall. Tiring of it, they dressed and went out for a few hours on the town--something Hodgkins suggested.
Olson knew that by that time the tour group would return from the day's sightseeing among "End Time"- mothballed armored tanks, night-vision helmets, and decommissioned nuclear missiles.
At dinner he would risk a surprise visit to her table and hold he could get her to go outside to the terrace where they might talk. So off to a defunct hotel turned nightclub attributed to Queen Semiramis, with “Ar-bian -ights -ntertainmen-" and "--ice 'irls" in flashing neon lettering, Hodgkins led his friend. With a keen nose for such places, he knew just where to go amidst Jaffa's unlit tangle of rabbit-hutch construction, squalid stalls, and wandering, open sewer footpaths called streets. This particular dive had also been recommended him by the hotel bartender, who seemed especially friendly and took down Hodgkins' and Olson's names on a pad so he might remember them better, he said.
Their hostess introduced herself very prettily and unsurprisingly as "Zuhrah", and there was even a jeweled Damascene ring in her nose.
It was all that Hodgkins had imagined the fabled East to be and he was delighted. "I really dig you, toots!" he said, repeating each word twice over so she would get his English. He jabbed an elbow into Olson. "Use English on 'em. Dutch is a dead language over here. Oh, and plenty of body movements. They understand that!"
He then sprang up and rolled his belly, which seemed to delight Zuhrah into raves of appreciation.
Hodgkins roared. "--'belly like camel hump', 'beautiful rich', 'English sheik' !" The tractor dealer loved Zuhrah all the more, who laughed at him. He continued to ply her with English she could not understand, for he had forgotten what the waiter had said, he only had eyes for the damsel.
Meanwhile, Olson was already frowning. He thought it was the most disgusting spectacle he had yet seen.
Hodgkins somehow got Zuhrah to respond to his compliments, offered in both pitiful English and worse Dutch when they were interrupted. A gold turbaned woman with a thick guttural voice of command horned in and sent the girl away with a slap on her tasseled, silken rear. The club manageress welcomed them to the Cafe Royale d' Semiramis, while Olson did a double take, wondering if she had a twin sister working on the dirigible. Forced to order something, Olson was surprised when his sherry came in a bottle that looked suspiciously like an attempt at champagne. A sip told him it was highly sugared kerosene possibly laced with a sedative or narcotic, something quite like the base for his own frozen custard but double in strength.
Hodgkins had no stomach condition. He was free to do as he liked with the tray the German woman brought out, all specimens of sweet and powerful liquors. "Oh, Whoopie cushions!" cried Hodgkins, looking at his watch. "Almost forgot to take my daily vitamins." He reached in his upper right coat pocket and brought out the silver scorpion . "Gotta keep healthy if I'm going to enjoy the good things of life!"
He glanced at his watch. The ladies would have finished with their tour and be retiring to bed. In the morning, bright and early, he would cut out on the comatose Hodgkins and go down to breakfast and there have a word with Mrs. Clish. Feeling better at the thought the matter would soon be resolved, one way or the other, he began looking again at the peeling paint, plastic flowers in cracked urns, threadbare awnings. The more he looked, the less real he himself appeared in such a setting.
When he was young and sailing in the New Holland navy, he had seen it all before, a hundred times in far-flung ports. Nothing had changed, except he was much older now. At his age, he knew another bad economic downturn would sweep the East clean of humanity and civilized life, such as it was.
At least some of the people of Holland America could pack up and go to the other Dutch Netherlands, Surinam or the Antilles, where the palm trees grew and the hooch was rum. Jaffa and the whole British Mandate had no such option. At the next Crash it would sink like a stone, never to rise again! he saw with a businessman's certain eye for such things.
While Hodgkins whooped it up with liquor after liquor, Olson continued thinking. He realized that if the map were not stolen from his luggage back at the hotel, he could still go and find exactly what Pastor de Waals had discovered and thought so important. His sister might appreciate knowing. Perhaps that was a way to unlock her companion's heart and--
He looked again at Hodgkins. The problem was always the same one. He had to dump him somehow. But how?
As Olson gazed at the tractor dealer and considered the means, a chill wind from off the great Syrian desert, now a forested wilderness, blew right into the terrace, stirring up dust and cigar wrappers in a small but messy whirlwind. Oblivious to the wind, Hodgkins lifted a cocktail glass shaped like a donkey's head, toasting their "friendship" again. "Here's mud in your eye, old buddy!"
Dirt and papers flying in his face, Olson vowed to go through with his plan: (1) see that Hodgkins got dead drunk; (2) cart his stinking carcass back to the hotel afterwards; and (3) get up early and-- But first he had to endure the first step.
It was most difficult to endure. He badly wanted to return home at that moment, straight home to the security of his frozen custard works. What did it matter what Pastor de Waals had found in the country? he thought. And perhaps Mrs. Clish wouldn't give him the time of day. She had turned so cold toward him, would anything he could think to say ever thaw her out? Right now, with a cold wind blowing, he began to doubt it very much.
Olson rose. He would have then left then, throwing in the towel on the whole plan, but Hodgkins pulled him down and would not hear of it. He drank as if he could not get enough of Palestine's thick, perfumed nectars. "I've not come all this distance to turn tail and run," said the man whose wife toppled down a thousand feet of cliff with four screaming mutts. "And you need to learn to relax. So drink up, old chum! You're not gettin' any younger!" Unspeakably sorry he had ever set eyes on the old stewpot, Olson gave Hodgkins a look to cut him dead, but Hodgkins seemed not to see it. He beamed in anticipating, rubbing his hands.
"I'm going to get my hands on that pretty, young Arab princess, Zuhrah baby, tonight if it kills me! I might even marry her if she's all they say these Orientals are!"
"Are you sure you're up to getting hitched again?" Olson commented sourly. His patience had come to an utter end as he pushed away the latest tray of drinks with a force that knocked several bottles over. "I thought you said it was wonderful to be free of your wife Annabelle"
The German woman stepped into their conversation without warning. "Maybe Sie vant now sprachen to our schone hostesses?" commanded the female money-rake as she demanded $50 for the drinks.
"German sauerkraut, aren't you?" inquired Olson, trying to stop her. Little as he knew, British-administered Palestine seemed a strange place to find a German, considering it had once been Jewish according to old legend. Now that he saw her again, she looked to be such a dead ringer for the portress on the airship, even with all her makeup and jewelry, he had to know for sure. "Didn't you, or maybe a close relative of yours, just come across with us? Now don't lie. It might not go well with you if you do." Olson gave her an ominous flexing of his shoulders for emphasis.
Pursing her thin, red lips queerly aslant, the woman replied irritably, "Ach, nein. Many leute dey say dey see me some place else. Maybe udder gorls look like me--so vat? Ich verk hier all de time. Vee haft to make a living, nicht wahr? As long as Bree-teesh sind hier, vee stay. Ven dey go, vee gehen nach Sud-Amerika! Ist getting zu kalt hier! Zu kalt!"
Olson felt ever more chilled when he took a closer look while she murdered English. Except for the reference to weather, he was certain it was all lies. She was the portress, except in costume and makeup. Cosmetics, however thick, could not fully cover same startled but stern mug that had looked at him and Mrs. Clish in the cabin on the airship.
"Well, chum, if you're going to be a dead-beat all evening, darn if I'm fool enough to follow your example!" said Hodgkins, getting up and interrupting the tense moment. Tizzy with Queen of Sheba champagne and half a dozen other Oriental saccharines, he had seemingly forgotten the papers and the prospective treasure for the joys at hand. He rubbed his hands and wobbled determinedly through a group of Tommies and into the club, where the entertainment no doubt would take a more serious turn. He gave Olson a "come hither" sign just before he disappeared inside.
"What's da matter? Sind Sie a leetle boy heute?" the portress-club manageress laughed, giving Olson a playful punch in his increasingly tender peptic zone. Instead of wincing, Olson simply stared at her. He had not wrestled barrels of frozen custard on and off trucks in order to be pushed around by a masquerading German who was a dirigible portress changing bedsheets one moment and a club manageress the next changing trays of outrageously-priced drinks. Then he did a stranger thing than not reacting. He spoke to her in a civil tone, so civil she began looking at him with mild alarm. "I know I've seen you on Captain Feuchtwanger's ship, the Atlantis. You came in on me and a woman in Cabin 35, remember?"
Whether she gave a sign or not, he could not tell, but he could see sweat breaking through the pancake powder on her forehead.
He was also aware of other men on the terrace. Standing out from behind the palms, four, large, Turkish-fezzed Zouaves--Algerian toughs from an Algeria that no longer existed. Mercenaries, they all wore the same expression of anonymous brutality for pay.
The hostess must have thought she had him nailed, for she put her hands on the table, leaning down to him with a smirking smile. "Ah, but vee do not permit da customer to leave da Cafe Royale d’ Semiramis nicht happy. Das would nicht be gut business, nicht wahr?" Do step in de klub, Herr Olson, bitte."
Olson was surprised, not frightened, when he saw his departure was not going to go uncontested. "How did you know my name?"
By this time, Mr. Hodgkins had come out of the club tieless, shirt front popped open. He called excitedly to Olson, his eyes bulging with a strange glow that reminded Olson of light shining on pools of mud and spilled crankcase fluid. "Hey, old buddy, come and get it! Thee’s plenty for both of us. You'll never get this chance again at your age!"
At the sight of Hodgkins, he backed apologetically away, almost falling when he stumbled against a bench of comatose British soldiers. Hodgkins, having disappeared once again into the club, was gone a few minutes, then reappeared shirtless. Olson took a look at Hodgkins, the female rake, and her hired tigers. Then he did what they least expected. He let out the Midwestern war whoop once used during the English-Dutch wars. Somehow it had been passed down in his family for generations, surfacing in Olson's outcry. The blood-curdler had never been heard before in Jaffa's long and sanguinary history. Even the tigerish Zouaves were visibly impressed.
Feeling his old self, Olson then plowed through the startled Algerian bouncers like a ball through tenpins. In a flash, he was out of the compound and in the street. Immediately, the German rake was screaming bloody murder, and the Zouaves started after him like silent, loping hounds of hell.
Unarmed except for his superior strength, he decided he wasn't going to dash up a steep street in the dark to his hotel and risk falling in a pothole or having a heart attack, so he stopped and turned around. He looked but no one was following. For some reason, his pursuers had been called off. They had dropped from sight. Hodgkins, he decided, would have to take what he had coming to him. No one had forced him into the pigsty of the Semiramis.
With no pursuers at the moment, Olson stood and gasped for air, and it was good to breathe air not poisoned by the club's cheap jasmine toilette water. He could hear some dogs yapping because of the merry-making club, but that was all. Then even the club fell silent, and the dogs left off in turn. There was no sound whatsoever except for the whirring wings of nightjars. The more respectable part of town went to bed early, he observed, the Cafe Royale d’ Semiramis notwithstanding. Alone, leaving Hodgkins to his den of delights, Olson trudged back up to the hotel, still intending to intercept Mrs. Clish come breakfast--even if the Last Trumpet should sound, as Miss de Waals was always warning it soon would.
Later, Olson was enjoying a sound sleep for the first time in days when a noise in the room brought him groggily awake. He heard it again. It was coming from the floor by the door. He then noticed the door was ajar, light shining in from a night lantern in the hall. The noise increased, and it was human. Someone had groaned. Olson switched lit the candle by the bed and carried it to the dark shape sprawled on the floor that was still producing the groans. "Hoag?" he said. "What a confounded, stupid, idiotic nuisance you are, coming in late and waking me--"
The groans increased in volume, and the light told the rest of the story. Olson bent down to take a closer view and saw that Hodgkins was in no shape to take a lesson from his misbehavior. His face was covered with blood. As Olson moved the candle he saw that Hodgkins hadn't a stitch on and was a mass of bruises and cuts. There was no sign of his companion the scorpion.
Caught in the door was something else, telling more of the tale. A burlap sack, which someone had used for a body bag. Thrown hastily, it caught the closing door when whoever had delivered Hodgkins had run for it. It was an hour later, after Olson cleaned up Hodgkins as best he could and got him to drink some water, that more details, instead of groans, came out.
"That kraut-woman and her red-headed woodpeckers--they nearly killed me, Old Buddy!" he finally was able to croak out, the water reviving him like a shot of his liquid scorpion. "I thought for a moment I was done for, they hurt me so bad, and took all my counterfeits. And they kept demanding what I did with 'the papers'! But--" Hodgkins gave the weakest victory grin of his career and groaned more than he kicked. "I'll be my old self in the morning! Just find me a little Jamaica rum, Old Buddy, and give me one little nip or two--"
It was Olson's turn to groan. "Can a leopard change his spots?" he wondered.
Yet Hodgkins proved correct. He badgered Olson into providing the "nip or two," who gave in just to get some peace so he could go back to bed.
Come morning, Olson was astonished as Hodgkins rose bushy-tailed, if not so bright-eyed (in fact, his eyes were swollen shut for half the morning). Given his golden opportunity, Olson left Hodgkins stumbling about the room and hurried down to the dining room. It was a bustling place right before a new day's tour. Miss de Waals and her prophetic circle were at one table, eagerly discussing a "666" recently found etched on a Roman aqueduct which had reconstructed itself and was now supplying water to Jaffa as in former times during the Roman era.
Miss de Waals held a hand over her water glass when the waiter came. "No thank you, young man!" she told him. "I will not swill the polluted waters of the ten-horned Beast!"
When not shooing off the Beast and the False Prophet, Miss de Waals and several ladies were involved how best to go about pineapple patterns. The lady Miss de Waals had been helping still had not got hers right, as the leader firmly pointed out to her with the end of her crochet hook. Each table was filled and buzzing with hungry and eager-to-tour ladies, but a Mrs. Clish was no where in sight.
His face smarting with frustration, Olson slipped back out, all the way past the hotel manager's desk to the street. What had gone wrong? He went back in, thinking she might be coming down late. He waited in the lobby for twenty minutes, past the closing time for breakfast. Still no ravishing, Mary van Pickford-eyed Clish. Dare he?
The custard magnate dared. He hurried up to her room and stood outside the door. Hearing footsteps, he moved quickly behind window curtains and waited. Miss de Waals and some ladies approached, all chatting at the same time. "Lovely....will see you in a few minutes....wonderful tour, we're so excited how it's going...thank you, dears...don't keep us waiting....bus will leave at--" Miss de Waals opened her door. Just as it closed he heard her speak. "Brought you a cucumber for that weak stomach of yours, dear! Sorry you missed such a lovely breakfast. We had such a nice discussion about the Beast and other things. You'll be well enough with this splendid cuc--"
The door shut and Olson threw himself as soundlessly as possible against the door to hear more. But he couldn't tell if it were the Battle-ax de Walls or Bewitching Eyed Clish. He heard more footfalls on the stairs so he had to give it up and go back to poor, half-blinded Hodgkins, who called for cold compresses the moment he came in the room.
"And where you been all this time?" Hodgkins added. He even managed a sly expression with his horribly puffy face.
"None of your business!"
Hodgkins laughed hideously, hideously, through swollen, cracked lips.
"Yes, indeed!" Olson thought as he went out to get more ice. "Hodgkins hasn't changed a whit! Nothing has! Absolutely nothing!" Suddenly, he couldn't control his fury. He stopped just long enough to put his fist through a plastered wall. After that, he felt a little better.
Why did that matter now to him? he wondered. Bewitching Eyes had made no effort to see him, so what was the use trying any further with her? If only he could get Goof Ball off his hands, then he would feel free to hop on the first boat out! Olson was correct. Miss van de Waals, thanks to the temperance lady and a good view from her window, knew all about the men's nocturnal activities. Failing to have them ousted from the tour, she considered having an ultimatum prepared, to force him to go along on the following day's planned outings, the reason being their "moral rehabilitation". "I fear those men have gone too far," said Mrs. Clish to her superior, not batting a luscious eye. "They must somehow be turned back from the brink of destruction, moral and spiritual. But how? The disease may have advanced beyond easy cure."
According to the revised schedule, Dothan, a notable site in "Dutch" Patriarchal history because "Van" Joseph was thrown into a pit there, was out--closed down because of a recent loss of mechanized transport. There was no bus available that could take them that far anymore without a breakdown. They would be stranded, without the parts for repairs, at least for several days or even a week, and that meant trouble and loss of revenue to the driver-owner.
The bus that could take them to the site of Joseph's pit was on a different route, and the driver absolutely refused to risk his vehicle on the bad roads to Dothan. He was willing to take them anyplace but Dothan, so the group was going to Tel Aviv to see the latest discovered 20th Century city. It was not an excavation--though someone had dug there in centuries past and uncovered part of the site. Actually, the entire ruined city held artifacts that were much older and better preserved--well worth the trip down..
After the ruins of Tel Aviv, they planned to take in Shechem, Jericho, Jerusalem, Hebron, and various sites in Egypt, which had also been restored or had restored themselves just miraculously.
Unfortunately for the tour, modern facilities refused to follow suit and what had existed was threatening to vanish.
Since Cairo's dirigible aerodrome was no longer functioning--pine and beech had grown up through the landing strip faster than they could be removed--and the port at Alexandria silted in, they would have to leave the airship at Jaffa, take a bus down to Egypt and return by one.
Thus, in the morning, a porter brought a note to Olson and Hodgkins in their suite, informing them of the day's schedule of events, with a very pointed and clear codicil, that said they were not only invited but expected to attend--or else! Hodgkins took a deep nip of rum and sank back on the pillow dead to the world.
That was how he handled the summons. For Olson, it was not so simple and easy. Why hadn't he turned around at Lakehurst? he wondered, glumly, as he re-read the note.
It was going to be a bit sticky if he broke away now, flying in the face of Miss de Waals, but he had had enough of Goof Ball and waiting on him hand and foot. He couldn't get out of this one, he knew. He hated the thought of showing the ladies he was no different from Hodgkins.
While Hodgkins snored through his scabbed, bunged-up nose, Olson grimly went the rounds with the ladies of the tour. When the ordeal was over, he returned to his room and he threw his things into his bag. Out of old habit, he made sure the map was still there before he rolled it and put it back in his toothbrush holder. He had decided to dump the tour for good and find his own way home. He felt he could kick himself once it was all over--kick himself real hard.
"What am I doing at my age trying to play Lothario with the likes of Mrs. Clish! And, prevented from doing that, I don't mind a little gambling, a little sherry, a few locker-room jokes, but joining a Bible-toting group of old ladies is just not possible! She obviously wants nothing to do with me. It's time I go!"
His mind made up, even if his heart was not, he strode manfully down to the front desk. He carried his own bag--refusing a bellman's assistance--and went to settle his account. After paying his tab, he was free to take leave. As for Hodgkins, when they came to change the bed sheets he'd just have to make some other arrangement if he wanted to stay on.
Fortunately, there was still some traffic of intermingling sheep, goats, and aged but wonderfully intact French and British taxis at 6 o'clock. A few cabs were still waiting at the hotel for late business. At the desk he called for a cab for hire to take him to--but he was at an utter loss to say where, not knowing anything about the wretched country and how to get about in it. "Please call me a cab to take me to the port," he said in a combination of Dutch and English. "I want to book passage on a steamer--any line will do, just as long as it heads for North America." That was pretty simple, Olson thought. There should be no problem, none whatsoever.
The desk clerk and tall, thin cabby looked at each other and then turned palms upward to the unlit, electric chandelier--unlit because the aged electric generator ran only essential services--heating and some electric lighting. "Port" they should have understood perfectly, according to Olson, but they kept repeating the word as if he had just invented it out of sheer infidel spite and perversity.
On his part, accustomed to impossible demands, the desk clerk replied, "Port, sir? In the hotel we no such thing have."
Olson was not in best form at the moment, considering the strain he had been under all the way from Minnpaul. "Idiots, you don't understand. All I need is a cab to take me to the place down by the water where I get on a boat and--"
A shoeshineman, choosing that moment to seize his main chance, dashed into the lobby and threw himself on Olson's alligators. Before he could stop him, the fellow had spit on his shoe and was furiously polishing with a filthy, black rag he might have used to clean his donkey's hooves, while gripping Olson's ankles as if he would never let go. "I don't need your services!" protested Olson in his plainest English. "Can't you see my shoes don't need it, you little clown!" Then long exposure to Hodgkins showed as a fifty dollar word unexpectedly came to his rescue. “They’re immaculate!” he added. “Immaculate!”
