T W E N T Y - T H R E E





2 3 9 2

1 Leamis’s Good Turn

After a hard search of the remaining flophouses, he found another place for the night--an establishment with few frills and amazing congeries of odors called "Blodgett's Beds, 3 Cents." In earlier days that it had been a slaughterhouse for swine, then part stable, part peanut warehouse until both parts closed and it took its final form, without losing a one of thousands of rats. The mingled odors were unspeakable.

He had just paid his money to the grubby, bearded old man at the door and gone in when someone coming out in a hurry took at look at him and grabbed his arm. Pieter was surprised, but didn't recognize him and made to go on, but the dirty fellow held his arm.

"Hey, not so fast, young fella, I got just the thing for ya! Ya can't afford to pass this up. Lemme jist show ya--" He pulled Pieter aside, and the metal-sheeted door to Blodgett's slammed and a bolt slipped in with a crashing finality.

Pieter looked back anxiously.

"Oh, don't worry about that! They'll let ya back in or I'll bust down de door!"

Pieter could hardly see how the half pinter in front of him, ragged clothes hardly covering skeleton-like thinness, staring at him with bloodshot, baggy eyes, could do anything of the sort. Still in the feeble grip of the stranger, he wondered if he should give him a push to the side, but the thought he’d probably break the fellow’s arm or leg made him pause. the beggar, weak or not, wasn't about to let him go just then. He fished in a bundle of rags and brought out a carousel music box with a blue horse that went round to a tinkling tune.

The beggar took one look at Pieter’s doubtful expression and stashed it quickly out of sight. With nearly the same motion he produced a greater treasure: a 1939 New York City World’s Fair souvenir from the GMC Tire Pavilion. Even in the dim light of a sputtering gas lamp, covered with grime and the gold letter worn off, the ceramic shone almost like new.

"See how pretty she be!" crowed the beggar. "And feel it! Ain’t no copy! Van Zooks don't come up to it nohow! It’s worth a lot! Real antiky, she be!"

Pieter had a strange feeling--a sense he had seen it before, though the location did not come to mind. The souvenir felt incredibly cold, then untouchably hot to his touch. Remaining strangely warm, it reminded him of the bit of amber his grandfather had once brought home from the mine.

"It'll bring ya luck, boy! I bet ya can use some of that, can't ya? Sure, ya can! It brought me plenty luck or I’d be dead by now--lying belly up in that stunken canal odder there! Funny thing, it kept me warm as toast at night, then cool by day. And it’s full of good turns! I done thought old Leamis was done fur, I up and got meself a job runnin' for a big boss down the street--doin' a lot of 'portant things I can't tell anybody about or I git to wear cement galoshes, if ya know what's I mean. Well, I don't need it no more, and innyway it keeps hoppin’ out of knapsack like it doun wanna stay and could get busted. Better sell it than lose it, right? All kinda creeps wanna steal it from me, but I’ll sell ‘er first!”

But Pieter still looked doubtful. He could see not why he had to be the new owner.

The owner, however, was not giving up. “Waal, it sure done me a good turn, lemme tell ya! I do hate to let her go! But I might as well let it do ya a good turn too. You’s lookin’ like you need one. So how's about it? It's a sure-shootin' lucky charm beyond compare! I'm only askin' five dollars!"

Pieter wasn't about to leap. Leamis might well have asked five hundred. He wasn't in need of any such thing, however historic and "lucky." Furthermore, he had never owned anything in his life that wasn't of practical use. A ceramic tire for show as a knick-knack was no use at all. He shook his good, solid Dutch head.

The beggar's face screwed up in sudden relief. Then he made a strange motion, as if handing over the souvenir with the greatest effort of will. Tears, more from effort than anguish, gushed from his eyes.

"How about one lousy buck, man?"

Pieter still would not bite.

"Fifty cents--dat's all I can let it go fur--inny less would be a crime aginst mudder natur!"

The plain Dutch boy shook his head even more firmly and the beggar seemed to sense his iron-cast resolve.

“Ya donut mean ya ain't goin' to buy it, after all I redoost de price. It's my favor to ya! Ya can't turn down a fella who's only doin' you a favor from the goodness of his Dutch heart! Last time! Fur a friend like ya I'll let it go fur five cents!"

Said that way, no, Pieter could not keep shaking his head.

The beggar saw he had a sale and his face beamed despite the thick grime. "I knew ya would come through for a fella! Ya see, I need this little fiver to jist tide me over for de night at Blodgett's, and in the mornin' I start my new job runnin' numbers fur'--"

Pieter already had his five cents out. The beggar, without finishing, grabbed it and ran. “Thanks, sucker!” he laughed over his shoulder. “Now maybe I can sleep at nights! Dat blasted thing was always wakin’ me up!”