Indeed, they were. If Olson indulged one luxury other than Inglebrooks, it was shoewear. He always wore new shoes, and he kept them exquisitely shined, without anyone's help. Seeing the shoeshineman was not about to let go, the aggressive fellow made the mistake of spitting once again. Olson gave him the field goal kick he had practiced to perfection when a kid. It sent the shiner flying across the tiled floor into a potted palm, where he slumped and sat with one eye closed. t was only then, after Olson's remark about his shoes, that the cabby’s eyes shone with revelation and he indicated he would take him immediately.
Bowing Olson out to a large vehicle, the cabby was all smiles. "You Mr. Olson! Oh, of course, please to get in my conveyance! Please, oh, most delighted you get in instantaneously! My automobile most immaculate! Most immaculate, sir!"
"Excellent, my good man!" Olson blurted out again in English, admiring the fine, highly-polished cab. It felt wonderful to have broken the language barrier and he could make some progress in escaping the country. "Let's hop to it, savvy?
Showing all his teeth in a broad smile, the tall, thin driver in his British flight cap, flowing, white blouse and jodhpurs held the door of the splendidly preserved Rolls Royce limousine taxi for the overjoyed Olson. Once comfortably seated, Olson was handed a glass with a complementary drink of some kind to enjoy while the cabby’s hired boy loaded Olson's luggage.
Olson, wanting to wash away a bad taste in his mouth, thought it was peppermint tea by the smell.
Always feeling he should do the polite thing in foreign societies, Olson took an exploratory and then drank it off immediately. He tipped the cabby, who handed the tray and class to a little boy who ran off with it down the street toward the Semiramis.
The oversweetened drink had a wonderfully good effect and relaxed him at once. Olson sat back, almost tempted to lie down on the plush-cushioned seat. Wondering hazily if he had thrown all his wits away in coming to such a country, the frozen custard millionaire sat wanting a cigar. When he tried to light it his fingers would not cooperate, and so he sat, cigar unlighted in his hand, numbly looking out the window at little other than flying darkness. The unlit cigar did not seem to matter. He let it drop to the floor.
The big car proceeded swiftly down rutted roads thickly edged by trees, hitting horse-sized potholes that threatened to blow all four tires at any moment. Once in a while lights shone as they passed some British colonial office or army depot with every window lit by gas lights--no mysterious, lantern-lit Levant for them as they guarded the crucial fruit and vegetable trade route form the Jordan Valley. They drove for a time through nothing but solid forest and wilderness and then stopped at a station. At least, in times past, it had been a station for gas and oil.
Now awake to what was really going on, though still a bit groggy, he saw he was being taken for a ride. More angry than alarmed, Olson looked out at a sneering, droop-lipped camel that stood shivering beside a ragged cameleer, also shivering. This was worse than Jaffa, which at least was warm. Underneath sagging, signposted trees, a shack with the words, "Clarke British-Mandate Oil Company, Ltd," leaned toward an ice-glazed tank of water that must have watered both cars and camels in better, warmer times. He could see no gas pumps, just the holes where they had once stood, and a young man in rumpled pajamas came out from the shack with an elaborate British silver tea service.
Rubbing his face hard to get feeling back in it, then looking to see if the scene would go away, Mr. Olson gulped down another refreshment when the boy insisted he take it. "Boy, where is the port?" he got out with a thick tongue as soon as the warming drink was finished. He wasn’t in any condition a moment later to hear the boy’s response, for suddenly he felt in dire need to find a latrine. He made efforts to go himself and find the place, but the driver, taking him gently but firmly by the hand, led him to the loo behind the station.
Thoughtfully, he stood guard while Olson went in. He took a look at the hole in the cement floor of the facility and a live goat tied up there for safe-keeping against wolves and bears. He backed out immediately and looked around again. "The idiot's taken me inland, away from the port!" he realized, with a sickening jolt in his peptic zone.
"YOU...DRIVE...ME...BACK...TO...TOWN...GET ME, BUSTER?" he shouted to the driver, trying to fight off the lethargy that was climbing over his whole body and pulling him toward the ground. The driver bowed, smiling with all his teeth.
Olson stood, confused by the difficulty. He thought it should have been a simple matter to make a driver turn round. All he wanted was for someone to take him back to the port where he might possibly find a steamer to London. After all, a London-based shipping and import firm regularly sent the local produce out. If only he didn't feel so heavy in his limbs, so sleepy, he might consider walking back on foot.
Graciously assenting to Olson's wishes, the cabby bowed him to the car, smiling with toothy graciousness, and Olson, after a few, muddled complaints, followed as best he could on two, boneless noodles that had been strong, powerful legs.
After a while the effect of the second refreshment began to wear a little more thin.
He roused himself enough to pound on the window separating him from the driver, shouting through the glass to turn around. The Arab looked at him and smiled. Stifling a painful belch, Olson looked out nothing but trees.
"What a wretched excuse for an country, this Palestine!" he thought. Yet people still called it the "Holy Land," though it looked the same everywhere, the deeper they penetrated into its guts. No doubt, he thought, Lebanon had all its cedars back too, though a lot of good that would do the handful of natives still hanging on to the country! He wondered how the inhabitants could survive on nothing but trees.
They were non-exportable, except for supplying some of the new steamers which were wood-burning.
Every country had too many trees.
Even Britain, with old grannies at the plow, looked a paradise to this. If there were oaks, then at least there would be edible acorns, for hogs and humans, but he saw precious few of that type. Mostly there were pines and beech. People starved beneath such trees, and they were gluttons for growth, crowding out everything else.
Feeble signs of life broke through the desert of trees here and there. At immense labor and hardship little clearings had been made and kept open. There would be three or four small plots of potatoes and barley, then the sad huts of the farmers. Occasionally, he saw livestock. Rickety sheep and goats with legs like matchsticks staggered about the few rocky paths cut through the forest, their keeper looking quite as rickety and starved. And in the two or three pitiful villages they passed, women thin as brooms quickly stuffed the edges of ragged shawls in their mouths as the taxi rocketed by their doorless hovels, its horns trumpeting the right of way.
Accustomed to having his every command obeyed, Olson was a most miserable man by now. He knew they were chasing a wild goose of someone else's choosing. But how was he to stop the ignoramus at the wheel? The car finally climbed skywards on an incline that threatened to stand them on end.
Miraculously, it righted itself, coming down on all fours on a mount where most of the trees, due to the elevation, were none other than Cedars of Lebanon--the beech and pines at last giving way to something more noble.
When he looked Mr. Olson found himself in front of a large, hilltop version of the Cafe d’ Semiramis. The driver bounded out, fresh and nimble as a young he-goat. He was beamingly holding the door open to Olson as he climbed slowly out, his eyes blinking. "Hey, bub, what is this place? Why are we stopping here? Where's the port? Where's all the ships, confound you!"
The driver, inscrutable Arab that he was, gave a little chirp of self-congratulation before showing his teeth. He pointed with excited gestures to the convent, the chief sight in the region. Modeled on the Monte Carlo Casino and the Paris Opera House, the Convent of the Missionary Oblates of St. Joseph Immaculate was originally a residence built for a Russian émigré benefactor. The extremely wealthy philanthropist had fled 22nd Century Russia, eluding officials at its borders by putting on a nun's habit.He had lavished money previously transferred to the Bank of England on this mountain retreat in Palestine. He only failed to foresee that he would soon expire from an accident connected with the Greek disease. Out taking the air one evening, his artificial heart froze. The sisterhood of nuns he named in his will was in turn eventually driven out of an area by the reforestation; so the estate fell to bats, owls, and wolves.
Determined to act despite how drowsy he felt, Mr. Olson lunged forward to the wonderful gate of glistening red and blue tile and imitation carnelians, topazes, and emeralds. He stared at the ornate, iron, Latinate lettering beneath the golden double eagle of the sainted Romanov family. It was some minutes before he fully made out exactly what joke had been played on him by cruel fate and Arabic obtuseness.
"Immaculate," was all he could translate from the sign. Though it was his own fifty dollar word, it was of little use in so uncivilized a country. He must have said it aloud, for he heard it echoed immediately in the atrocious accents of the Arab standing behind him.
“Immaculate! Most immaculate!” cried the cabby, pointing at the convent.
Olson, for a moment, gazed at him blankly, then got the point of the whole farce. Pounding his fist against the gate, Olson started laughing, actually giggling, as the driver chuckled indulgently over the foibles of so rich and silly an infidel.
What insane twist of destiny, Mr. Olson wondered, had dragged him in totally the opposite direction he had wanted to go and cast him to the mercies of smiling dummies such as this cabby?
If he did not find his password soon, he feared, without being able to put it into words, he might not escape the web of numbness and sleep he felt entangling him on all sides.
What was he to do? How was he to free himself from falling down to sleep for twenty years, becoming an Oriental Rip Van Winkle? Almost with panic, he looked around at the devilishly good-humored driver, at the convent, at the gate, at the pine cone littered ground, and then at his big, strong hands. Once, when he was first starting out in the business, they were able to heft two hundred pound tubs of frozen custard onto a truck all day long, six days a week. He wondered, doped up as he was feeling, if they still had the strength to strangle one tall, skinny cab driver. The custard king thought they might.
Taking a few steps toward the driver, the Arab's face paled and lost its artless smile. Dropping its Oriental look, the face changed to an expression mixing cunning with alarm, and he seemed to divine instantly what Cyrus Larimer Olson had in mind and flung something at him. It was then Olson felt a stinging sensation which quickly became scorching agony. He looked down and found a scorpion, its tail sticking in the shirt over his chest. With a roar, he swept it off him, but it was too late. A moment later, Minnpaul's king of frozen custard crumpled and fell to the ground.
He felt hands lifting him and was dimly aware of being carried off somewhere. A door slammed. Footfalls, approaching. Footfalls, departing. More slamming door. More footfalls, both coming and going. Laughter. When Olson woke up he found himself in a big, shadowy room, tied with rope. Long rows of beds, with mosquito netting strung up over them, stretched to either side of him in the room. Furious, he lunged to get free of his bonds, but he found his body tied to a bed and he could not move.He felt another stinging sensation and looked and his eyes widened with horror when he saw yet another scorpion on his chest. Soon the dark waves of incredible pain began washing over his brain. Just before the world faded he saw a face that he recognized, leering down at him. It was the porter's. It was the cabby’s. It was the same.
The voice cut into Olson’s agony like a knife. "You don't like my little friends, do you? They save bullets, which make a lot of unnecessary noise, I find. Well, we'll be leaving you now," jeered the voice of the porter-cabby. "In a couple days you'll die a fairly natural death from a couple more such stings. You see, I left a container with the little fellows right under your bed. Every time you move, just a little, they will come running. Nasty tempers they have! No one will find you here. I'd like to slip a little blade between your ribs, with the very blade you took from me, but I prefer you suffer a slower, agonizing, sting-by-sting death."
A door slammed, and then another sound like something being drawn across it, with a final thud at the end, and a muffled ha ha ha. Some time later Olson awoke. He found himself still abed, tied securely down. It was daytime, evidently, with light shining in the window and somehow making him feel all the more a trapped creature. He was thirstier than he had ever felt in his life, and felt so weak he just lay there without a struggle.
Darkness came to cover his suffering from thirst and the terror of being stung again, and mercifully he lost consciousness before he began to struggle against his bonds and roused another fierce scorpion attack from the nest beneath him. Olson was now deathly afraid. Would he survive another? Probably not.
Just at that moment a young man dressed in a voluminous robe with embroidered sleeves came into the room, bearing a tall glass of cold liquid in his right hand. Olson, however, had passed out, from equal amounts of fright, venom, and sedative. Later, awakening, he shook his head feebly, trying to warn his visitor. "Scorpions!" he croaked out. “Scorpions!”
The youth smiled but didn't make any sign he knew the danger he was in. Olson realized he had been drinking a soporific drug of some kind before the scorpions got him. Yet he was burning with such thirst, he found his will powerless to resist the drink. He drank it all and then relaxed, waiting for the big sleep to end all sleeps.
But then he felt his bonds being loosened and pulled from his body. He could not move at first, after so long a confinement. When he finally sat up, the youth was still standing by the bed, observing him.
Without saying anything, the fellow went to the door and flung out the writhing nest of scorpions with his left hand. The last thing he did before leaving was put a plate of fresh fruit by the bed on a stand. "It is only a vision, a figment of my imagination," the hard-headed businessman concluded.
"Nobody is helping me. I'm only dreaming it. There’s no such things as guardian angels.”
Feeling still too weak to do anything, he lay back down on the bed to rest a moment. Later, his closed eyes shot open, and he looked around, very much alive. He looked instantly for a way of escape from the room. The windows, too narrow, too high up in the walls, let in some light but were impossible for a man of his bulk. He'd never reach them without a ladder, and he couldn't squeeze through. He got up, staggering toward the door.
It was open, the bar lying on the floor just beyond the threshold, and a lock with a key in it also lying with it. Only then did he remember the plate of fruit. We went back in. There it was by the bedside. Seeing it, he sat slowly down, shaking his head.
When he had recovered from his shock, he ate an apple, then a couple pears, and felt his strength return. Looking about, he saw his suitcase, ripped open, the contents strewing the floor. He went and found the toothbrush holder empty. Strangely enough, the thieves had left his money. He checked. It was all there.
"Let them have the map!" he thought. What good would it do them anyway? He would have laughed, but his whole body was far too sore to risk feeling worse than he did. Putting remaining fruit in his pockets, he left the room, very quietly and taking his time, as he wanted to make sure his captors had really left.
When he got through the jungle-like growth of trees to the surrounding wall, he used a tree as a ladder over it, and then he sat down for a few minutes to rest next to the road. He intended to start walking, in the hopes he could hitch a ride to Jaffa from some passing car or wagon. A car came roaring up the road, heading his way at such a furious clip Olson thought it would ram the convent gate before it could stop. Not sure if it were friend or foe, he jumped out of sight in shrubbery alongside the road.
Just before it would have smashed into the gate, it swung about, tires throwing up rocks and gravel. A foot more to the side and it would have smashed against the wall's stonework, but it was close enough to knock something off. A silver object flew and landed on the road, but the cabby, a woman, and a two Zouaves piled out and ran into the convent through the side door, curved steel in their dark hands.
He could hear shouting, then they came running out, all looking down the hill and into the trees. Olson shrank down and didn't breathe as the Zouaves paced by on the road, swords drawn.
"Wir haben keine Zeit! Finden Sie ihn! Finden Sie ihn!" the woman cried. Then the cabby gave an order and they all piled back in the car, which sped away, seeming back where it came from.
Olson went and found a silver klaxon ripped from the vintage auto. With a curse, he heaved it over a nearby wall onto the garden grounds of the convent. He was amazed a moment later when the horn came flying back over the wall to land at his feet. Within the trumpet part a second object, folded up. He pulled it out. The map!
When he looked he saw a face looking down at him--the youth who set him free!
He groaned, still feeling very faint despite the nourishing fruit. Stepping in deep ruts the car's spinning tires had cut, he went back up to the gate, which before had looked so splendid but now revealed that crudely colored glass had been substituted for the gemstones that must have been there originally.
Only then did he notice the tattered, bluish paper tacked to it. Smoothing it out, the French was not very helpful, but the words for quarantine and leprosy were close enough to English to strike a chill in his heart. He backed slowly away from the gate.
He looked toward the spot where the youth's head had appeared. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't seen any fingers on the young man's other hand. It was the right hand that did all the work of untying the ropes and feeding him.
The mysterious youth vanished back where he came from, Olson could see no sign of life in the whole forested territory round the convent that his eyes could reach.
A leprosarium, just my luck! he thought grimly. If there was leprosy about he needed to start hoofing it back to civilization, and he had hopes he would meet another car on the road. Olson started walking, a man who in ten years hadn't spared five minutes from his pursuit of big money for that sort of thing.
Racing back to the convent, they found nothing, not even Olson. Thinking he had disappeared into the forest and it was useless to track him without dogs, they went back to find the site marked on the map--which one of them recalled was Dothan. But where in the ruins was the treasure? They spent only a few minutes poking about and then turned back to the road. The woman was screaming continuously by this time. They got back in the car and drove not far up the road to a spur. At the end was a small airstrip carved out of the forest and a 12-passenger prop-driven German Wolfenspitz 2000. The gang hurried to the plane. Behind, as the plane roared skyward, the Rolls taxi rocked with an explosion, then erupted in flames. The fire burned down until the car was a shattered hulk of sizzling metal and glass, leaving very little to tell a tale.
Now that he had time to think about it without interruption, he could not come up with any plausible answer to his question other than immense buried treasure of some sort, but that seemed far-fetched, something only a Hodgkins would swallow. A good businessman never counts on pie in the sky. Once he saw the treasure he would believe Pastor de Waals wasn't indulging a pipe dream!
He had plenty time to think about his life too. He had time to consider, which was unusual for him, the means by which he had made his million. It wasn't a pretty sort of means, he had to admit, since his success depended upon fooling a financially-strapped, reluctant public think they loved frozen custard passionately. But mainly he thought about the way he had lived and how it had led to leprosaurium on Europe's backside. What in heaven's name had he done so wrong it had landed him in such a pickle?
That was a more practical question than the one about his business ethics, and it was well taken by Olson. It had been crazy, to be begin with, signing on a flight to Reno's bright lights because normally he was the last person who'd think of throwing hard-earned money away. He had seen it advertised, rather eye-catchingly, in the paper beside an ad for repossessed tractors. Some Hollywood queen with million-dollar legs was starring at the Bucket o' Gold Casino-Hotel in the colored ad. Glancing back coyly over her shoulder, she stood in her famous red bathing suit and high pump heels, beckoning all red-blooded males, as if it were their one chance for happiness in a lifetime.
He had given everything to his business for thirty years. It was his life, his passion, to beat the failing economy, and he had done it. And he had let no one stand in his way. Yet as soon as he had done it, he responded to the siren's call, feeling an irresistible itch to get away and enjoy himself. He had just made his million dollar deal with the army, thanks to the Culp birthday extravaganza. Why not take off, forget business for a time, and simply enjoy life? he reasoned at the time, though it felt a bit funny and uncharacteristic.
Old Snodgrass had kept her mouth shut for once and had made the call. The tickets were sent to the office. He left his last board meeting, at which a big cake had been consumed, and drinks and toasts all around, and then he hurried to the aerodrome. Beginning to burn with excitement, he jumped on the airship, avoiding the crowd at the ticket counters because he already had his fare.
Now it all seemed so strange and hard to justify. What on earth had gotten into him and made him such a fool? he wondered.
And up to then his secretary, who had been with him since the days he worked the business out of his garage, had performed faultlessly. She had even seen to all the details when his wife suffered a fatal blockage in her wind pipe in the midst of dinner. After the funeral, he was stunned to find that Snodgrass had carried on the business without him for the days he was gone, as if nothing had happened.
How this most excellent Snodgrass had mistaken Jaffa for Reno was a complete mystery to him. But she had, and, of course, she would naturally expect to be fired on his return. However long his employees worked, they couldn't make mistakes and expect to keep on his payroll--not when he could hire anyone he wanted for a song nowadays.
He sighed and sank down by the wayside to examine his feet. Pulling his alligators off, he groaned when he found a bad case of champion blisters. Getting nowhere fast, he thought, looking around at the same hills he had been trying for over two hours to put behind him. Thirsty in spite of the chill, damp air, he got up and staggered onwards. He had to keep to the road, winding and torturous as it was, as the forest would be impassable.
If only there would come a car instead of a boy on a donkey! A car with someone other than the cabby, the German, and the two goons in red beanies. Even a wagon might not carry him, he realized.
He was too big for the famished donkeys he had seen earlier in the day staggering under loads of split rails or yoked to lumber carts with screeching, wooden wheels. And where could they be taking such worthless stuff? No one would want wood, split or sawn--least not paying customers.
A hour more passed. He had never walked so much in his life! His tie, coat, and vest hung on him like heavy mail, soaked with sweat despite the cold. His chest was burning like a smoldering fire where the scorpions had stabbed him. Was the wound infected? He couldn’t find the strength to open his shirt and look at it, so he sat on a roadside rock breathing hard, wondering why no one used roads in Palestine. He had no idea where he was, north or south, east or west.
Frantic, he tried to conjure up any knowledge he might have retained from church and school days. He recalled there was a river, the famous Jordan where the Israelites were supposed to have passed over dry-shod after their flight from Pharaoh of Egypt.