Off he flew from Blodgetts and down toward a cluster of speakeasies, his rags whipping about and exposing pitifully thin bare thighs and calves.

Pieter fingered the tire for a moment. Despite the chill air, just like Leamis said, it continued to warm his hand. He sighed and slipped it into his carpet bag. He turned back to Blodgett's and after much pounding and yelling the door opened. As he feared, Pieter had to pay another three cents to get in to a straw-baled stall, as his money was forfeited once he had left the premises.

Thanks to the beggar, the money he had between him and destitution was flown to the winds. It was January, months before business would possibly loosen up with the spring thaw and men get hired. All he had was a tin schuyler. You couldn’t get even a fresh doughnut for that.

He knew he had gone back to the beginning, which was a bad start and a dead end. He still had to find work or ultimately take a lone, cold plunge in some stinking canal or the North River. Let others beg money to play the numbers racket!

Indeed, Pieter’s situation was most dismal at the slaughterhouse-stable-peanut warehouse-dormitory. He still had nothing to look forward to, despite the unexpected, unwanted windfall of Leamis’s ceramic tire.

2 The Mountain Climbed!

The boilermaker’s son would never forget the next morning when he forced himself out of a warm bed and with his awkward carpet bag went crutching around the city center.

The City schlepens had requisitioned chain gangs from the prisons and planted trees, but the snow and ice had been piled so high to clear the streets it had buried them. He hoped to scare up some work in this more moneyed part of town, down by Wall Street's exchange, banks, West India Company headquarters and its next-door arch rival-- the New Amsterdam-Paramaibo Trading Company (NAPTC)--and, New Amsterdam’s crowning glory, the National Capitol.

He found himself outside the massive States-General Assembly where the government of the country met. It was mighty and impressive to a poor youth from up country. Statues, brightly-lit windows, burly and tough-looking, spit and polish militia stationed along the front for rioters--for the capital was known for frequent and bloody riots whenever factories closed and there were layoffs.

Despite bitter, blowing cold and the lingering darkness, a line formed and he soon queued up for the low-pay custodian job a hundred or so men had heard about early that morning. Pieter had seen it too in a borrowed paper. He was looking at it again as he waited. His eye lit up over something else which he hadn't caught in prior reading.

"Jist look at dat snotty-nosed crip!" someone behind him sneered. "Imagine him thinkin' he'll land a job 'fore us able-bodied workin' stiffs! Wats dis countree comin’ to inyway? Isn’t stableboy good enuf fur ‘im?"

Pieter kept reading though his ears smarted and his hand clenched on the paper. His breakfast of a stale, blue-colored doughnut from a street vender had taken his precious schuyler--the man had been about to feed it to his nag when Pieter saw his chance and palmed off his worthless coin. He had to consider what to do. Should he keep waiting for a janitor job in the Capitol, a job over fifty men ahead of him had prior claim on, or--

The ad that claimed his attention was a professor scientist calling for help with "--research on Scientific Euthenics and Dysgenics," and "one who does not mind an abundance of real danger to life and limb and whatever remuneration faithful service toward the advance of human knowledge merits."

He saw listed a particularly swank New Amsterdam hotel, the Royal Wilhelmina, and that applicants for the assistant's position must inquire in person with references.

This was it! This was it! "Let them have the floor moppin’ job!" he thought, for it reminded him too much of Van Tootle's.

Pieter instinctively knew in his heart just where the better chance, for him, lay at that moment. In fact, he had been waiting all his life for just this opportunity.

He tossed the paper to its owner and despite the bothersome carpet bag stumped off at breakneck speed. The route to the Wilhelmina took him through a district of dangerously tall, empty, bat-filled towers, but it led straight to the most excitement of his life. Making his way through a crowd of numbers playing cabbies and their waiting cars, he climbed the steps and entered the grand outer door. There he met the doorman, Woggham.

Pursing fat lips over somewhat protruding and irregular front teeth and wrinkling his flattish nose, the official doorman of the Wilhelmina took one look at him. He sized Pieter up and wouldn't let him pass from between the double doors of the entrance.

Mightily conscious of his gold epaulets and shining buttons, swallowtail coat and pin-striped company boxer shorts (though they were a bit too snug and had already split), he had been newly promoted from scullery potboy that same day.

With a solemn shake of his head at the sight of Pieter, he gave him the impression the job-seeker was a pile of rubbish, even smelly horse droppings on the polished marble.

"Hey, bub, if yer anudder of dose lousy bums answerin' the professor's ad, yer barkin' up da wrong coconut tree! Git outa my sight! A thousand musta ben here 'fore ye, an, believe me, no cripples allowed! So, unless you sweeten my little palm first, push off!"