He recalled to mind some cities in the Bible--Jerusalem, City of David and Solomon--yes, that might still exist. He was not so sure about others--Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Jericho. Beyond those, he could not remember.
Wasn't there a wicked Babylon and a Nineveh around somewhere? But it was so different from the times pictured in the Bible. The Holy Land was not thickly forested back then, at least not as it was now. Then, as he wracked his memory, the past responded, gradually yielding up memories he had not indulged in half a lifetime. He could dimly see figures of Old Testament saints, laid on a church school flannel-graph board by old Mrs. Anderson's long-dead, ghostly hand.
It was astonishing to him, after all these years, to see the kindly old soul in her long dark dress and gray bun and the personages she pointed out--Jacob in a long, white beard and grass-green robe and purple turban, Isaac as a youth wearing a special leopard skin and stretched out on the rock by his father Abram, and, in his turn, handsome, young Joseph resplendent in blue, red, and gold, the famed coat of many colors that got him in such trouble with his older brothers.
It was a nice memory from his childhood, but, of course, being religion it had no relation to his personal life. He pulled off his shoes, and while he was rubbing his feet he thought about how the people of those ancient times went barefoot and all wore robes. Some things had not changed, he knew. Many Arab men and women in the "British Protectorate" still robed in the old-fashioned way, even dressed as if they were back in Joseph's time.
By now he realized it was high time he was moving on. Wearily getting to his feet, Cyrus continued. He knew he had to keep moving, or he would stiffen up like a board. Hobbling along, he thought how below the hills the lower elevations of the country were the warmest. At least he wouldn't freeze in the countryside lower down. He just hoped he would not run into any wild dogs with rabies or wolf packs.As he was thinking about that possibility, he heard some rather impressive howling up ahead and it occurred to him he need to find a club or strong branch right away. A wild dog would hesitate attacking a man, but a wolf?
Glancing about, he looked for a tree limb, but there were no limbs the size he wanted lying about. They were either too large and long or too small. He thought he might use a rock instead--seeing an abundance on the "road," if he was forced to fend off a wolf pack.
Having followed the tire marks of the cabby, he left the road and soon came to a clearing. In the growing dusk he saw the car ahead, but even at a distance realized something was very wrong. Besides, it was smoking like a fire had been there. He approached warily, but nothing happened and he found a gutted, burned wreck. No one was in it, fortunately, when the fire started.
What to do now? He realized, with a chill in his heart, that he had made very little progress, and he was on the wrong track, since the road ended. For nothing to do he walked a little further and found marks of wheels and signs that some sort of aeroplane had been parked. But it didn't make very long tracks and had seemingly vanished upwards, straight off the earth. What aeroplane could do that?
He didn't know of any that could climb vertically as this one seemed to have done. And it was growing dark. Wolves or not, he had to turn around and retrace his steps to the "main road." At least he hoped it was a main road and would not turn out to be another dead end. The light was quickly fading, and he was thoroughly exhausted.
Just as he paused to consider what to do, his darkest fears rushed out snarling from the thick trees at the edge of the clearing. He thought at first they were wild dogs, against which he had a fair to good chance. But, no, these were lean, moved too swiftly and cleverly as a team, and though smaller than North American species were definitely not man's best friend.
With shouts and some rock-throwing he managed to discourage the first attack. The pack was there one moment, melted away into the brush and trees the next. Yet he sensed he was being watched. No doubt the pack was waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Just in case he didn't have much time to find a safe place to stay for the night, he took off and ran for hard, hoping he was close to a village.
Unfortunately, the road beyond the spur to the clearing climbed steeply uphill. A large, not-so-young man, he could not remember when he had last run a lap, not to mention, uphill.
It is amazing what fear of being eaten can do to put go-power in a man’s legs. He ran several laps, climbing as fast as he could, the wolves following behind him now. Thinking the road was making it too easy for them to catch him, he ran off through some trees and right into what he thought was the luckiest break of his life, a village.
He began yelling for someone to come out. It was silent, every mean, little shack, deserted like most other forest-overrun communities and cities in the land. He entered one closest. A broken sign, "Khan Yud Yusef," lay on the floor.
Broken furniture, window glass, an over-turned counter and shelf of letter boxes, old newspapers, rags of old clothing, and piles of drifted pine needles and dirt--that was all.
Thanking his lucky stars he had made it to safety, he slammed and held the door shut against the pack--which sniffed and moaned and scratched, trying to get in. Then he heard a thud across the room behind him, another thud, and another. They were leaping in through a broken window! Giving his old Midwest war whoop, he threw open the door and rushed outside, beating off the leaping wolves with his big fists as he ran for his life.
The whole village, he knew now, was a sham, a ghost town like Paris or Madrid or Berlin--deserted a long time, leaving wolves to howl in the ruins. Very soon he was out of breath, running round the hilltop, trying to find the way back down to civilization. Coming to a squat, domed structure off to the side he kicked open a door of what was a tomb of some local saint. Patched with concrete blocks and decorated with bits of colored bottle glass, it would have to do for a shelter, he realized, and he rushed in, dark as it was inside without windows.
"Oh my God!" he cried silently as he pushed against the door.
But the door of this possible refuge was rotten and disintegrated as the wolves threw themselves against it. A moment later they were pulling at him with their teeth. He felt fangs in his buttocks and the calves of his legs. He was stumbling, falling, down on his back, kicking and trying to push them off.
Suddenly, he was sliding down some earthen steps, then falling--the ground had opened up and swallowed him.
Wolves fell with him. Their bodies cushioned his impact when he hit what felt, even in the instant of impact, like a pile of sharp rocks.
The dark earth had engulfed him.
He might be dead for all he knew. Then a roaring filled his ears--his eardrum had burst and he was just now awakening to the fact. But, no, it wasn't a burst ear--he could hear distinct voices! It sounded to him now like a crowd of many thousands cheering some hero or king. Then, most strange, words began to form in his mind.
He knew they were addressed to him, but they came so quietly and quickly that he had no time to think about it and just had to listen.
His hand reached out, searching, and touched rough, dry-laid stone, a wall that turned slowly round as he followed it. When he moved he felt stabbing pain his right leg. It was so bad it had to be broken. His left was also painful, though not so bad as the right. It might just be wrenched out of the joint. Sweat poured over his forehead and into his eyes, the pain was so overwhelming. He was so miserable the words he had just heard were driven right out of his thoughts. It had been noisy enough, what with strange roaring, cheers, and voices, but now above him the pack began howling as he lay, a helpless mass of cuts, wounds, and bruises, with every muscle of his body stretched and cramping unbearably.
Now three or four thousands years later, he, Cyrus, was in the same fix! He couldn’t deny it. Thirty, hard years of building up frozen custard and making it irresistible to a crumbling American Holland had brought him to this. Yet the fall hadn't killed him, and, fortunately, it was dry. He realized he could have drowned in a mess of frogs and duckweed instead of ending with only a broken leg in a hole in the middle of nowhere.
Would the pack overhead never stop howling? he wondered. He might have laughed when he realized that he was learning from personal experience what he had long ago been taught in a church school lesson. But laughter is painful for a man with a broken leg. He lay wondering how long he might lie there, trapped, utterly helpless. No one knew where he was. He could not climb out, in his condition. Besides, the pack would be waiting to tear up his battered carcass, and that was a pleasure he was determined to deny them, however he did it.
Where did his life go wrong? where? the wolves’ reluctant quarry kept asking himself. As if in answer, he suddenly saw something--smokily, like vapor, rising in the dark--a long, shadowy line of men, cheekbones jutting out in their thin faces, smoking cigarette butts picked off the pavement and waiting in line for jobs at his factory--jobs he knew they would never get because he used only a few men to do the work of many and then white-slaved them at the lowest possible wages for all he could get. After all: "When in Rome do as the Romans..." Actually, the Dutch were remarkably like the old Romans were supposed to have been, in the years of the Republic, before the unbounded riches of the Empire got to them and spread moral dry rot. That had been his formula for success in a Dutch-run society. Utilizing their methods and some of their hard-driving, thrifty ethics had put him on top of their dung-heap of a country. It was his formula that worked, a tried and true method that damned lesser men and enriched himself. Hadn't he proved a man didn't have to be Dutch to make it? In, fact, he had surpassed the Dutch!
Hadn't he been able to make a million dollars that way? Yet now, in the well and facing...? He suddenly felt sick to his stomach--and it wasn’t peptic condition, or the scorpion stings. How he had changed after only a fall down a well! Along with this realization, it grew quieter, and a calmness, strangely enough began to creep in on him--the calmness that sometimes precedes what before was unthinkable. "Why not here?" he thought. It was far better to expire quietly in the well than be gnawed to the bones by wolves. Composing himself, he felt he was ready to accept it. He knew, without medical aid, he would not last much longer. His whole body was afire. He hoped his torment would not last much longer. He no longer heard the wolves. Had they given up and gone back to hunting wild goats. It seemed so. Now he was alone--deserted by man and beast. The beleaguered man had another vision, which, in his state, he immediately put down to delirium.
Olson saw a black spot in the sky, spinning larger and larger, sucking in all the lights of the stars around it, while a terrible whiteness, strangely beautiful, with opalescent gleams here and there, played just inside the rim of the devouring blackness. Finally grown in size until the Earth, spinning closer and closer, appeared a marble in size to it, he watched as the Earth too, like the stars of heaven, was caught inside the orblike back sack. It was horrible, at that point, to see something grown so monstrous in size attacking the Earth. And the titanic coalsack just ate the captured planet, swallowing it whole! "So this is how it feels to go nuts and kick the bucket? he thought as soon as the horror of the vision faded back into darkness. The sufferer might have been comforted to know that the wolves had finally left, indeed, distracted by a partridge that whirred past them and down over the hillside. Now partridges had not been seen in that area for many years--having been hunted to extinction long before the 22nd Century. Declared endangered at one point, poachers had set upon them for the skyrocketing price of partridge parts and wiped them out--seemingly from existence. Racing after it until they were exhausted by the long chase, they came upon a dead donkey, ate their fill, then crawled back with bloated bellies to their old haunt for the night, the ridge just beyond the private airstrip.
Except for the broken leg and dislocated arm, Olson still had the strength and might have climbed out and escaped. But he knew the good arm and leg were not enough for his bulk. He was determined, however, to die with dignity like a civilized man. But to do that he had at least to get off his bed of Palestinian wolves. It was painful, causing him to groan, but he pushed away from his hairy companions. After that, he settled back again, but found he was still sitting on something--a hard, round object. He reached and pulled it out. It was amazingly light. The next few moments made him gasp with astonishment--greater even than when he had heard a crowd cheer and unbidden words in his mind. The thing glowing in his hand brightened, brightening until he could see it was transparent, like an egg case held up to a lamp. Inside was a glowing mass of what he thought at first was a single, very thick fluid. But as he gazed at it he realized the mass was living, a myriad of intricate movements of light, like dust motes that swarmed continuously within the capsule, only they acted like millions of highly intelligent, almost microscopic beings. He turned the warmly glowing egg round in his hands, growing more and more uneasy as he wondered what species it could be. It could not be real, he decided.
Tiny rays shot out of the thing--crystallizing into more solid appearance and rippling and bending as if they were alive as human flesh. The glowing bars began to emit voicelike sounds, to actually speak words.
Now three or four thousands years later, he, Cyrus, was in the same fix! He couldn’t deny it. Thirty, hard years of building up frozen custard and making it irresistible to a crumbling American Holland had brought him to this. Yet the fall hadn't killed him, and, fortunately, it was dry.
He realized he could have drowned in a mess of frogs and duckweed instead of ending with only a broken leg in a hole in the middle of nowhere.
Would the pack overhead never stop howling? he wondered. He might have laughed when he realized that he was learning from personal experience what he had long ago been taught in a church school lesson. But laughter is painful for a man with a broken leg. He lay wondering how long he might lie there, trapped, utterly helpless. No one knew where he was. He could not climb out, in his condition. Besides, the pack would be waiting to tear up his battered carcass, and that was a pleasure he was determined to deny them, however he did it.
Where did his life go wrong? where? the wolves’ reluctant quarry kept asking himself. As if in answer, he suddenly saw something--smokily, like vapor, rising in the dark--a long, shadowy line of men, cheekbones jutting out in their thin faces, smoking cigarette butts picked off the pavement and waiting in line for jobs at his factory--jobs he knew they would never get because he used only a few men to do the work of many and then white-slaved them at the lowest possible wages for all he could get. After all:
"When in Rome do as the Romans..."
Actually, the Dutch were remarkably like the old Romans were supposed to have been, in the years of the Republic, before the unbounded riches of the Empire got to them and spread moral dry rot.
That had been his formula for success in a Dutch-run society. Utilizing their methods and some of their hard-driving, thrifty ethics had put him on top of their dung-heap of a country.
It was his formula that worked, a tried and true method that damned lesser men and enriched himself.
Hadn't he proved a man didn't have to be Dutch to make it? In, fact, he had surpassed the Dutch!
Hadn't he been able to make a million dollars that way? Yet now, in the well and facing...? He suddenly felt sick to his stomach--and it wasn’t peptic condition, or the scorpion stings. How he had changed after only a fall down a well!
Along with this realization, it grew quieter, and a calmness, strangely enough began to creep in on him--the calmness that sometimes precedes what before was unthinkable. "Why not here?" he thought. It was far better to expire quietly in the well than be gnawed to the bones by wolves. Composing himself, he felt he was ready to accept it. He knew, without medical aid, he would not last much longer. His whole body was afire. He hoped his torment would not last much longer.
He no longer heard the wolves. Had they given up and gone back to hunting wild goats. It seemed so. Now he was alone--deserted by man and beast.
The beleaguered man had another vision, which, in his state, he immediately put down to delirium. Olson saw a black spot in the sky, spinning larger and larger, sucking in all the lights of the stars around it, while a terrible whiteness, strangely beautiful, with opalescent gleams here and there, played just inside the rim of the devouring blackness. Finally grown in size until the Earth, spinning closer and closer, appeared a marble in size to it, he watched as the Earth too, like the stars of heaven, was caught inside the orblike back sack.
It was horrible, at that point, to see something grown so monstrous in size attacking the Earth. And the titanic coalsack just ate the captured planet, swallowing it whole! "So this is how it feels to go nuts and kick the bucket? he thought as soon as the horror of the vision faded back into darkness.
The sufferer might have been comforted to know that the wolves had finally left, indeed, distracted by a partridge that whirred past them and down over the hillside. Now partridges had not been seen in that area for many years--having been hunted to extinction long before the 22nd Century.
Declared endangered at one point, poachers had set upon them for the skyrocketing price of partridge parts and wiped them out--seemingly from existence. Racing after it until they were exhausted by the long chase, they came upon a dead donkey, ate their fill, then crawled back with bloated bellies to their old haunt for the night, the ridge just beyond the private airstrip.
Except for the broken leg and dislocated arm, Olson still had the strength and might have climbed out and escaped.
But he knew the good arm and leg were not enough for his bulk. He was determined, however, to die with dignity like a civilized man. But to do that he had at least to get off his bed of Palestinian wolves. It was painful, causing him to groan, but he pushed away from his hairy companions. After that, he settled back again, but found he was still sitting on something--a hard, round object. He reached and pulled it out. It was amazingly light.
The next few moments made him gasp with astonishment--greater even than when he had heard a crowd cheer and unbidden words in his mind. The thing glowing in his hand brightened, brightening until he could see it was transparent, like an egg case held up to a lamp. Inside was a glowing mass of what he thought at first was a single, very thick fluid. But as he gazed at it he realized the mass was living, a myriad of intricate movements of light, like dust motes that swarmed continuously within the capsule, only they acted like millions of highly intelligent, almost microscopic beings.
He turned the warmly glowing egg round in his hands, growing more and more uneasy as he wondered what species it could be. It could not be real, he decided.
Tiny rays shot out of the thing--crystallizing into more solid appearance and rippling and bending as if they were alive as human flesh. The glowing bars began to emit voicelike sounds, to actually speak words.
He put out his hands to thrust the image away, but the surface rushed upwards toward him and then he was passing over the mountains and valleys, all glittering as it covered with dark glass. Then the first marvel came into view--he did not know what it was, but it towered over some small hills, sparkling with many colors, like tiny splinters of glass joined together into soaring fantastic shapes that balanced on a single tiny gold pedestal. Lights were flowing in streams to and from the crystalline structure, millions of them.
He was then whisked away, following one of the glowing streams and it took them to yet another crystalline structure, and from there, all around the planet, he was shown had to be thousands more, all completely fantastic and different in structure than the others.
The talking bars, the carrying case, the stars and planets, all disappeared instantly in bluish-white flare of fire like an acetylene torch. Olson was left, gasping in a thick, viscous darkness like two nights rolled into one ball of pitch.
A boy's, was it? Then there were two heads wagging downwards, and a girl's laughter echoed in the depths. Real children! Not angels! He was back in the real world! Finding his voice at last, he cried for help, weeping because he might be given a second chance to do something about the long line of men standing at his factory door back in Minneapolis--that was how much he had been affected by his misfortunes and pain.
A man's voice sounded, and the children died away. A lantern was let down into the well until the beam caught him. The man went away. Finally, a rope snaked down to the man, just as it had done to the real Joseph once upon a time. But was there enough strength left in his body to raise himself up? He tried to grasp the rope. His grip, weak as an old woman's, slid off.
A body slithered down the rope, swinging from side to side in its descent. It was a little boy. His garlic-scented angel had a jug tied to his arm, and Cyrus felt the shock of cold water trickling over his battered lips and face. Shuddering, he seized the jug, directing it into his own mouth and gulped, choked, then drank all he could. When he felt better, pulling on the rope, he struggled to his one good leg. He could not climb out, he knew. His own body weight would drag him back down the rope as soon as the last of his strength gave out. He bound the rope around his middle. " If they want their rope back, they'll have to take me with it," he reasoned. It seemed a wonderful bit of logic to him at that moment.
The big man was pulled out by a wagon and horses, the boy clinging to him like a hurdy-gurdyman’s monkey. All the way to the top Olson, turning increasingly fervent and prayerful despite his life-long antipathy for religious gush, was praying the rope would hold against their combined weight.
The only off note, he noticed that the boy angel's breath reeked, though he wasn’t in the position to hold it against him. It must be the dinner he just had, he thought, and from that day on he always thought of this miracle whenever he smelled garlic.
At the surface, a man's hands seized first the boy and then began helping him out too. Collapsing on the thickly pine-needled duff, but loving it with all his might, the custard millionaire lay for a moment, savoring the incredible sweetness of restored life.
Then his Arab savior turned him over and gasped at what his flashlight revealed. The bloodied, broken mass that had been a an outstanding businessman and community leader of the 24th Century--well, what was finally left of all that simply fainted, his pupils dilating in his open eyes. Would the man make it? The Arab shook his head. It hardly seemed the will of God, from one look at the man’s condition.
The district plague inspector sighed over the nuisance the crazy foreign tourist had already caused him. Now, by the looks of him, he would have to drive him a long distance to the nearest town with a doctor--not Jaffa but far-off Shechem, for it was a much cheaper Arab doctor he was thinking of getting.
Would he live to see the doctor? Perhaps not. In any case, the foreigner had been very lucky he, Walid, had been inspecting the site for any sign of re-occupation after a forced evacuation of the infidel Armenian community due to an outbreak of the English disease that took a man’s eyes out their sockets and robbed him of fingers, toes, hands too.
It was also fortunate for the foreigner he had come by that evening. He had almost gone by, as he had many times before, checking the appropriate block on his British Mandate government report that all was well with Dothan Township #3Z61000. Recalling he had medicine along, the Arab drew out a rag-wrapped bottle from his rig. Fiery as high octane, a single draught of "Golden Zephyrs of Love and Kisses" wine from a Jordan Valley vineyard--the valley being so low in elevation it retained enough heat to grow grapes--revived Olson so much he was able to bound up on his remaining foot. Holding to Inspector Walid Yusuf ibn Habousch, Mr. Olson hobbled, step by step, to the wagon.
"I am an American!" he whispered to his benefactor, telling him something that came as no big surprise. "I am very grateful for all you did to help me!" he croaked as his voice returned to him. “I am rich and will pay you very well for for your trouble! Just get me back to civilization, and I will pay you much money!”
Regaining hope, the king of frozen custard realized he was saved. He was going to live. He realized he had escaped things that could have done in many, better men than himself. He might see Hodgkins again and tell him what had happened. Even poor Goof Ball, stewed and potvaliant on pink Queen of Sheba, seemed a welcome thought after his trial in the Pit. It was amazing how good life looked after nearly losing it. Amazing!
Joseph, too, came to mind with vivid realism. He no longer had the slightest energy to suppress him. "At least I won't have to wear an iron collar and be sold down into slavery," he thought, slipping back in his weakness, back to childhood and his flannel-graph days. But that would be the last time it happened. A jolt of the wagon brought him to reality. He remembered it was ANNO 2393. Frozen Custard, British Gold, the Casinos--the big three linchpins of the North American economy--reigned. He’d soon be back in his element, restored to his former importance and wealth. Perhaps, he reflected, he needn’t pay them so much as he promised. It might go to their heads if he overpaid them, and start a riot when the other poor people heard the amount he had given them for their assistance.
No, that didn’t ring true, as he thought about it. He had promised to be generous, hadn’t he? Wasn’t he good at his word? Also, he knew he had changed from the sharp dealer he had been because of his brush with death. He thought, once he was mended, how he could make it up to his workers too, with his million. That seemed a certain thing to him, he was still so impressed by death and the brevity of human life. “Is this my second chance to live a better life?" he had to wonder on the way to Shechem and the doctor. It seemed so.
When they were going down the road, it wasn't long before the mongrel wolves ran out and tried to stop the wagon and put an end to Olson’s reformation. Without a flicker of fear, the driver drove right at them full speed. They jumped aside and followed, the bigger ones in front of the runts bringing up the rear. They ran with their tongues out, receding to howling dots in the wagon’s dusty wake. And the winds that swept the dust into the wolves’s faces continued on past, carrying dust toward the deserts, where it would join the dunes marching in across the forested land--one kind of barrenness overriding another.
Onward sailed the rickety wagon with Olson and his angels. Meanwhile, high on the forested hill of Dothan, thanks to the Mr. Olson's visit, the Pit again stood open after being shut some nearly four thousand years. Like a living thing, the Pit had awaited the second coming of Joseph, that is, a second Joseph and his brothers. But they were not to arrive for many hundreds and thousands of years. Then it would not be here, under the light of the present star and the moon. Another pit would open far, far away, in different light and on a vast new continent a Roman sage had described after consulting the Cumaean sybil.
At the doctor’s house, if Olson still had any doubts about angels, they were suddenly swept away when he got down with all hands helping him. Turning to reward the Arab and his children with the contents of his wallet, he found they would not receive one penny for all their trouble. Transfixed, Olson could not think what to say. Even as he groped for words, they and their wagon and horses rolled off away down the street.
"Why, you poor man, you are indeed fortunate to have lived through your injuries!" Mrs. Clish cried. "A broken leg is bad enough in this country, but you've been unconscious for days! For days! That head wound is a concussion that could have killed an ox! And how you did rave on and on about the strangest things-workers starving on your doorstep, a 'cosmic egg' from another planet that spoke to you through 'talking crystal people shaped like bars', words in your mind that said you would be entertaining angels--my, they made no sense at all.
And as for an Arab family helping you to get here--why, it couldn’t have happened. They’d rob you and leave you in the street! Everybody knows how they treat us foreigners!"
At the moment, he had a terrific pain in his head, and it may have come from being reminded about all the things that had just happened and which he could not explain. He reached up and touched a mass of bandages. "I'm sorry, I don't remember anything you describe, or the way you describe it," he whispered. Actually, he did remember everything! How could he forget?
Mrs. Clish put on her glasses, which he hadn't seen before-- steel rims with thick lens that wavered before him, distorting her most beautiful feature to hard, marbled globes that slid back and forth within the rims. Olson, getting a better look at her, had the distinct impression she had grown hard and bitter in the interim while he was away from her company--so much so she seemed a stranger except for her looks.
"Of course, you'll be wise to return to the Twins as soon as possible!" she went on. "You can go back with that terrible man--Hoggins, I believe, is his name. He's no doubt found some wicked floating saloon, or some other unsuspecting Atlantis, that will take him."
Mr. Olson stared at her with alarm, desperately trying to center his thoughts. Had she changed that much? Or was he seeing her correctly? He wondered why she was turned so brittle and ossified. She was acting concerned for his condition and had made the effort of seeing him, but it was not the same at all. What had done the hardening? Had he done it? He tried to speak, but his voice would not come out. Finally, an Arab woman who was a nurse but was dressed in her native dress brought water laced with peppermint, and he was able to say a few more things. "Tell my friend he can leave without me if he likes. I am going on with the tour," he said in a thick, raspy voice.
Mrs. Clish's petrified look, with her spectacles, fell off. For a moment she was revealed, soft and vulnerable as a clam out of its shell. But she grabbed and recovered her glasses, and the steel rims quickly made her hard and impervious again. She shook her head sternly. "You, sir, are crippled and in no condition to accompany us." Gripping her briefcase-purse, she stood, quite out of temper since she heard by cable from Topekah that New Zeeland had followed the maverick New Brabant and gone "wet" in defiance of the States-General. That meant secession and war, of course--bloody civil war.
Though she herself was not Dutch, temperance was more important to her than life itself, and she would support a teetotling Union with all her might and main.
Olson looked at the big cast on his leg, then around the bare, white-washed room of the doctor's clinic, then back at the temperance lady. His mind--despite the throbbing pain in it--was made up. How he had made it up, he had no idea. But he could not leave Palestine now after all what had happened in the Pit of Dothan. He didn’t want to go back to the way he had been. Not if he could possibly help it!
This changed man had also come to realize there was a purpose in his coming to Palestine, a purpose in his surviving the Pit--though he had yet to find out the whole of it, nor just how the papers of de Waals figured in. Since he was too weak to speak any further, the temperance lady changed her tactics. It might even be said she shed a layer of armored skin as well as she took off her hideous steel spectacles.
She moved closer in to his bedside and looked into his eyes. There was a look in her eyes that startled Olson. He found it most difficult to retain her sorrowing gaze since he had never known such grief, even in his wife's dying while stewing pears. At the same time her eyes retained just enough glint, a sign to him that he wasn’t expected to offer her any sympathy. No, she had risen above such needs.
After a few moments, the woman behind the temperance crusade broke silence. Olson still could hardly believe it was the same woman he had held in his arms aboard the Atlantis, a woman whose body had melted against his own. How embittered her voice sounded in his ears!
"Now that our league has been beaten back in America, you will probably be laughing at us. I can tell you think it is ridiculous and fanatic of us to take up such a cause--especially when we seem to be losing the battle for decency, health, and clean-living families."
Olson, not exactly a fanatic in such categories, said nothing. She was gazing down at her ungloved hands as she spoke, this time very quietly, with less astringency. "I know what you think of me. I’m just another hatchet-swinging harpy for the temperance movement. Well, there are reasons for my participating in this cause. My son Gerard was twenty-one, about to graduate with honors from New Antwerp Royal University when he was involved in a car crash. He was just a few miles from home, coming home on break, when he drove into a bridge abutment and was taken instantly to be with the Lord." She paused, her grief finding expression in tiny, silent tears that she quickly swept from her eyes with a linen. "What does she mean by telling me all this?" he wondered. Since there needed to be some response, he did his best. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he gasped. With a sharp nod, she rose, taking a few steps as if to leave him. At the door she paused abruptly, speaking rapidly without turning around. "What I mean to say is, he had been drinking, apparently, for smashed bottles were found in the car and scattered across the road. He is the reason a woman like myself can't rest. I will die before I see another mother's son follow mine to certain destruction. That’s why I’m the way I am! Do you blame me so much now?”
Olson thought he heard a stifled sob, and then she fled out of the room, leaving the door hanging ajar.
Olson lay looking after her, at the open door, feeling ashamed beyond measure. He knew he had utterly misinterpreted her. Worse than that, why did he have to keep a torch burning for something that no longer existed? He had to admit, no woman could be as selfless as Mrs. Clish. She could have stayed at home and felt sorry for herself. Instead she was trying to save others from the grief she had to carry the rest of her days.
These thoughts made him feel rather wretched for a while, but as time went on his common sense reasserted itself. Why, for instance, did Mrs. Clish and women like her think temperance was the solution to all society's ills? he wondered. There was so much more wrong with the world than she encompassed in her narrow temperance creed, he reflected. Why attack one source of society’s evil? It seemed such a negative undertaking. Why not just do as much good as one could possibly do in the time remaining on earth?
His turn of thought enlarged the issue in his mind. He remembered Europe's poverty-blasted landscapes and vast and spreading, peopleless forested and glaciered wastelands. What possible good could temperance do them? Clearly, temperance was completely beside the point. There were larger issues at stake, though he could not at the moment name the cause of a single one of them.
Even as he turned somewhat philosophical and censurious, Olson felt a sharp twinge of guilt after he put Mrs. Clish and temperance into a larger perspective. For what had he ever done to make the world any better? At least Mrs. Clish was not selfishly looking after her own interests and letting the world go to ruin as she gadded about in search of a good time. At least she hadn’t lived the live he and Hodgkins had lived. Was there any major difference between him and the old lush of the tees? Not that he could see now!
Finally, interrupting his thoughts and misgivings, Miss Heloise van de Waals came in. As he expected, she graciously and compassionately tried to dissuade him from accompanying the tour for the sake of his health. But as soon as she saw how determined he was, she smiled and welcomed him back on the tour. Then the matter of the papers came up and was resolved as far as it could be. After his terrible experience in the Pit of Dothan, he was in the mood to discuss the papers, but since she asked he had to say something.
"You will need to safeguard the them," he told her. "I made a copy of the map, and I can't go into detail now, but a number of people nearly killed me trying to get it. What do you think they'll do for what you have in your possession? I know them. They have no regard for anyone, and defenceless women would fare very badly in their hands.”
Yet, despite his warning, Miss de Waals did not appear particularly fearful. On the contrary, her snowy eyebrows lifted. "There, there, you mustn’t over-exert yourself!” she chided him. “As for me, I am old and there isn't much they can take away from me at this stage of my life. Still, I shouldn't let these ruffians you speak of have my brother's papers by brute force. Why don't they come ask me for them like civilized people? But, apparently, they haven't thought of that--that I would easily let them go to whoever can explain their meaning. You see, I found a porter looking through my things in my cabin on the airship. As you have given me cause to think, he must have been searching for the papers, as I carried nothing else that might interest anyone. His eyes--they weren't the sort a trustworthy man should have--he gave me a disagreeable impression, to say the least. I didn't like their expression at all. Most peculiar!"
Mr. Olson's interest was piqued by this information. "What do you suppose the papers are about?" he asked.
"I was hoping you would tell that to us." "I am afraid I am not much of an astronomer. The papers were pretty much Greek to me."
Miss de Waals sighed, the snowy peaks of her brows drooping a bit. "I was afraid you’d say something like that. Well, they in a safe place until we can find someone who can understand them. Whoever it is can have them. They haven’t the slightest value, far as I can tell. And I really don't think they are my brother's manufacture. It was not his style of writing."
"How did you come by them then?"
"It was at Dr. Pikkard's funeral. My poor brother had fallen on the platform. He was giving a funeral addres when it happened--poor man! Well, in the confusion the papers were handed to me for safekeeping, as he had carried them in to the auditorium in his briefcase. That’s how I first saw them. What he was doing with them, I couldn’t guess."
Olson fell silent and thought for a few moments. "Maybe I can help you. I cannot help thinking there is someone else involved. If your brother came from home, and he was carrying the papers, it's possible that--"
Anticipating him, Miss de Waals eyes brightened beneath lifted brows. "Yes, I see what you are inferring--someone gave them to him at the parsonage. Of course! That's it!"
"Who would he be talking to or counseling just before the funeral?"
Miss de Waals, blinking once, then twice, did not take long to decide, for she knew all her brother's movements during his last days, having kept a firm eye and hand on him for over fifty years. "I think I have the answer for that too, Mr. Olson! It must be the young girl, Dr. Pikkard's niece, who gave him the papers. Perhaps my brother had looked them over and intended to return them to her at the funeral."
By this time the patient was nearly exhausted, but he kept on, his mind churning with possibilities. “What else can you tell me about her?"
"Oh, dear, what was her name? It wasn’t Pikkard. That was his. No, it comes to me now that it’s Anne de Kilpaison. She is a native of New Amsterdam, the capital itself. I know this because I was obliged to invite her to the inquest and needed some particulars. You see, she was granted a bequest of money by my brother, who had attached a codicil to his will in the very last days of his life. How he could ever have foreseen her dire need of the money, I cannot say, except that Providence had his ear in the matter. Her family being in straightened circumstances in the capital--she revealed this to me in private after the money gift was read out to her--she told me it would go to pay for the destroyed aeroplane that Dr. Pikkard flew to his death. Hearing that, I was quite pleased by my dear brother's foresight and generosity. He was a good man, indeed, if a bit foolish in his concluding remarks at the funeral"
"Then the papers perhaps belonged to Dr. Pikkard," Olson concluded. "With your permission, I will return them to her at the first opportunity."
She turned to go. "Well, then, Mr. Olson, I know I can trust you to deliver them at your convenience. I know my brother would be eternally grateful to you." Olson nodded his head, smiling as she went out after offering up a short but powerful prayer for his quick recovery and, as she saw it, his moral rehabilitation.
“--and, Almighty God, may he never put liquor to his lips again! Amen!”
He was nearly made unconscious by the long interview, but somehow he felt he had climbed a rung or two upwards, to a bit of higher ground no one could take from him. He had plenty time to think over his decision to continue with the tour. It then seemed very strange, even mad, to him--even a sort of treasure quest--though it was Anne who would receive the only benefit of it. Compared with Mrs. Clish's single-minded devotion to temperance, his own half-hearted, inarticulate reaching out to others, begun so very late in his life, seemed most selfish as he now thought about it. But once started he could not help it.
It was like, he thought, becoming a medieval knight in distant times, such as the 20th Century. Since he had little distraction, he thought of all those who had taken up the life of the chivalric questing knight. The little he knew of such things was enough to tell him it was a costly, even a fatal enterprise.
In early times knights had sought gold, women, magic crystals, holy cruses and grails.
Stories about the fabled 20th Century were the fare of every child until he grew out of them and assumed a man’s responsibilities and cares. After long decades of neglect, they came flooding back to mind. He recalled the various heroes that had once meant so much to him. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, the Green Hornet, Popeye, the Lone Ranger--they gladly suffered every danger and hardship as they fought against sundry evil geniuses, crooks, bank robbers, cattle rustlers, and tyrants. No, it was never mere material gain they were after, but the good of other people.
Why, he had to wonder now, had he lived his life so differently, if such had been his heroes and champions?
While they had sought good, he had turned to seeking money and power. He knew perfectly well that many a young hero grew to be an old man and lost wife and home in a futile struggle for good. On the other side of the coin, was he any less a fool? he wondered.
He had not fought for any ideal or good cause, no, he had made a lot of money by working his men for all he could get. But the pit had intervened. The pit! Though he wracked his brain, he still could not put it in words, what the pit of Joseph had done for him, to open his eyes and set his feet on an entirely different path in life. At the same time he felt a sense of something vast and intricate being woven from his life, something he wanted to communicate to his fellowmen, if only he could figure out how.
Perhaps it had to do with a line of broken men outside his factory door. Perhaps, it related to a fall into a deep well. Perhaps it could never be found. Rather, it was the sort of thing that found the seeker when he had despaired of ever setting eyes on it. If only such things could be strung together in a way that made sense of his life!
Olson, thinking this way about himself, desperately wanted to understand. Was he also a madman, he wondered, searching for the unattainable as Ponce van de Leon had sought out the Fountain of Immortality? If only he could turn the dark and tangled tapestry of his life over so he could see the pattern! That would be so nice! As it was, he felt lost in a labyrinth, with no thread from Ariadne to hold and follow. As questing went, his was truly belated. Well over the hill and into the valley of a man’s “sunset years,” he felt he had wasted an entire life up to this point.
In that sense, his present change was still in character, though he was not the same man who had started out on the tour of the Holy Land. Nor could he ever go back to being what he had so lately been.That reminded him of Hodgkins, who was no doubt going back to his former life.
Olson winced at the memory of how he had bad-mouthed Goof Ball to the ladies. Yet he was not entirely loath to lose Hodgkins' company, as he had become a confounded nuisance, the way he was always watching him. Obviously, Hodgkins had assumed the papers concerned coded instructions on how to located a trove of hidden treasure, golden plunder from the sack of some past civilization. Apparently, Hodgkins had given up his crazy idea, for he had packed and gone home on the first available steamer that would brave the ice-berg heaven of the Atlantic, sending Olson only a short note that he was leaving.
Having returned home, she came in a hired car all the way from New Amsterdam--the Bugatti having been "blown to Pluto’s stomping grounds," as she described the accident in a note sent in to him by a passing serviceman. Since she would not come in to the terminal he got a porter, using a horse-drawn luggage wagon, to transport him out to the road among the cabbage and potato fields.
When they reached the spot it struck him odd at the time that she stayed in the car and spoke to him through a side window. He would have liked to sit inside the car for a moment. He thought she must have seen how yet incapacitated he was, but the weather was poor, with thunder and lightning, and he assumed she was feeling indisposed, as he knew females often were.
After partway drawing the curtain at the window, only a few words passed between them, the sort soon forgotten. He thanked her for coming. She expressed her gratitude to him for preserving her uncle's last effects. Then, when he handed over the papers she said something to the driver, and they drove off, spinning wheels on the wet road and evidently in a big hurry. Only afterwards, watching the car vanish down the road, did he recall what he badly wanted to ask concerning her missing fiancé.
When he turned back to get in the wagon, he found he could not lift his feet. "Let me help you, sir," said the porter reaching down. Mr. Olson looked up. For some reason he couldn't see the porter, and he thought it was light in his eyes. He reached upwards and felt a stab of fire go down up his arm..
Reaching Minneapolis-St. Paul, as soon as its engines were gassed up the Atlantis was scheduled to be on its way again after a stopover of little more than an hour. By that time, Olson was walking on his own. His Arabs discharged, he still proved capable of getting off the airship himself with a cane and a crutch. Unfortunately, though his mobility had improved considerably, his head had not. In fact, the pain behind his brows was now unbearable, nagging him around the clock.
Mrs. Clish, very much alive to temperance and pain, brought Mr. Olson vinegar-soaked compresses for his head during the return voyage. But her kind ministrations ceased the moment she spotted Mr. Hodgkins at the gate coming with a drunken gait to greet his old buddy.
Not that she didn’t have ample work on her hands the moment she set foot again in New Zeeland! Since the start of the Holy Land voyage, the province had fallen to the Devil and turned into a break-away "republic" favoring intemperance, so practically every minute of the trip home she and her elderly mentor, Miss de Waals, had plotted strategy on how they would turn things back around.
Thus, with Hodgkins coming forward to undo all her good work on Olson, she hurried past toward the guardpost, where rebel New Zeelanders had hastily erected barriers and a shanty of a command post at the entrance.
With dozens of thick temperance tracts in hand, she was determined to change the soldiers' views and avert the war against temperance if she could, even though her action might be termed treason and earn her a bullet in the head.
Olson paused to rest as up came the swaying, beaming Hodgkins. There was a young woman, a slinky white fox slung on her bare shoulders, who didn’t seem to help his stability much. Cy, old man! Welcome home! Gee, I wondered if I'd ever see you alive again. That’s what you get for taking off without me. I could have protected you when whoever it was clobbered you over the head. Why, you're a sight for sore--"
The shock of seeing his friend turned to a little, old man with cane, crutch, and his leg in a cast, was painfully clear in Hodgkin's face. The woman glanced at Olson with mingled disdain and pity.
Hodgkins quickly covered his dismay, however. He turned to his fox and gave her a nip on the cheek. "Cmon, sweetheart, sparkle for my old buddy! This is a homecoming I brought you to, not a funeral!"
He turned to Olson with a beaming face after pinching a squeal out of her. "Meet my li’l' pussycat--Marlene ffrench-Lafitte Gran Terre! Some name ain't it? She's got real class, this dame. Can write it out for you on a piece of paper! Used to bust her tush reporting for the local rag, then got fired for writing too good an article and did a bump and grind stint at a Hennepin honky-tonk, but moved on to bigger and better things, haven't you, Honey Buns? You finally got smart. You found the very man who can appreciate you for what you are--instead of what you put out--"
From her expression, the “putter-outer” didn’t seem at all pleased with the introduction, but Hodgkins wasn’t letting her say anything . He rattled on about what a great favor she had done herself latching on to a man like himself. When Olson had had enough, he stretched out a rail thin, shaking arm and rapped his friend's knee with his cane. "How about us going someplace where we can be alone for a moment. I've really missed you, strangely enough!"
Hodgkins stared at Olson for a moment, as if wondering if his ears had tricked him. What he saw Olson meant every word, he turned to his fox. "Beat it," he said. "Take a powder and be back in half an hour, not one minute less, okay? We've still got time to make the flight, since they'll gas the old tub up first."
"Take a powder, take a powder!" the ffrench-Lafitte Gran Terre huffed as she tripped away on the tallest silk pumps west of the Monongehela. “He’s sure has got nerve to treat me like this!” The eyes of her fox stole eyed Mr. Olson upside down until she swung out of sight around a corner.
Hodgkins pointed toward a doorway lit with glaring lights. "Nice dame, that! We’re getting hitched, first thing. Now, where was we? Oh, yeah. You’ve been away too long! Haven't you heard the good news? We're Scot free of the blasted old teetotalers forever! We've seceded from the Dutch Union! No more bathtub tin and homemade beer! The whole province's gone wet as a pig's whistle, with shipments straight from New Antwerp without the usual bribes and midnight White Indian shenanigans. The Tru-Bargain breweries could not care less if we're Dutch or not, and no one stops the shipments on their side of the border! They wouldn't dare! Except for still no gambling, this burg is the only place for me and my sweet little honey cake."
Hodgkins was practically jumping up and down as he finished.
"That's not exactly good news, in your case," objected Olson, for a moment seeing his friend's bouncing, bouyant form momentarily double due to a lapse in his vision. "A little less gambling and drinking might do you and your 'honey cake' some good. Have you ever seriously considered that?"
Hodgkins, the two of him slowly returning to one, looked very much offended. “Of course, I’ve done thought of it. But what put the bug in you about this anyway? Have you reformed, old buddy? Is that it? You’ve got religion on the trip?”
At this point the tractor dealer was practically jeering at Olson, but he had never been much for seriousness, even the cynical variety, so he quickly clapped his shaking hand over his heart. "Scout's honor, I promise to take just one teensy-weensy Old-fashioned with you, for old time's sake. Unless you insist on that rotten slimebag sherry of yours, that is! Now, ain’t that a sign I’m serious and aim to reform?"
Hesitating, Olson began to feel strangely light-headed, and he was seeing double at the moment. He gave the twin portly and inebriated figures of Mr. Hodgkins a keen look. All this talk by Hodgkins of his turning a new lead was putting him off. But what was he to do? There was so little time, he knew.
Hodgkins and Olson moved away toward the aerodrome's newly opened saloon, formerly the passengers’ Dutch Reformed chapel. When he paused, Olson was again assured there would be absolutely no heavy drinking as there had been in the past. They also found Clish and Waals riding shotgun by the door, dispensing Anti-Saloon League literature. Sorely tempting the anti-temperance guards to perform her execution on the spot, Mrs. Clish was daring them to open fire. Miss de Waals stood there to back her up in case the bullets proved stronger than “Temperance Enlightening the World, ” and “Just Say ‘NO!’ to Demon Rum”--the titles on temperance tracts.
When the guards seemed about to take Mrs. Clish up on her offer, Miss de Waals gave them a stern look and wagged a motherly finger at them, reducing them to naughty boys.
“Now aren’t you ashamed of yourselves!” she bellowed at them. “Pointing guns at women of God, has anyone told you it’s a sin that will damn your souls to Hell forever? No? Well, I have just the tract for you boys that will turn your lives around.” Abashed after, indeed, raising a weapon or two against Mrs. Clish, the men apologized profusely to both ladies, who then handed out tracts and then turned with triumph on their faces to Mr. Olson, who had watched the whole drama to its conclusion.
Then came the moment when they had to look at each other. He had already seen how her ravishing, voluptuous eyes looked as imprisoned as ever behind the steel rimmed slammers--and his heart went out to her while his reason told him his chance with her was over--over forever.
"Why, Mr. Olson!" cried Mrs. Clish, her magnificent eyes piercing his own over the steel rims. "Surely, you are not thinking of frequenting such a place with this mountebank Hoggins!"
Olson had been through too much to be dissuaded now. He bowed as suavely as a man in his condition could before a lost love opportunity and went in with Goof Ball.
"The nerve those old uppity-nosed broads have!" commented Hodgkins as fell into a spot at the nearest table. "What business is it of theirs what a man does with his own hard-earned moolah? I had to drag a farmer off one of my repo tractors with my bare hands just the other day! When he wouldn’t go without bad-mouthing me, I also had him thrown in the clink to cool off a bit. But that’s the tractor business these days--and did you see how they treated our troops? It's a scandal. Where’s the general we got to lead us to victory? You don’t see him down here when there’s real trouble to take care of. If it was me in charge, I’d--"
In the saloon's dim interior, Olson's thin, hollow face shone with sweat in the light of a lamp. Hodgkins himself did not look much better, as a crafty and greedy look stole over his features as he abruptly quit the subject he was belaboring and leaned close to Olson. "Speakin' of moolah, you didn't happen to find any stashed over there, did ya?"
"What do you mean?"
"Aw, nuthin', just a crazy idea of mine, I guess. I just though you’d ante up, for old times sake.”
The old suspicion in Hodgkins' eyes gleamed then faded away, for the last time, as quickly as it had appeared, and they were friends again.
"Sorry to disappoint you, there’s no lost treasure for you, never has been. But I want you to have this as a momento," Olson said, pulling off his class ring with "Argonauts" and the prow of the Argo emblazoned in little diamonds around the blue stone.
"You see, on my travels I've done a lot of thinking about it in regard to my life, and I know I've failed to live up to my life's promise. This tour was a mistake, as you know, yet it served to show me where I went wrong. All I accomplished now seems a monumental detour, a dead end, frozen custard and a million dollars included. Perhaps you will have better luck with this ring and what it stands for."
Hodgkins went pale, but he took it, his eyes still on his friend's troubled face. "Sure, sure, I'll be glad to take it from an old buddy, but why do you want to get rid of it now?"
Olson pointed to his head. "Something's gone wrong with my skull, and it's not the knock I got on my head from a bad fall, or my age. I badly needed that knock. Never been the same since. I keep seeing strange things which I'd rather not see but maybe should see. But I'm only human and I feel my lid's about to blow any moment from the strain. So even if it does, the ring's yours. Wear it in good health and may you find the Golden Fleece even if I failed! I had my chance, but I guess I blew it for filthy lucre, as they say."
His sherry finished, Olson moved to go. Hodgkins, not so ready to go, gulped his whiskey down, ordering several others in quick succession, "just for the voyage ahead." “After all, I’m an Argonaut, thanks to you!” he quipped.
When they came out, with half a dozen drinks too many under Hodgkins' Navaho silver and turquoise belt, the ladies, reinforced by a troop of militia with tracts in their pockets, were marching in to clear the place out. And Mrs. Clish was wielding a temperance hatchet for dealing with any beer kegs she might find.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on?” Hodgkins protested. “They can’t go in there!” He didn't seem to notice that the temperance women, for the moment, had carried the day.
Olson tugged at the tractor dealer’s arm. “Cmon! You’re fighting on the wrong side and will only get hurt.”
Stiffly, Olson leaned over to retrieve a tract for Hodgkins, but it was a young Gypsy skycap passing by with a luggage cart for the Reno flight who stopped and handed it to him. Olson gave the enterprising fellow a coin. The boy put beautiful, white teeth into it, smiled radiantly, then made off to find other gorgio suckers to hand paper trash.
"I'm strongly inclined to think those 'broads' are right about you, Goof Ball," Olson said, as he held out the tract with a smile. "I'd like to see you live a little longer, my friend. I really would. A little temperance could possibly save you." He was going to add, "You've been pretty lucky so far, you know," meaning the daily binges and crashes, but he was interrupted by a final visions--the sort he had wanted to tell Hodgkins about.
Instead of the scene before him of Reno-bound travelers and Gypsy skycaps wrestling with suitcases and trunks toward the now loading airship, he again saw that black coal sack devouring the stars, before moving on the Sun and moon and the Earth.
It was larger than anything else in the Universe. And, leading it like a tethered horse, was something just as strange and terrible, a star, red, jetting flames that shot out as far as Pluto. "Who will stop them?" Olson finally blurted out as the sight became unbearable. “Who?”
Having spoken his piece with a new truculence, shaking his head, Hodgkins took out a new silver scorpion from his coat and helped himself to a comforting draught of his fiery, unrefined rum. He was turning to go back inside when he felt his arm yanked.
"Bug off, I gotta get our fares refunded. There's been a change of plans, effective pronto! This isn’t exactly a good omen, you know, so I'm signin’ off from the Reno thing and goin' straight maybe. Anyhow, I’m goin’ to my best chum's funeral--"
He faltered as his arm was yanked even harder. He turned and saw it was someone in a threadbare, baggy suit, collar was turned up around the dirty neck--sure sign he couldn't afford even a shirt, or was ashamed of the one he had on. The fellow, who had once been quite fat as his skin hung in big folds on his face and neck, glanced warily at the soldiers, then held out a rag in the center of which was shining a ring.
"Wanna buy a real slick treasure, Meinheer? Somethin' for the pretty little lady, eh? It's plenty cheap."
Hodgkins seized the ring despite the miscalculation of the hated "Meinheer." "Yeah, just how cheap?"
In a flash, the ring asserted its power. In his inner eye, Hodgkins was no longer simply Hodgkins. He was HODGKINS THE MAGNIFICENT! He was transformed from a balding, paunchy, sagging=jowled, middle-aged Lothario in a sagging Navaho belt to superman and emperor rolled into one peerless majesty. It was a glorious vision, putting his old "Goof Ball" image behind him forever. As for the funeral and “going straight maybe,” he completely forgot it.
"Van Zooks!" he muttered under his breath as he was suddenly gripped with an insatiable desire to possess the thing that had made him feel suddenly so good about himself. Stunned and enraptured by the image, he slipped the ring on his left hand pinkie (Olson's blue-stoned ring was on his right pinkie) without being conscious of it at first.
At first it felt freezing, liable to give him frostbite or something. Then he felt a wonderful warmth and looked and saw how right it looked on his hand. Hodgkins could not take his eyes off it, for it had begun to flame red and sparkle in the most beautiful manner, even without the Sun shining on it.
"Ruby, ain't it?" his fox asked, looking to see what had captured his attention. "Say, that's downright classy!"
Hodgkins was overwhelmed at the thought of owning such a voluptuous stone. He grinned and rubbed it fiercely, to make it glow all the more for her sake. "This baby is a first class gem, one of a kind--and with it you and me are going to go places with it you wouldn't believe!"
Peeling off a couple novelty counterfeit bills from a fat wad, Hodgkins paused. His eyes narrowed to cold hard slivers of granite as he seized the man's lapels with one hand and pulled him closer. "Tell me your angle, why are you unloadin' it, if it's so valuable?"
Sweat beaded on the younger man's forehead, and his hands clenched as if he were going to swing at Hodgkins. Instead he held out both palms, and they were indeed blackened, as if he had held two burning coals.
Hodgkins laughed and paid the seller. "That's hot stuff, eh? Now I see why you’re unloadin’ it on me. Well, it ain’t burning me yet. Feels pretty cool, in fact, like a cool million my buddy made on that frozen custard crap everybody’s eating these days. But here--take a little something extra for handing me a real bargain"
Stuffing a couple Van Zooks’ Explosive Stink Bombs that looked like fine cigars in the man's hand, which were all set to go off in a few minutes, Hodgkins, barely able to contain his laughter, turned and hurried away with his bride-to be to the waiting airship. Once on board and comfortable in their champagne honeymoon suite, the white fox snuggled up to Hodgkins and tried to say something appropriate. "Aren't you glad now that you're with me now instead of running off to some dreary old funeral?"
"Oh, that--" Hodgkins said, quickly reaching for his private reserve of scorpion juice.
Far off from both events, mile after mile of beating wings of migratory birds headed for the middle of the Atlantic. Flown from southern Europe and the island of Crete on their annual route to nesting sites in Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Panama, the crested swallows stopped to circle the mid-Atlantic, where steaming fumerols of something tremendous in the making now bubbled all the way up to the surface.
By the time the happy couple of Hodgkins and ffrench-LaFitte Gran Terre were excitedly looking out at the lights of Reno from their high perch in the clouds, Anne had finished her tremendous task and was on her way back to town with a couple of Egges.
Before they could even land, Hodgkins had been busy in the Cafe Parisien with a group of like-minded fellows. They all, at one time or other, had done the round of Reno's and London's clubs together, so they had many tales to tell or re-tell while they played black jack. Of course, there was enough refreshments served to outfit an army. When Hodgkins took time out to look at two dancers whirling on the floor, he saw what looked like blue angels--but paid them to mind. He had seen far worse things in his cups.
With the money both Hodgkins and the white fox (upset because her stole had gone for Hodgkins's cigars) were able to face Reno and hope for a sudden and dramatic change of fortune.
They never docked at Reno, where the bright lights were presently being made even brighter by loyalist forces from the Dutch East battling the secessionist New Limbergers.
Just completing its first circle of the aerodrome field, the New Atlantis caught fire and exploded.
The piano, taken for evidence by the Handley-Clarke board of inquiry, held additional interest. The outline of a hand was distinctly imprinted in black on a section of keyboard, indicating that the pianist was playing at the moment of the first explosion.
The car hurtled down toward ridges of sand four or five feet high, gaining tremendous speed in a very short time. It struck the first, heavily cleared, and shot on over toward the next, gaining more speed.. Anne thought the sand hills might slow them down, but it didn't help as they hit and cleared yet another. She shouted at the driver, as they flew toward the third hillock, which was larger than the first two. Again they caroomed up and over, throwing both driver and Anne against the ceiling.
The car hit on its wheels and roared on down the sand flats, sometimes racing through small creeks. The accelerator's stuck! she thought. The needle flicked to 120 mph and then jumped to 150. At that moment, with a car-high sand hill looming directly in their path, she knew that unless she could get to the wheel they were finished. The needle sprang all the way to the limit--200 mph--and kept accelerating. But she was imprisoned in the passenger compartment, the only glassed-in part. She pounded on the window to the last second, but the driver, terrified as she was, stared rigidly ahead.
They plowed full speed into the hill. This time they did vault the barrier. Smashed partway in, the car flipped and then flew upended on its back up over the hill, instantly flattening the roof. And over it went, flipping again and coming down on spinning wheels. Gearbox disengaged, the car rapidly slid down the hill and turned over several times before coming back down once upright, teetering on the edge of the river gorge. Blasts of wind struck the car. It slid partway off the edge, motor roaring.
Anne was trapped. The roof had crushed down on the car. She called to the driver, but heard nothing, and the wind was too loud. She began moving, but the pain in her chest and head stopped her for a moment. She had broken some bones, but her arms and legs were all right. The doors would not open as she tried them with a push.
Her shoes had been wrenched off her feet, but she found one and began to knock out the remaining glass, thinking she might wedge her arm through and somehow reach the ignition. Minutes seemed hours as she worked at clearing the glass away. Then in the opening she stuck her hand through and touched the driver. She prodded him, but he lay inert, unresponding.
Terror, for a moment, overwhelmed her as she felt wetness wash over her fingers which had to be blood.
Dead! she thought. And the car's going to catch fire and explode. Waves of heat and exhaust choked her so she couldn't breathe.
"Why doesn't it run out of ethanol?" she wondered, as she kept trying to her arm in further, past the driver's shoulder. Unbearable pain shot through her body at each stretch of her arm.
Thoughts raced in her brain that made no sense, but she couldn't help herself. She couldn't breathe for choking on the fumes. She was terrified.
There was no time to sort her situation out.
I'm dying. I've got a fatal brain concussion. My ribs are smashed, the pieces are sticking into my heart and lungs. Fuel is leaking all over the motor, I'll never get the ignition turned in time. I can't reach that far. The papers will burn up, I'll burn up, they'll win the war against Oom. Why are they so important? I'll never know. I should have found a car and driven instead of hiring Beano. I've failed!
"It's going to explode! You can see that!" protested a man. "I ain't goin' near it!"
The woman drew a luger and repeated her order. Hurrying, two of the men began to rip at the car's doors. But they were stuck fast. Shouts. The Cord lurched and slid a couple more feet.
Finally, one man crawled down over the car to the engine and with a tree limb pried open the hood just enough until he smashed the fuel line. The Cord sputtered and then sent up clouds of smoke, giving up the ghost with great shudders as it dieseled down to silence. The woman crowed in triumph as the car fell silent.
"Die papieren!" she cried. "Schneller!"
His face full of terror, the man on the car then worked himself back over it to the passenger compartment. "Maybe I can reach her and get the papers," he shouted above the roaring wind.
Anne shrank to the floor, trying not to groan. A gash on her head was pouring out, she realized for the first time. The entire front of her fur coat was mushy with blood. She realized she would bleed to death before anything else could possibly hurt her.
"Husband, I suppose she means that poor fellow in the front. I doubt there's much good tellin' her now."
"Beano, we're going to hit--!"
"Her mind is wanderin' again, poor dear!" said a woman. "Three days now. Don't know where she is, nor what happened! Where's her family, I wonder. Wandering the countryside alone, even if she had a driver. Has to be a rich city girl--that gold locket and chain, that coat, it's got real fur of some kind, I reckon. I had a wonder of a job getting it clean from all that blood and then drying it properly!"
"'Tis a miracle we went down to take a look!" said a man's voice. "That river has a lot of junked cars. But I had a feeling about hers, that we should take the trouble and take a look inside. Just thee wait a bit. She's young and will mend proper."
"If only I could fix something hot for her. Need a stove for that--and there's no gas running in the kitchen. I tried."
"Oh, but there's that wood stove out in the garage. I can get that goin', I think. Just need some wood and maybe clearin' out of a squirrel or two from the pipe. Maybe I can get old Muriel to haul me some wood to the back door. A doughnut or two might just do the trick. She’s in a good mood for a change.”
Anne's eyes opened on a strange hotel room. The door opened, and a man and woman came in, also strangers. She tried to rise up, but pain stabbed her neck and chest.
The woman quickly went to her. "No dear, lie down a bit more. You had a hard hit on the head. You need some restin' up first before do anything. And, since you may need a name or two, my name is Violet Egge. My husband is Bartholomew--though I calls him plain Bart. Now don't mind our looks! We're the Regular Musical Brethren of the Inner Spirit Path--Reorganized Moravians, to trim it short. City people like to lump us with the Mennonites, or Amish, and some others and call us "Plain People," which I suppose we are close cousinry to in a way, as we live to ourselves on the land God gives us and don't go in for city frills and gew gaws. There be 'Fancy Brethren' too, who used to be Plain but changed bye and bye to the world's way and hardly play a decent note of music to the Lord anymore. Their women wear lace caps and gold weddin' rings, and the menfolks don't have proper beards--"
Anne looked into the woman's large, dark-gray eyes and funny cap.
How long she lay like that, she did not know, but the curtains had been pulled and morning light shone in on her bed when the door again opened. The Egges came in.
Anne saw how peculiarly they were dressed--both in unadorned fashion, except for a frill on the woman's cap. The woman carried a white woolen shawl around her shoulders and her hair was done up neatly under that little cap, the man, who looked as solid and powerful as an ox, wore suspenders and had big, child-like eyes and a beard.
Anne's hand reached out and touched the woman. "No," she said. She tried to rise up, and the woman helped her by raising the pillow. Anne looked at both desperately. "My driver, he’s--".
Before she could speak the man shook his head. "No, the river was risin' again. We just barely got you out. It was a good thing I had the crowbar or I'd never forced the door. But the water took the car off soon as we got you out. We are very sorry. Was the poor feller family?"
Anne tried to shake her head as if she refused to hear what they were saying, but it hurt. She reached up, or tried, but the pain stopped her.
The woman smiled. "You're going to be mighty tetchy in spots from all that bruisin' and bangin' you got fallin' in the river, evidently. I reckon your shoulder be dislocated some too. The cut on your head was the worst you got though. It looked bad when we had a look at it, but it took a bandage, which you'll be wearin' a few more days just in case. With my mother's special comfrey salve, I doubt you'll see any sign of it after it heals. Now if you be needing anything, something to eat, your feet rubbed, whatever, let me know. Try a glazed doughnut, dear! A body can’t live on soup alone. You’ve got to get your strenth up a bit more to travel."
Anne was exhausted, slumping back on the pillow. She wanted to thank them, but her eyes shut involuntarily, and she was asleep at once. Vaguely, now and then, she was aware of music--it sounded so heavenly she thought she might even be angels singing to the accompaniment of golden harps.
Anne ate the fried eggs and sausage spread out on a clean white cloth. It was excellent. There was even some pastry, with butter and Glacier Berry jelly. Finished, she let the woman clear away and then waited for the "little talk," but evidently the woman forgot because there was no more.
When they came to get her to the wagon, she faced them and for the first time tried out their names. "Mrs. Egge--want to thank you--please listen-- must get to New Amsterdam. Could you take me?"
The pair looked at each other thoughtfully, then the man smiled. "Sure, we take you. We be goin' that way--we being the last of our people hereabouts emigratin' to the South. If we can find a boat, God willin'! So you are welcome, young lady! To go with us and Bridget and Muriel to the city. But please don't 'Mister and Missus' us. Just Violet and Bart. We're used to that. Anymore is a sin of pride!"
"Of course, you can come with us!" said the woman with a child's full-throated laugh. She gave Anne's face a full examination. "I hope you're up to the trip. We have a couple days to go in our old rig. We have to take it slow--it'd fall apart if we don't and spill us and all our things on the road. We mind to sell it for whate'er it brings in the city."
Anne was exhausted but tried hard to look "up to it." Once in the wagon, and after it was rolling down the road, she felt better. Fresh, breezy air was wonderful to breathe, and she felt absolutely safe with the strange-looking couple. If they passed anybody, which was only a couple times, just in case the people might be the wrong sort, Anne pulled up a borrowed shawl of Mrs. Egges to cover her face and bandage.
She sensed Plain People would not dream of lying for anybody, even to save their own lives. She could expect Bart to tell the truth--she was a stranger they picked up along the route, who was in need of a ride since her car broke down. What would ever happen to the Egges, she wondered, if they ever met up with robbers and thugs? Would they just lie down like meek lambs and be robbed and murdered? As for herself, she knew what she would do. If all she had was a hatpin and one free hand, she’d put up such a fight with her attackers they’d be sorry they ever picked on her.
Fortunately, the wagons they passed were in a hurry and kept going, and nothing had to be said or defended. Roads deadended not far inland, but the important coastal road from Lakehurst to New Amsterdam was kept open and was still good in most stretches. They passed farms growing mostly blue corn, but there were still signs it was once prime tomato country. Huge boards advertized tomato soup--though the change to colder weather had finished off the vines and the the soup industry had fled south.
Though once a highway roaring with traffic day and night, trees and bushes and weeds were closing in. Fast returning to a foot-path for use by Indians and traders, which it had been in the beginning, the road led to Perth Amboy, their jumping-off point to the City and its ocean steamer line. On a good stretch, Bart tied the reins down and just let the wagon go. Evenso, the some stretches grew dull and wearing.
"I think our spirits could use a little pick-up," declared Bart with a smile to the Missus during one rather dull stretch of road. Grabbing a trumpet out from under the seat, he started off on "When the Plain Saints Come Marching in!"
Astonished, Anne could tell at once she had heard right on a previous evening--there was an accomplished musician on board, only angels never played this instrument! In fact, she had heard few better trumpeters in the city.
He had no sooner finished the first stanza then the good wife joined in antiphonally with a sweet cornet. Down the road they went. Hours passed quickly in that fashion, and later they would put the instruments back and stop for a time in a pleasant meadow.
The weather held good for the journey. Whenever they pulled up for a rest, Anne, freed from the joltings of the wagon's mismatched team, could read some of her uncle's papers. As if the events of late had cleared her mind, she found she could understand what he was getting at and felt all the more impelled to see her inherited papers to their destination. Every chance she had, she took them out though hard to hold and read in her condition.
Her benefactors noticed but made no effort to learn her business. They went about theirs, only involving her when the dressing on her forehead needed to be changed or tended, or an extra helping of food or hot comfrey herb or wildrose hip tea brought in the big tin cup they all shared.
The next night's lodgings was not so fine as the "New Alma Hotel" they had found open and unattended, furnishing free lodgings to any stranger. A Campbell's Soup Company tomato factory farm, even though sheltered with a dome covering several square miles, had long given up the ghost since the weather had changed, but the many buildings stood, some with roofs intact. They roomed for the night in a farm manager's brick home--cozy and roofed, without a wood stove but dry and easy to clean up for the short stay.
As usual, they rose very early and got away before dawn. Yet Violet Egge had a hot breakfast ready for Anne as soon as she was awake enough to hold a fork and knife.
In this leisurely, musically-entertaining fashion they gained on their destination--Perth Amboy. Like so many other such places up north, the little port was getting smaller all the time, yet it wasn't due to the lack of trade. Money--the capital to buy, sell, do anything at all--was fleeing. Even thriving businesses and dockyards were being shut down. When they reached the port’s outskirts, they drove through acres of empty buildings and shops, doors hanging open with most of their furniture free for the taking. It took quite a search along the waterfront before they found a charterboat business that would run them to the City.
"How much that be?" inquired Bart Egge after the usual handshaking and talk about the weather and tides while Anne and Violet waited in the wagon.
The skipper named his price.
Bart came slowly out the boathouse and looked around, utterly bewildered by such a display of human greed and cupidity.
He told them the women what had happened.
"Well, drive on, dear, we'll find someone else then. Those aren't prices God-Fearers should have to pay. I feel sorry for him--taking sore advantage that way! Sojourners and wayfarers are under God's special protection, and he appears ignorant of that, poor man! He isn’t robbing anybody, he’s really robbing himself!"
They drove on. It was the same at each charter. They were all demanding five dollars in gold, since the penny steamers didn't sail to Perth Amboy and fares could be fixed as high as traffic could bear.
Finally, Bart pulled up and they just set, waiting for God’s leading. Without it, Bart said, they weren’t moving another inch. Not so sure God was involved in the matter of charterboat fares, Anne could see Violet’s eyes were clamped shut and her lips silently moving.
Abruptly, Bart looked heavenwards and erupted with a “Thank you, Lord!”
“What is it?” his wife gently inquired.
“God said git!” Bart replied. “We’ll come to the right place by and by.”
Then, with a smart rap of the reins and a couple endearments for Muriel the mule, Bart got both Muriel and Minerva the old horse moving again, and they tried one last place, which looked like it was abandoned, though the sign was freshly painted--
Royal New Gelderland Ferry Company.
Motto: We Never Fish Behind the Net.
Passenger Satisfaction Guaranteed, or Your Money Back!
Fares--New Amsterdam-P-A, New Gelderland. Round Trip Only 50 cents.
Not Answerable for Loss of Goods or Lives.
Look to Your Animals and Children.
Absolutely No Mad Kicking Mules Transported.
Gold or Silver Currency Accepted.
No Cheques, Paper Currency or Letters of Credit, Foreign or Domestick.
We are Here to Serve You!
"Castin' off in fifteen minutes! Ladies and gentlemen, all aboard! And absolutely no mad kicking mules!" He hurried off, leaving them staring aghast.
Bart ran after the captain. A minute later he came running back, his face lit up.
"He'll take us, kit and kaboodle, mule included. I was mighty sick, thinkin’ I’d tell him ‘bout our poor daft mule, but God be praised, the fellow wouldn’t hear a word against her tetch of evil temper. All for a quarter in silver! Let's git aboard before he changes his mind!"
He spun the wagon around and drove down the dock--nearly losing a wheel in a hole and the animals knowing enough to step over the gaps and not plunge through.
Anne could not believe what was waiting for them. "A raft!" she burst out. Finally, the whole enterprise from Lakehurst to Perth Amboy seemed too much to take. Beano’s death never far from her waking mind, teetering on the edge of hysteria, she started to cry and laugh at the same time, but stopped because it hurt her bruised ribs too much.
Bart looked sheepishly at the women, then, with real concern, at the mule. After a silent prayer invoking the same Almighty that overpowered Balaam’s ass, he turned to the womenfolk. Now don't you womens be alarmed overly. It's all there is, and if we hold still it won't rock too much on the way over. Weather's holding, and we should make it just fine, Lord willin'. "
Anne glanced at Violet. Her eyes had clamped tightly and her lips were making record time. The good wife soon finished whatever her prayer was about and then got out, drawing a deep breath as she watched the men coax the horse and an even more reluctant mule and the wagon out on the raft. Once aboard, the mule behaving like an angel, it wasn't quite as bad as Anne and Violet feared. Miracle of miracles, the mule didn’t seem to mind a thing, as if her wits were stunned by a mallet blow. A 40-footer, the raft held a small cabin and wood stove at one end, and the women went there while the men tied up the wagon and animals for the crossing.
"How does it go if it doesn't have engine or sail?" Anne asked Violet.
"I have no idea!" exclaimed Mrs. Egge, "but the men will think of something. It’s always best to leave such things to them. They like that." She got a pillow and blanket from the wagon to make Anne more comfortable in the wicker chair that a cat jumped out of as they entered. "But don't you fret. Just leave all that sailin’ business to the men. They got us in this mess, they can get us out. They'll come up with something. They always do. The Almighty in his wisdom blessed them that way."
Anne wasn't so sure they had such a blessing from on high, but she kept silent for Violet's sake.
The women settled down in the cabin, which was a tight fit, cluttered but all sorts of gear, as well as several tabby cats and their cracked imitation Delfth feeding bowls. A charter boat, a steamer, started moving from a dock and then swung toward the raft, almost running it over at one end.
Violet went to look to see what was making all the noise. She told Anne as she watched out the dusty, half-tarpapered window. "Why, the captain of the big boat is throwing us a line. You don't suppose they're going to tow us there? We'll be swamped!"
Anne glanced at her. For once, Violet's regular faith had struck a reef and faltered. But they were not swamped. With Bart to help carry and set them in position, the captain had thoughtfully lashed some small logs at one end, and the breaking waves swept right by to either side. They were seaworthy after all. Ten minutes later they were dropped off and the steamer went on to bigger and better things than hauling beech-log rafts.
Bart and the rafter poled the rest of the way in to shore. It was a spot where horses and wagons, even cars, could be driven ashore by using a few planks and a lot of courage.
Taken ashore in the wagon, Anne drew a deeper breath than Violet's and looked around. The smell of Jamaican peanuts and tobacco, both stale and fresh--mixed with a tang of fruit and spice, cocoa and waving palm fronds! That told her they were a stone’s throw from Chatham Street. She knew the area well--every city kid knew where there was fresh peanuts to be had for free from the nicer sort of dock workers. She also knew the Chatham district with its penny steamer docks and warehouses was none too respectable an area--always full of unsavory types that played numbers for a living--and when it failed--pockets.
Bart, with no idea he was in any danger of having his pockets picked, paid the rafter his quarter and then turned to his own passenger. "Well, you're safe in this nice, big city of yours, if not entirely sound yet. Would you have a home here we can take you? We won't be leavin' you until we see you are in proper good God fearin' hands, you know. That’s the least we can do."
Anne's eyes filled. She shook her head. "I actually believe you mean it! But, yes, I do have a home here. But I can hire a water cab. They'll take me to just a block away. I can make it without help now. Thanks ever so much!"
The Egges glanced at each other, then back to her. The missus spoke up. "Just the same, we'll see you there, if you don't mind. We'd feel better if we see things are all right where you're going. ‘Tis the least we can do."
Anne thought fast. "No, that won't be necessary. I know the way. It's not far from here. You really should get going, if you're going all the way to South America. Really, I can't with conscience detain you people any longer!"
Bart smiled and shook his head, not at all put off. "No detain-ation at all! We'd love to meet your family, though we won't be staying over and botherin' your folks with having to put us up!"
Anne looked down, biting her lip. She looked them in the eyes. "But, you see, I'm not going home--directly, that is..." She glanced around and thought she saw some men--ugly brutes in dirty clothes and caps that were more grease than wool-- paying them too much attention from neighboring storefronts. She knew very well what that meant. If she and the Egges stayed in this vicinity any longer, the scum would soon come trying to take advantage somehow of the dumb yokels they saw in the Egges. For their sake, she had to do something. "Could we move on a bit, dear friends? I'd like to tell you something, but not here, if you don't mind."
So, pleased at this show of Anne’s confidence in them, the Egges drove off with her down Chatham and then on Culp where seedy warehouses gave way to antique shops full of English buyers. Culp made her breathe easier for the Egges, and she relaxed.
Anne turned to them when she felt she was no longer being watched. "I have some business, very important, I must complete before returning home. You see, it's these papers." The Egges glanced at each other significantly. They had seen her getting them out of her coat many times along the way. Anne continued. "I know you saw me reading them. I've tried to understand them, and now I've got to deliver them, so to speak. It's very odd to say, perhaps, but I must put them in a certain, very clever machine."
Both Violet and Bart looked as if they didn't understand a word she was saying, but Anne continued to struggle for the right words to use for such plain-thinking people. "You see, these papers are scientific. My uncle was a dedicated scientist. He died a short time ago and left these papers--scientific papers--to me. But he intended to preserve them by putting them in a special machine he found. It can use the things he wrote in such a way to save the world and--"
She could see the couple had stiffened up, particularly when she got to the part of a special machine "saving the world." The idea, apparently, was utterly beyond their ken. And it would be impossible to make them understand, she realized. Adherents of a small sect, they lived in a different culture entirely than hers, which was mainstream Dutch. She might be speaking a foreign language when she referred to science. Things of science and the intellect meant nothing to them. They lived in the world of the Bible, God's wondrous acts, and His faithful provisions for daily, plain life. Believing as they did, they were God's children, obedient and trusting, and questions were quite unnecessary. As for saving the world, that was His responsibility. How could a mere man, even a scientist, presume to save the world with a man-made machine? It was unthinkable to them.
“Truly, they are Plain,” she thought. “Like poor Pieter in a way, only he never seemed to connect up his plainness with his heart! Maybe they've over-simplified life and are a bit out of touch, but they are different; they have a heart to help others in need. They'll understand my need and help me, whatever it takes. That's the whole gist of it. I needn't explain anything--just ask. If they can possibly do it, they will. If not, they'll go on their way and leave me to God's keeping. Oh, it must be grand to trust and have faith like that!”
That concluded, Anne tried to think how they might help her. What did she need? Well, she decided, she needed to get to the machine she had mentioned. For her, machines were not outside the purview of the Creation. They were mere instruments, most humdum affairs, some very clever like her father’s inventions. And the cleverest of all had to be the apparatus her uncle had discovered.
Again, as she had foreseen, the Egges were all too happy to drive her, despite the terrible condition of the streets in the Old City. Later, standing on the street before Radio City Music Hall, they all looked about at the ruins and the slab bearing letters that formed the name of the place.
Anne pointed toward the burned out entrance. "I've got to go in there," she said, hardly able to get out the mad-seeming words. "The clever machine I told you about is somewhere in that old temple."
"Could you please wait in the wagon for me?" Anne asked. "I have to find it and enter certaim information from my uncle’s papers, and then I'll be right back out. It should only take me a few minutes."
"But that's too far for you to walk!" said Bart. "You'll never make it!"
Anne could see the poor fellow was plainly appalled at the thought of her going in a heathen temple--whatever her reason. Something would happen--a quake or lightning bolt, if necessary--and stop her.
"I'll go, dear, and hold your arm if you really must!" said Violet.
"No, I must do it alone," insisted Anne, trying to master her own terror and keep her voice calm. "Sorry, I must do it my way."
It was a long moment before the Egges gave in and left her in the lobby. Reality was worse than Anne dreamed in her worst nightmare. Even in her brash childhood, she had not gone in such places--they looked just too forbidding and dangerous--which they certainly were. A hideous place, with reeking mounds of fire-blackened debris, half-consumed by fire, she wanted to turn and run back out after the Egges. "How much time will it really take?" she wondered, seeing she had greatly underestimated the difficulty as she looked about for the way into the building that her uncle had once briefly described.
Forcing herself, she started to climb over the mounds and startled a stray cat, which made her cry out as it leaped suddenly and bounded away. It was late afternoon. Bats and other things would be flying soon, she knew. Fortunately, the fire had cleared most of them out, she assured herself. If only she had inherited her grandmother's fondness for vermin! she thought. It was a long, hard battle of sheer will against simple terror to follow the route she had in mind from the one her uncle had described in so few words--"Left, my dear, down a hall, right turn down a stairwell, then to the right again, and swing left first corridor you find, and proceed directly..."
She might have gotten half way through the vaguely memorized instructions when she heard voices.
"I hear 'er, all right!" growled one. "Jist like they said!"
"Shut up! Don't be lettin' the whole countree know we know!" snarled another just as nasty.
Anne shrank down behind a broken door of one of the offices as she waited. The shuffling footfalls stopped. She heard heavy, coarse breathing, smelled a strong odor of stale peanuts and beer, then a poke at the door sent it against her, but she kept quiet.
"Come outa dare!" the first voice demanded.
"Hey, gimme some of those peanuts," said the other. "You're eatin' 'em all!"
Anne shook with tense nerves, but the bums seemed to be more concerned with the peanuts and, after a moment, they moved away. She stood wondering what to do. She was in a dark hole of some room. She had no candle, nothing to see by. There might be a thousand bats blanketing the ceiling overhead, for all she knew. It was madness, she realized, coming in the first place. She had been very, very stupid to try it. "Impulsive Anne!" she nearly cried out. "Now get yourself out of this one!"
Afraid to go out in the hall, she backed into the room. Trying not to make any noise, she kept edging back when she fell without warning through a hole. She couldn't get up at first--the pain slammed her so in the hurt shoulder. Slowly, she moved her hands about and got hold of a large slab of something. Slowly, it dawned on her where she might be.
Unable to comprehend how it happened, she felt the entire slab, moving round it. But she was in a terrible situation. How could she get it to work? Her uncle had used a keyboard to gain access to the wonderful machine hidden inside. There was none around, which she soon knew by feeling all over the room. Struggling with her emotions, she went back through the hole to search. It was the same there. Fire and thieving hands had cleared the area of whatever it might have held. Too close to the hallway, she crept back to the room with the slab. She was sitting there, wondering what to do when she heard the men come back.
"She's gotta be back here, right? I knows she is!" said the first, evidently the leader. "We shudda tookn a look da first timeround!" Approaching shuffles. A match was struck, and then another as the pair searched the outer room. "Only one place left," said the second. "Trapped like a little, ol’ rat she is!"
"Okay, but when we gits her, I handle it," said the first. "That fool couple out dare in the wagon, them in the funny clothes, they'll come lookin' for her ‘fore long, no doubt. So we just can't leave 'er here--the body, I means. They be sure as I ain't got no pappy to git the badgers on us. No, best we get it outta here and throw the business in the nearest canal. Badgers does nothin' then--it happens all the time, right?" The companion agreed, and they started for Anne's hideaway.
She put her face in her hands. A wave of unspeakable failure in the line of duty swept through her. Then a thought flashed through the darkness.
Blinded, she put her hands over her eyes. She heard cries, then the sound of bodies falling, two of them. It was a horrid sound--heads and limbs smacking concrete. A horrible smell gagged her almost immediately--burnt peanuts, beer, and what had to be human skin and hair. Reeling, she tried to move away, but a ray zipped past the tip of her nose. Realizing what her uncle had described had nearly sliced him on entry into strips, she pressed instantly back against the panel. A hundred questions assailed her, which, like with the "I am with you, Daughter of Debora! Do not fear," she didn't have the mind to entertain.
She stayed where she was, then could stand the stench no longer and had to get out of the place. She began inching along the panel. If she moved so much as a fraction of an inch outside her perimeter, a deadly ray went for her--one time singing a stray strand of hair. She stopped moving, trying to think how her uncle had handled it. He had described using mirrors and sequined garments for protection. But she had nothing like that. But slowly it came to her that the answer was close to hand, right behind her.
The panel--she felt with her fingers--was smooth. Was it reflective enough? She tried to find a piece she could tear off. Fortunately, most of the panels were badly damaged, by fire and axes, and she had no problem getting a piece large enough to shield most of herself. A moment later she dashed to freedom, holding up the fragment of reflective panel as the death ray flashed harmlessly at her. Gasping for breath, she leaned on the wall outside, hardly believing her good fortune.
She started for the door, the way was clear for her escape. But she got only a few feet before she stopped. The opportunity was still there and might never be again, she realized. She turned slowly around. But how was she to gain access to the machine, which she knew was hidden somewhere in the cement slab on the floor?
Anne gasped and spun around. She saw Violet, holding up a lantern. A moment later she was in Violet's arms.
"There's two men in the other room!" Anne said, after recovering. "Dead. A strange thing happened. A light came out from above and attacked them. They were going to kill me and throw my body in the canal."
Violet wasn’t surprised. It was, after all, a heathenish place devoted to pagan indulgence. "A host of saucy spirits is no doubt flying round this place and you can't help seeing things, poor dear! Now you're coming with us!" said Violet as if she hadn't heard a word about two dead men. "We were awful worried out there that something might be happening. We knew the moment after you left we shouldn't have let you go alone like you insisted. A wicked temple built by ancient idolators is no place for a young woman to be. Anything could happen."
"Anything has already happened, you mean," Anne could not help blurting out. "But I need help. Can you get those terrible men out of there for me?"
At last the Egges seemed to understand the fact of real death in their vicinity. They then wanted to take her back to the wagon. "We will find a place and put you up with us for the night. You'll come now, won't you?"
Anne, not so gently, pulled free of Violet. "No, I have to do what I must do, it's now or never. But those men in there. Could Bart--?" Anne stood and waited. Anxious as she was to find a place for her uncle's legacy, she couldn't go back in before he had cleared the room of the bodies. "It's very dangerous as you can see," she explained as she handed him the piece of panel from the room that had saved her. "Even with this covering you, you could be hit and killed like those men. It happened so quickly, they didn’t know what was--"
Bart said nothing. He held out the panel and went in while they waited outside. Breathing hard, with flashes of light striking all about the panel, he quickly pulled each of the men's bodies out. Then he lay them to one side in the hallway, folded their hands neatly on their chests, and closed their bulging, bloodied eyes.
Holding her hand over her nose and trying not to retch, Anne went back in to look around. The reek of recent death was overwhelming--which ever afterwards she'd associate with stale beer and peanuts. But she had to complete her task, she felt, no matter what. She saw what she had failed to find with her groping hands--tiny, metallic openings where her uncle had gained access to the machine. She felt them with her finger. Drawing a hairpin, she was desperately, hopelessly pressing at them when she must have touched something she shouldn't. The wall next to her give way--or, rather, the part that was two feet thick titanium slid aside with a slight, hissing sound. Crouched behind her reflective shield, she investigated and found a doorway where
he had torn off the panel. “I've found another room!" she called back to the Egges. "I'm going in!" A wave of disappointment swept over her. Inside she could see it was the exact copy of the room she had left. Then the lantern's glow caught on a glistening, boardlike object at one end of the slab. In her haste to get to it she left her shield behind. A board with inset keys! Then she remembered her fatal mistake--her body shield now lay across the room. She began to sweat, wondering if she could save herself by falling to the floor or by making a dash for it out the door. But before she could do anything--
An hour later, while Anne--standing in for her uncle--was still hard at work learning the keyboard by mostly error, she felt a tap on her shoulder. With a gasp she spun around, but found it was only Violet, holding out a thick sandwich.
"How did you get by the killing light beams?"
Violet chuckled. “They can’t touch me, you see. All of them missed. "I can tell you aren’t quite used to Brethren of the Inner Spirit Path. While we tread that path it protects us. Off it we are like anyone else--and so we have learned to stay put. If anyone should ever harm us, it is God’s will. Otherwise, nothing can touch us. Absolutely nothing, my dear!!"
Having entertained doubts, but also having seen Violet’s words mightily confirmed, Anne blushed and took the sandwich. Regretting the time it took and feeling stuffed from her last meal, she nibbled on the edge just to satisfy Violet, who sat down with a piece of knitting.
Anne stared at her, the old doubt welling up in her irresistably. "But how exactly did you get by the lights? They nearly killed me and I had a shield!"
Mrs. Egge glanced at her kindly. "Now you do your work and don't be minding me. I already explained how God is our Sun and shield. Now I got plenty of time to wait with you, and Bart does too! South America won’t go away. And don't be frettin' in your mind about anybody coming in on us who shouldn't be. Bart is out front standing watch. As for the wagon, the mule won't move for nobody but us, depend on it! As long as she's along, we've never had a bit of trouble leavin' it anyplace we like in town."
With a pat of her hand on Anne's, Mrs. Egge went back to her knitting, while Anne glanced down at her sandwich. It was, she could see, a good one--with plenty of sausage, cheese, good brown bread, and a special zucchini relish. Spiritual as they were, the Egges knew what a body required and were not into denying it good food.
But she could only take a bit or two, then had to set it down on the white cloth Mrs. Egge had spread for them to sit on. Her eyes filled momentarily so she could not see. Then she straightened up. "Some game this is!" she thought, grumbling beneath her breath spare Violet's tender feelings. "All I can say is, if I have to do all this he'd better win !"
She turned to the papers with a half-suppressed groan. Why hadn't she paid attention when a tutor--she couldn't remember which--had tried to teach her typing? With one finger she started to hunt and peck, letter by letter, word by word. It would take hours before she made any progress, on the trail her uncle had forged up a mountain more cloud and avalanche than solid stone.
Mrs. Egge looked over to the struggling and complaining Anne. "Numbers--that is a holy book, but one I never have been much read in, I confess. I can see why you have such a bother--why, having to type the whole Bible--"
Anne shook her head. "It isn't getting any easier either. I thought it would as I went on. But actually I think he saved the worst to the last!" She paged through the last portion as she was speaking, horrified that there was not one legible word in the masses of numbers and queer signs that littered his papers from beginning to end. She dropped her head in her hands, too exhausted to weep.
A moment later she felt a gentle pressure on her shoulder. "Now don't be fainting, dear," said Violet. "Not when you have us to help you. What we can do--by God's divine agency--we surely will do for you. You know that, don't you, dear?"
Anne sighed, more a shudder than a sigh. She reached out and touched Violet and looked up, seeing the mountain before her--a heart-stopping height that no human being had ever attempted before her--none, that is, since her Oom. And Pieter?
The thought of him suddenly came back in full force, along with her despair and exhaustion. How she had hated to give up searching. But Minnpaul was full of people looking for her, and she could not ask about Pieter without drawing the hounds. So she had fled back to New Amsterdam. She realized she couldn't go on. The task was too great, beyond anything she had imagined.
Outside, as Anne gave up inside at her work, others showed they had no such intention. Bart was nodding asleep when voices startled him awake, his trumpet still in hand after doing "When We Plain Souls Awake at Gabriel's Last Trump" and others.
"Achtung! Get out! someone commanded.
Bart, however, was assured it was his wagon, by God's providence. And he wasn't breaking any law that he knew of, so the command did not make particular sense. He gazed down at a woman's face and some men standing with her. "Good evening to you, good people! And what may I do for?"
The woman made a sign to the men. They stepped forward and reached out as if to grab and drag him down to the ground. Bart let them have his arm, but that was all. He would soon have it back anyway. "Now, folks, this is my wagon and me and Violet are mindin' our own business--and that of a certain young lady with us at present. Would you be seeking a wagon to hire? I can help you, but we're needin' it to get back into town from here."
"Dumkopf!" the woman shrieked, hurting Bart's ears. The men started at him again. He swung his other arm, and they fell back, brushed off like flies.
"Now that isn't none too neighborly, is it?" Bart tried again with the same patience he applied to Muriel. His voice had taken on a stern edge, however, as he realized this was no dumb mule but people with motives that could be sinful. “You won't be takin' this wagon without me drivin', I expect, because even if Bridget is willin', Muriel 'taint!"
One man was more determined than the rest. He made a leap as if to jump in the wagon and throw the farmer out, but he must have touched something. Seeing it might happen, Bart tried to warn him off with, “Careful there! Don’t tetch--”
Whatever it was, it was tetched. There sounded a loud, impressve TWANG! It sounded just like a powerful medieval crossbow, but a box opened in the side of the wagon by a spring mechanism and a net flew out over the man. Then a siphon sprayed him automatically with pepper water.
Snared and peppered, the fellow howled and thrashed about in the net to no avail.
Infuriated, the captive’s companion tried to do what the other fellow had failed to accomplish. “You crummy, dumb hick, I’ll show ya!” He leaped up at Bart, but he must have touched something too because yet another fowler’s net flew out of a concealed box, this time with a pole that held him kicking and yelling above the ground.
Bart, shaking his head, said, “Sorry about that, but I had to put that in after the gun salesmen from the big city got a mite too pesky. Thought it’d quieten them so I could slip in a bit of Plain Folk wisdom and the Salvation of their poor souls.” In fact, the “salesman-pacifier” mechanism had worked rather well. He had added quite a number of former gun promoters to the ranks of the Plain People over the years. They made some of the most peace-loving believers, in fact. And Bart told everybody, if anybody gave him credit, that it wasn’t but a little honest carpenteering that any man could do and a right good dose of the Lord and the Scriptures that did the trick in turning such hard-tack big city sinners from the Road to Destruction.
Seeing the plight of the others, nobody else wanted to see what else the farmer had up his wagon.
Something flashed in the woman's hands. Bart had no idea what it was--he was glancing at Muriel the mule with an anxious look, praying she wouldn’t act up unneighborly. "You best be moving on, lady and gents. I see you have discouraged my mule sorely somehow. She was doin' so well lately, adjusting to the change of scenery and all the dampness hereabouts and not once pullin' south when we were goin' north. But I fear she is losin' a tad of self-control at the sound of your voices--"
But his audience was not listening to solid reason. The men were pushing and yanking at the wagon, as if they would rip it apart with him in it, while the woman stepped round to deal with the horse and mule, as if she intended to drag them out of the way. When that wouldn't make them budge, she raised the gleaming thing in her hand at the mule and moved to the side.
Bart could see all the signs of possible big trouble fast developing. Muriel's big ears were flat back, teeth showing as her gleaming eye watched the woman's movements.
That was as far as Muriel's master got.
Suddenly, Muriel did something Bart had seen her do to a particularly pesky gun salesman’s city dog worrying her fetlocks one time too many. Giving a yank at her harness, she shoved wagon, Bart, and Minerva just enough to the side so her left hindquarter was free.
The woman moved forward swiftly and raised her weapon. Seeing her mistake, Bart jumped down immediately, but he was too late to distract Muriel. A leg and hoof shot out instead of a bullet but nearly as swift.
A moment later, Bart and the men were looking down at the woman. Her skull crushed, it was useless to do anything. Poor Bart was overwhelmed. "Oh, murthered! We done and murthered the poor lady! I've got to tell Violet what terrible thing we've done!" Moaning, he started moving off, but a noise turned his head. A powerful car was coming, pushing over the mounds of rubbish to get to the wagon. It stopped and a man leaped out. He strode swiftly to the group, and he brought a subtle scent of luxury and fine clothes and posh hotel suites with him.
"What's happened to her, idiots? Say something! I haven't got all day!"
Numb with shock, Bart could not find any words. But the men around him clenched their fists at Bart. "It's him, sir, as done it! Sicked his cussed jennet on her. We were only trying to clear a parking spot for you when we were attacked!"
"Incompetent fools!" the elegant gent cried. "I'm not here to tussle with stinking barnyard animals!” He eyed them for a moment as he chewed on his cigarette holder. “Well, she's dead! But Department 13 can get along without her. She can be replaced!" he grumbled. "But where are the papers? You've got them, haven't you?"
The men forgot all about Bart and the woman at their feet. They looked frightened. "Well," said one. "We got them, and then we don't got them. They's right in there, Dr. Van Goatt!" He jerked his dirty thumb toward the entrance of the music hall.
The gentleman raised his cane over the man's head. "Well, go get them then, and I'll wait in the car. But don't make me wait too long. I'll thrash you personally if you take more than five minutes."
The messenger ran off, glancing back with terror as he stumbled and ran again.
The gentleman took a few steps toward his big car, then paused. He seemed to remember Bart. "And you--move along! You have no business here!"
The sharp command seem to wake Egge out of his stupor. He stood his ground, booted feet planted firmly. "No, sir! I have my wife and a young lady in our charge to be lookin' out for first. Then, when she's ready to go, we'll go. The Lord won’t have it otherwise, you might be advised beforehand."
The gentleman was no gentleman. He rounded on Bart, his teeth showing. "Beforehand what? You'll do as I say! Now! Get this rattletrap out of here! This instant!"
Bart was surprised. He was overwhelmed that two city people in such quick succession would act so contrary and foolish to the divine path God had ordained for humanity. He shook his head, his arms folded like a meek sheep waiting for his thrashing. The man raised his cane. But he too was standing too close to Muriel. She had been watching him too during the discussion and had taken a rather keen interest.
This time Bart was caught unprepared. He never expected the man to thrash him, but, then, he also didn't see the dread signs how exactly that was going to be averted. He only saw the man crumple up, his head flattened considerably in front where a hoof had made lightning swift contact.
Bart spun around. He saw in a flash that he now had two homicides on his hand. It was too much to comprehend. He raised his hands and began crying out to God for help. The two surviving members of Department 13 looked at him, their fallen leader, and then the mule and suddenly ran off--back toward the New City, yelling as if pursued by a pack of tigers and wolves.
Bart prayed a powerful prayer. When he was sure his supplication was received, he quit and sank down on the ground, utterly spent. He was still there when Violet came out to him.
"My dear! Oh, husband!” she cried. “What is that poor woman and that man lying there like that? Oh, no! Did she? Did she? I knew in my spirit something dreadful like that was happening out here."
Bart glanced a most dismal glance at the mule. He did not need to say anything.
Violet put her hand over her mouth. Words were of no use now. Arm in arm, they went and stood, clinging to each other as they viewed the scene of Muriel's wrath.
"What will we say to the young lady?" Bart's agonized voice broke out after a time.
"It's not her trouble. We will carry them into town to the authorities and go to prison, after we take her home, of course. I wasn't too moved in the spirit to go to South America anyway. If they let us live, at least you'll get that prison ministry you always wanted. And I can be a big help, holding up the candle while you reads the scriptures and then passing out verses I can write myself. You see, it will be a wonderful opportunity for us.”
Bart nodded slowly, huge tears moving slowly down his weathered cheeks as he went and put blankets over the bodies--the best he could do for them at the moment. He turned to Violet after a sad look at their mule. "You don't think they'll put Muriel down, do you? I just couldn't bear the thought of that for eternity. She isn’t herself when things aren’t going just right. That’s what sets her off so!”
Someone came out of the music hall. After long hours, the lantern was now so dim it was hard to make out Anne's form and face until she was close. She was ghostly pale--even in the yellowish light. She could hardly walk, and Violet, with a wrench away from Bart, flew and caught Anne as she wavered on her feet, ready to fall.
"You've worn yourself completely down, dear!" cried Violet. She helped her to the wagon.
Bart then forgot his own troubles and got Anne, with Violet's help, up into the wagon.
Some papers slipped from Anne's hand. Bart reached to grab them.
"No, that's all right!" gasped Anne. "I don't really need them now. I finished! I actually got through all those terrible numbers and finished!"
Bart took the loose papers anyway and put them in the wagon. He got up in the wagon, glancing down at the blanketed forms, then started the wagon moving.
"What's those?" Anne asked numbly, looking down as they turned by the spread blankets.
Violet pressed Anne's hand. "Nothing to bother yourself about. Now you just rest your head against my shoulder."
Like a star that could wander at will, the jetting flame flew up into the night sky--racing first one direction, then another, even circling the globe several times before abruptly halting. The moment stretched out as firebolts shot forth in many directions--only to be recalled back into the tiny star. When that was over, the star began moving away, faster and faster. In a second's span, it accelerated to a point where it was far from the Earth and beaming down on the frozen double planets on the utter fringe, a binary system named for a god of death and the underworld.
Jetting a dragon's breath of roaring fire, the star slowed on approach, passing down to the already tortured surface of the larger Plutonian world. Ahead of it mountains exploded in the shock wave before they could be incinerated.
Finally, the star lay inside the caldera of its impact, geysers of molten material cascading up and over the rim, solidifying rapidly in the 230 degrees C. surface temperature, then avalanching upwards in the low gravity and spiraling off into space.
Slowly, it cooled to a stone inside the subterranean caverns it had created for its hideaway, ,flickering with firelike gleams from time to time within a dense cloud of sooty ice crystals that slowly revolved and coiled into space.
The stone was contemplating something new in the equation, something quite clever in its way, called “ Wally”.
Yet another fragment materialized on the riverbank grass. The Centaur warily approached the fragment. Something was different about the newcomer.
Chiron glanced about and the youth’s eyes followed to various shapes of monster-fragments that littered the plain farther than one might want to see. Now a Centaur was so much horse it gave no thought that it had a human upper torso, arms, and head fixed to a horse’s body. It didn’t think of itself as human at all. But feeling protective, perhaps, for this was the first human in those parts, Chiron darted away at that moment. He had caught sight of a certain disturbance in the tall grass and knew what it was. It was an appalling thing, for a fragment, and of course had to be stopped before it got to the human. Chiron knew it well. Upon arriving in Roncommon, it wildly set upon the other fragments, the upper snake-body striking and inflicting savage wounds on everything around it with poisonous fangs the size of a tiger’s, while the lower body was merely horrible to look upon, being a large, bloated, hairy tarantula.
Then, the moment it sprang out of cover to dash for the human prey, Chiron struck at it in passing with his front hooves and his silver trident flashed and pinned it on its back. It struggled terrifically, speweing poison, but Chiron was just as determined. He would not let it go until it saw reason and let the youth alone.
But this particular fragment would not see reason. The moment he eased up on the trident, it struck for freedom and the youth. Chiron finally solved the problem. It was a drastic but simple operation. Stamping and slashing with razor-sharp hooves, he parted the two contrary fragments. The upper, legless half then crawled along the ground. The lower, spider-bodied fragment had no head, and thus was blind. It too began wandering about in an innocuous fashion and could be easily avoided.
Of all things permitted him in a place like Roncommon, the Tank of Fragments, personal hygiene was the thing he treasured most. The slight contact with the Rebus had destroyed that utterly. Then, riping away whatever shred of serenity he still possessed, the human-fragment suddenly appeared, flying right under his belly, and screaming so loudly Chiron rose up on his hind legs with real alarm.
The Centaur, rueing his experience already with humans, quickly put distance between him and the mad thing, though it was hopelessly disintegrated. His chain of thought was completely broken by the intruder, however, and he could not help glancing in its direction.
Then something most unusual happened. Chiron saw the fragments reassemble, quickly assuming a man’s whole shape, without the wings, which flopped miserably in opposite directions through the bluegrass. Centaurian eyes were farsighted. He had no difficulty seeing something was wrong the moment the newcomer tried to walk. The fragment cried out and fell. It was the same problem--the bird feet which could not support the youth. Getting up, he tried again to walk, but could only manage a painful, halting stumble.
ced the fragment. Fortunately for the newcomer, it was some time before he could reach Chiron. Meanwhile, he recalled what he had suffered from the Rebus, and now resolved to maintain indifference at all cost. Lordly dignity dictated he remain right where he was. To move again was only to invite the fragment to pursue him. How undignified! thought Chiron. A Centaur chased by a silly little fragment! After all, for a fragment, a Centaur was as complete as anything could be. He only resided in Roncommon along the monsters and was classed with them because the Creator, understandably, had no place for him in the Upper World. Yet ordained things could change in time, he reflected. Another sort of world up there could develop and he might fit right in. It was something to hope for anyway. And until then he would preserve his balance of mind, and when called upon see to the tranquillity of Roncommon’s riverlands as well. It had always been his territory, and he liked things peaceful and quiet, so that undisturbed he might think his deep, searching thoughts.
“I’m looking for someone,” the man-frag told Chiron. “Can you help me, Meinheer?”
“Meinheer” Chiron stared even harder at the fragment. Then he snorted. He even stamped his feet. “What did you say?” the Blue Centaur retorted. “Why do you ask ME?”
This gruffness took the man-fragment aback for a moment. He even slumped to the ground, and only with difficulty regained erect balance on his small, bleeding bird-feet.
A little ashamed of his incivility, Chiron relented a bit. He saw the youth’s misery and stopped stamping the grass. “Why do you ask me?” Chiron repeated, prompting the youth more kindly. The fragment turned his face up toward the Centaur, his eyes full of helpless anguish. “Look at me!” he cried. “I cannot walk anywhere this way. I’ll never reach her!”
The man-fragment suddenly rushed forward and seized the Centaur, jumping up and throwing his arms around Chiron’s human waist.
Mortified, Chiron disengaged himself a bit roughly.
The man-fragment, thrown ten feet or so, seemed to have his breath knocked out momentarily, though nothing really breathed in Roncommon.
Chiron, feeling he had again betrayed a certain lack of breeding somehow, moved toward the recumbent fragment. “What is the matter with you?” he admonished the youth, who was sobbing in his hands. “You must control yourself! This is most unbecoming. You’re disturbing the others here, can’t you see?” Then Chiron, when the fragment wailed all the more, became the stern parent. “Hear!” he barked. “You’re behaving like something whose tail has been stepped on. Pull yourself together, or take yourself off immediately from my domain! I will not listen to this a moment longer. Imagine, a man crying and carrying on like you are!” He stamped his feet for emphasis. “Most disgraceful!” he snorted.
“Come, come,” Chiron said with just enough firmness. “You still haven’t answered my question, young man. Tell me what you mean by ‘her.’”
The fragment sighed. He heaved at the chest, then choked out a strange word, the same he had been shrieking a short time before.
Of course! Chiron thought, clicking his tongue. It had to be the name of a woman!
He remembered this fragment now. Somehow he knew his original name had been Pieter. Pieter it remained, if he wasn’t mistaken. Despite the burst of tears and the showing of emotion, his unusual talkativeness notwithstanding, Pieter had to be a bad sort. If he wasn’t, he would not have landed in the Place of Fragments! After all, with few exceptions, the fragments were worse than anything to be found in the dark fires beyond Roncommon. “How sad!” Chiron thought, wagging his head. “This one must have been one of the most hardened criminals of the race of men! Yet even that sort often changed and repented in time to avoid Roncommon. Otherwise, I’d see more of them come here than I do.”
“You’ve got to help me, Meinheer! I’ll never find her without you. I’ll go beat my brains out on a rock if you won’t help me! But you won’t turn me away! You aren’t cruel! I could see right away you were kind and good and had love in your heart for those less fortunate.”
Chiron began to shift on his feet. This latest incident was fast getting out of hand. He was almost afraid it had gone beyond control. Wild fragments were one thing, he could manage them without much difficulty, but wild emotions? Wild sentiments like this “love” and “kindness” the fragment was spouting off about? To be sure, that was dangerous, risky talk. “Now just a moment,” Chiron broke in. “You’re talking nonsense. We’ve only just met, and you and I are perfect strangers--” He broke off. He knew he wasn’t quite putting it as it was. Somehow he did know the youth. “--I mean, I only know you by reputation, so you go your way, and I shall go mine. If you will just excuse me, there is some tall grass in the meadow over there that requires my immediate attention.”
“Don’t leave me!” cried the fragment. “I’m sorry now. I really am! But if I’m given another chance, I really believe I can handle it! Just give me another chance!”
At this talk of reformation Chiron was stung to the heart. This place, he knew, was no place for such things. It couldn’t ever be, in fact. If there was ever any reforming to be done, it should have taken place well beforehand. Here, the very idea was preposterous. “What a scene!” he thought, glancing around.
Even as he feared, the monsters were beginning to take notice of them. He had to do something quickly, sensing how nervous some of the fragments were becoming. “What is it you want?” Chiron whispered as he bent over to the youth. “Is there anything I can do?” Is there anything I can do? It was a dreadful mistake.
The moment he saw it he realized his doom with a sinking heart. One should never, never promise so much, he knew, without knowing first what he was giving out. Open-ended promises were extremely dangerous. Even a fragment, powerful as himself, could come to grief that way. But it was too late to retract. The words rang in the air, hanging there like stone tablets in some kind of magical trance.
“Well, then, you must help me get back to the city and find her,” the man declared. “You promised you’d help me, but I’ll see you are paid with good Dutch money for your trouble!”
Though he sensed his nemesis in it, Roncommon’s Guardian-Centaur was good at his word. With increased forboding he listened to the talk of the youth. None of it made any sense to a Centaur who had never lived in human society--in fact, never really lived in the Upper World though some poets and artists thought he had. Already, Chiron was growing weary of hearing the name, “Anne,” in about every sentence. The fellow was obsessed with ‘her’! No wonder he lost ‘her’! Whoever she was, the woman had probably run away from him because she couldn’t take his obsessive clinging.
“Now that I have this much body back again,” the youth prattled on, “you and I can go find her, I mean Anne. I’ll ride and you--”
“You’ll do WHAT?” the Centaur exclaimed, almost dropping the trident.
“Ride you, of course,” the youth solemnly replied. “I can’t very well walk with these feet, can I? Whatever happened to my real feet, I don’t know. But I can’t walk on these, can I?
The young man began to weep again like a child, bawling his heart out.
“All right, all right!” Chiron whispered after a quick look about. “I’ll consider it. But first follow me.” Chiron had forgotten something. He took only a few steps when the youth’s cry of pain sharply reminded him.
“There’s nothing for it!” the Centaur thought disgustedly. “I’ll have to let him ride me if I’m ever going to get him out of the hearing of others!” After spearing a certain herb and giving it to the youth to chew, Chiron pulled him up on his back. Almost immediately the bleeding stopped as Chiron knew it would. Taking only his trident he started off slowly with dignity. He gradually increased his canter until he was beating a thunderous path across the plain. Thene he realized they had gone quite far--in fact, farther than necessary.
Already, night, he noted, was coming on. It came suddenly in Roncommon. With all its shrieks and howls, the area would be most unpleasant after nightfall. And even for a Centaur mighty and swift as himself, the open plain was very dangerous, what with giant fragments wandering freely about, ready to devour anything in their path, which he knew they had full right to do in the darkness. “No, don’t stop now!” the youth cried so loudly he hurt Chiron’s ear. “I’ve got a hunch I’ll find my love out here somewhere!” “Not ‘her’ again!”
But it was beautiful out, the Centaur noted. He felt young and free again. It was also good to stretch his legs after being so long cooped in those ridiculous little pastures by the river. Out on the wind-swept plains, it came to him that he had been living in a petty world of his own. Certainly, the riverlands were lush and pretty--but also most unexciting. The vast sweep of the plains! It was truly magnificent. And with his rider the Centaur was thrilled, both to an extent they failed to notice any of the mountain-sized lumps moving slowly about in the gloom.
Finally, at dawn, the young man yanked Chiron’s mane and groaned in his ear.
“Stop, I can’t take any more!”
And the Centaur, also feeling unaccustomed wearyness, halted.
The man groaned again, and would have fallen off but Chiron grabbed him and eased him to the ground. With an odd smile, the youth turned to him. “We’re getting closer, I can tell.” That moment something happened to their budding relationship. Man and Centaur realized they were friends. A single glance from one to the other was enough to confirm it. For Chiron it was most embarrassing. He looked away immediately, and hoped desperately the man-fragment would not take advantage of a momentary lapse of philosophic diffidence.
Chiron set the youth down and was astonished to hear the fragment make sounds never before heard there. He was singing full-throatedly, with all his heart, or all of whatever heart he still had.
“Didn’t you like my song about a mule and a canal barge?” Pieter asked after Chiron slowly circled him in step to the sounds Pieter had made.
As a matter of fact he had! This new feeling, happiness, astonished him. Until now he hadn’t known it. It was most strange and curious, to be happy in Roncommon, a place dark and full of ominous doom, fit only for miserable fragments, all monstrous, sour-tempered, and malformed. Yet Chiron did not care if it was unbecoming of him, to be so happy. He stood and watched as the youth lay down and rested, watching until Roncommon’s light rose again. By mid-morning the youth had taken enough rest. From lying on the bare ground he arose, shakily, on tender bird-feet. Chiron looked at him expectantly, wondering if his human friend would still be in a playful mood.
Goading Chiron to continue, they traveled west. Though the Centaur had no need of water, the youth remembered that he had been thirsty in his former life and so they stopped at a water-hole. But it was hot and putrid, muddied and fouled by monster-fragments in the night.
All that day they kept going without another stop fpr the youth to rest or take a drink. Several times Chiron regretted the loss of the former playful mood of his rider. Regretting even more his lapse from dignity in going along with the tomfoolery, he tried to reason with the fragment, but to no avail. It was wrong, very unwise, to be so emotional. His obsession for Anne had become more important than existence--even such existence as Roncommon afforded.
On the last occasion Chiron tried reason and said, “Pieter, I won’t go any farther. This is madness. We’re going back.” Shame of shames, the youth responded, crying into Chiron’s ear with the most savage tone imaginable, “My name--how many times do I have to tell you?--is Pikkard! I am Dr. Pikkard! You’ve come this far with me, and you’re going through with it! You promised you’d help me, you filthy old beast. I’ll kill you before I let you leave me out here to die here alone!” Then the youth wept on Chiron’s neck before he could throw him fifty feet or so and break his silly neck!
Soothing Chiron’s raw nerves, the fragment said, “Come, let’s get going. She’s right ahead, and the journey will be over.”
After another day Pieter went completely mad. Or so it seemed to the Centaur!
Crying endlessly for Anne, he grew so exhausted he did nothing but hang round Chiron’s waist, a burden the Centaur could scarcely tell was there, it grew so faint and light at times. Yet whenever Chiron tried to turn round, Pieter came back to life. Roused by a terrible urgency, he cried that Chiron was betraying his “sacred trust” if he failed to assist his quest for his lost love. If only he hadn’t offered to help! Chiron rued over and over. He couldn’t deny he had, and now the fragment was exacting a full mile (actually four or five hundred) for the inch given.
At last the land dropped away and below them lay the Lago Negro, the salt lake of the dark region that stretched in the direction of Roncommon’s terminus. At the extreme limits of their allotted range, their lives were now in their own hands. Of the two, Chiron was well aware that beyond the border of the lake their vital energies would all drain away in a short time, leaving them nothing but brittle shells for the wind to cast about. Not only that, the boundary was guarded, determining for all time how far fragments could wander. To make the border further secure, even impossible to breach, furious tornadoes prowled back and forth along the perimeter.
“I don’t care about the danger,” said Pieter. “We’re going down there.”
Chiron, already upset because of his recollection of the hooligan Centaurs, bristled at Pieter’s command. Snorting, he stamped and pawed his foot. But as he always thought before he acted, he decided it was best not to retaliate. It upset him more that he should feel so much anger over an offensive remark. Just the same, Chiron had no intention of obeying a mad fragment. “Doesn’t he know it’s too late to change anything?” he wondered, for he suspected the newcomer hid some such intention behind his vain seaching. He began to move away from the lake.
Pieter wrenched Chiron’s mane cruelly and shrieked in his ear, “No, you don’t! We’re going down! I’m no coward like you! I don’t care what your relatives are like, I know New Amsterdam is down there somewhere and I’ll find Anne. It’s the last possible place it could be, don’t you see?”
Finally, Pieter subsided. Flinging a few wild and angry looks back at Chiron, the fragment limped off across the broken, twisted basalt rock.
Chiron gritted his teeth as he saw the youth stumble and fall among the sharp stones. But the fragment did not give up and turn back as the Centaur expected and hoped he would. As the figure grew tiny and disappeared below him along gigantic formations, guilt began to steal into Chiron’s mind. But he did not know what to do. He wanted only to return with Pieter to the part of Roncommon containing lush blue pasturage and wonderful peace and quiet. There were so many worlds of thought left to explore. Perhaps he could train the young fragment to help with the mowing. It would do him much good and keep him from flying off in foolish, vain search of ‘her’!
In the dusk, Chiron watched a host of bird-fragments as they circled slowly down to their nests in the cliffs along the shore. For some reason, perhaps because they were so much smaller, they could inhabit the area while larger fragments soon ran out of energy and perished. Vulturine, they got their food from cleaning up what bigger fragments left, and there was plenty for them, since the monster-fragments were the Centaurs’ chief targets.
The tumultous noise from the gathering flocks reached him.
Chiron started, remembering Pieter’s plight. He took a few steps toward the lake, peering into deepening gloom. Was it true what the fragment had said of him? Was he a coward? But he knew that whatever he did in such a place, it would end in calamity. It was best to leave now, immediately, he told himself. It was madness to let Pieter destroy them both. Chiron took a few steps back toward “home,” then stopped, shifting his great, silver hooves. He looked again toward the place where he had last seen Pieter, and terrible pains suddenly keened through his heart. He knew he could not leave the foolish youth alone in such a place. After all, Pieter was his responsibility since he had brought him here.
Chiron started hurriedly for the trail that led down the slope, the same the renegades used to go on raids in the other direction. His hooves shot sparks from loose chunks of basalt and obsidian as he swiftly descended, unmindful of his own safety. Wasn’t there a big fragment guarding the entrance, where the trail went under an arch? He had never seen it, but sometimes its howls on a particularly quiet night had reached as far as the river.
Pluto-Cerberus was a giant lizard-fragment with a wolf’s head. He ruled and guarded the Lago Negro. He watched by the gate and preyed upon fragments that happened to stray into his reach. Centaurs, probably because they were careful to cast him tasty chunks of fresh meat whenever they passed his lair, were let alone. The Centaurs had reason to keep the wolf-lizard’s favor. With ironlike scales armoring most of his body, he could not be killed with tridents, and his jaws were large enough to chew several Centaurs at the same time.
Even as he was surprised by the strange fragment that came limping through his basalt-arched portal, he saw it only as a prospective meal. He was always ravenous because of the gaping hole in his belly (he had torn it on a rock a long time before and of course it never healed).
Of course, the lake’s guardian was just as surprised to see a lone Centaur approach. They always travelled in herds, moving fast on the trail. This one was different, moving slowly and carefully. What should he do with a single Centaur? Eat it? Or let it go by too? Whenever the Centaurs left his realm, the guardian was bored, so he welcomed their return, and granted them immunity so long as they always threw him a tidbit or two in passing. But he let the Centaur go by, for the same reason he had let the bird-footed fragment escape. Eager for entertainment, he allowed entrance throught the Gate of Tainaron, for knowing the Centaurs of his precinct he could be sure something interesting would happen. Thus he could not resist letting them have a go at the intruders.
Rather than snatch them now, the wolf-lizard would rather wait and let the Centaurs do the work for him. After all, it wasn’t easy for him to move quickly. His belly hurt whenever he made a dash out from his throneroom. Coiling his tail beneath him, Pluto-Cerberus rose up to see better. With keen interest in its jet-black eyes, the black-scaled fragment watched the bird-footed one struggle to descend the abyss.
Together! The thought was enough to make him delirious with anticipation. He had all he could do to keep from leaping into space and flying straight to her like a bird. But, despite his feet, he wasn’t a bird! His feet were his greatest misfortune. He had no idea how they had come to be as they were. If not for them, he could have managed the journey alone, without the big, interfering monster whose uncomfortable back he had ridden.
Looking down, Pieter saw how the trail plunged almost straight into the dark waters hundreds of feet below. He burst out with a groan as he saw the trail he was following was really a dead end, breaking off in thin air. He glanced back up the steep slope. Somewhere above, if he retraced his bloody steps, he might find the right trail leading down.
Looking over the cliff edge, the moment he saw a ledge projecting below he started down. Even if he slipped he could catch himself on it, he reasoned. So he began to slide down the rock face, leaving a smear of violet on the basalt in his passing. The rock burned and hurt his body terribly, but he did not try to stop. Within seconds he was moving too fast to stop anyway. Then he began to tumble out of control. Beneath the falling Pieter lay a colony of bird-fragments all nested down comfortably for the night, thus totally unprepared for his sudden appearance. Plummeting down, Pieter crashed into a nest, and the bird-fragments broke his fall and saved his entity from complete fragmentation, only the things he landed on exploded in all directions.
Pieter was knocked senseless on a heap of bird-fragments. But as he lay there all pandemonium broke loose in the colony. Slow to react, the multitudes were gradually gripped with a rumor-like fear that grew and threatened them all with a thousand intruders from the sky. It was some time before all were airborne, so vast was the assembly. The bird-fragments were so closely packed, that when they broke from the ledge the first wave no sooner took flight in panic when several more waves, already entangled in each other’s flailing wings, took off.
The last shrieks died when Pieter struggled back to consciousness. He had seen and heard nothing of the commotion he had caused by his too rapid descent. Crawling off mangled bird-fragments, whose splintered bones were sticking him painfully, he paused to retch from disgust from the smell of stinking carrion plastered on his body. Leaning over to retch, he slipped from the ledge. He struck the water and shot unconscious beneath the littered surface, and it was the salt that saved him. Stinging his wounds cruelly, it roused him, and he fought his way to the surface, though he was almost fragmented by the shock he had just sustained.
Still holding the brick, tears for himself, for the loss he thought was Anne, flooded into his eyes. He knew how close he had just come to a worse fate than death. Back at the river and then in his fall he had tasted oblivion, the eternal horror of splitting and circling bits of matter, and the experience was so horrible he could not bear to think of it. He realized his escape had been a narrow one, and he was grateful. Anything was better than that nauseatingly formless chaos that had nearly turned him into swirling dust like those churning pillars he saw on the horizon.
Then he stopped weeping. He saw the fire on the beach, and the object of his quest suddenly reasserted itself with all the old fervor. Moaning the name of Anne, he lunged to his feet. Thinking only of her, he started for the beacon light.
The light was not going to be easy to reach, he saw. In his path rose monoliths washed in the roaring surf. If he had only known, he might not have made the attempt. Among the rocks ahead was a moonless cave. In it writhed a monster-fragment not even Pluto-Cerberus and Chiron knew about. But Pieter, crazed with love and grief, paid no attention to the leopard-headed octopus snarling at him from the shadows as he fought the smashing surf and clawed his way over the rocks. At last, his feet torn to shreds, he stood near enough to catch the sound of voices. He was overjoyed. Their accents were non-Dutch, but he had heard plenty the same at places like Coney Island.
Occasionally, one would dash with a trident down to the water and spear a stranded fish-fragment, often a human-headed bass that had ventured too far in, confused by the firelight. But this was only for sport. For supper the main course--a continually bleating goat-headed vulture caught fresh that day--was roasting live on a spit above the fire. Fleeing the leopard-octopus climbed up to its nest, the goat-vulture had fled right into the Centaur’s camp. It had given them all amusement before they skewered the bleating vulture through its breast.
Now the goat-vulture, bleating very faintly, was about ready to eat. A Centaur sprinkled brine from a small stone bottle, itself marked with strange, inverted lettering, and the fire shot yellow flames into the dark as the goat-vulture’s fat boiled and rippled and salt burnt into the meat. The cook called to the others. Immediately, they rushed in, slashing off pieces with long, curving knives.
Somehow divining what the roast was, believing the victim was really Anne, the crazed Pieter staggered upon them. Screaming insanely, he flung himself against forty Centaurs.
Though astonished, they had him surrounded in a moment. Then their leader jumped forward and seized Pieter by the yellow hair.
“My, my, look what we have here!” the leader mocked, himself a pinto with mismatched eyes and huge, furry moles disfiguring his upper man-body. “A Red Coat, ain’t he, even if he is a bit torn up by the thievin’ syndicates and banks. Ain’t no feet to speak of either, but no matter. The rest will slide down my gullet easy enough! Everyone knows I can eat anything that don’t kick too much on the way down!”
The whole camp rocked with whinnying laughter. The Centaurs drew close as their leader threw Pieter to the ground and pinned him with trident prongs. As the Centaur turned him with the trident, Pieter stared up into his tormentor’s face, which grinned at him from out of a bad memory. Arriving too late, Chiron tried to save what he could of Pieter. Soon heaps of dead Centaurs lay about the campfire and there was only the sound of the surf and the wheezing, sighing exhalations of the fragmenting. The Blue Centaur looked for Pieter, any sign of him. Finally, he gazed down with grief upon the mangled, dismembered torso. Pieter’s head lay some distance away, having served as a ball for a game of polo until its brains completely spilled out the back of the shattered skull. Yet it it was jabbering something: “Why should I bend, Meinheer? What do you mean?” Over and over, the witless words poured out.
“Why should I---why should I be flexible, Anne----why...”
Moving into the water, he let Pieter’s already fading, dissolving head sink slowly from his hands into the swirling black waters.