Pieter, hardened by his street experience in the big city, wasn’t about to do any such thing--not without a bit of a fight anyway. He had just the right words for the man. "I'll sweeten your nose first! You'll let me in to answer the ad, or--"

It was a sign of desperation that Pieter felt obliged to speak so roughly, but perhaps utter poverty loosened his tongue--though he, in fact, felt a bolt of energy and purpose surge through him at that moment. Prepared to follow up his words with action, Pieter held his crutch ready and looked hard at the doorman. As if shot through by Pieter’s eyes, the doorman paled. He must have seen he had a real fighter on his hands, for he suddenly grinned with crooked, stained teeth.

"Aw, furget it, pal. It's no skin offa my shins. Jist kum back tomorra mornin' and sign dis--"

The doorman held out a fancy clipboard that looked most official with gold tassels and a gold pen on a chain.. All this time Pieter was edging in. Suddenly, he reached round and grabbed the inner door, pulling himself in past the startled doorman who tried a block a moment too late. In the scuffle, Pieter proved much stronger in the arms and shoulders, thanks to all his crutch-work, and he got inside--warm, scented air rushing out to greet him. Holding the door against the furious doorman, Pieter took his first look into the grand lobby of the Royal Wilhelmina and his eyes shot wide open.

It was another world, for which the likes of New Alkmaar and Van Tootle's simply did not exist. Grand white marble pillars, this time with gilded bases. Chandeliers. Potted palms. Life-sized statues. One, a stark-naked stone maiden, bent over a little pool with a tinkling fountain. It was definitely Jack Dutch's kind of place!

Hearing heavenly music, the now thoroughly amazed Pieter saw a lady, pink pearls at her neck, in long lacy gown, strumming on a big gold harp. Was she an angel in paradise or a real person? At the moment he could not tell. Meanwhile, the doorman, huffing and puffing, was trying to burst the door open with brute force. Pieter had to move fast or lose his chance. The doorman's look meant murder. At the least, he'd be thrown headfirst down the steps if he got his way.

Having thrust himself into the situation, Pieter was at a total loss, for he had to think fast and that wasn't possible. Forcing the issue, a top hatted gentleman and a lady in a glittering silver pelisse trimmed with white Arctic fox were approaching the entrance in regal majesty.

Was it the king and queen of the whole kingdom? Their impression on Pieter was unspeakably grand. About to rub shoulders with royalty, Pieter realized now had to be the moment when he did something. Fortunately, he felt a sudden welling up within himself of invincible willpower and strength.

He knew in his mind for certain it was upmost presumption, sheer madness, to go on, but yet the force that had risen in him propelled him up over the absolutely towering mountain of impossibility.

He let the door go and moved away as quickly as possible down past harpist and statue. The doorman rushed in after him.

"I'll git ye for this, ye stinkin' little creep!" he hissed after Pieter, saliva flying through widely-spaced teeth. But the doorman stopped after a few steps. The lady playing the harp had just glanced up and given him an annoyed, withering look.

With the doorman effectively neutralized for the moment, Pieter saw his chance and passed further into the hotel without stopping at the lobby desk. He went by ladies and gentlemen in full, formal attire. Their tables held vases of hothouse orchids and complementary boxes of chocolates. They all stopped talking and glanced at him before shrinking away as from a leper. By this time, the royal-looking pair of Hollywood stars were waiting and looking about for the doorman with impatient expressions.

"Stop, I'll kill ye, ye dirty, hoppin' limey frog!" the doorman screamed in a low voice at Pieter's back once he had got past the formidable harpist. He kept chasing Pieter, as politely as he could. But Pieter kept on, past pillars, palms, floor-length gowns, dinner jackets, chocolates and coffee. Room service stared at him too when they met in the hall off the lobby. Pieter was afraid they would decide to gang up on him and throw him out. But instead each starched up, lace-capped maid and box-hatted bellboy, after looking again at him with alarm and shock, rushed off.

Finally, even the doorman gave up in the hall when Pieter turned and again looked daggers at him. He didn’t even need to thrust out menacingly with a crutch.

The doorman gave a yelp and beat it back toward the entrance, to face a now irate pair of Hollywood screen stars.

Pieter, hardly believing his success, reached the suite listed. The big, highly polished door just beyond a tall stained glass saint or angel swung open. A girl close to his age bumped him on her way out. She held, unlike the ladies and gentlemen taking coffee and candies in the elegant parlors, a large blue Delft jug dripping milk.

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"Can she be working here?" he wondered. He could see she wasn't dressed like the others.

Before he could do anything, she adjusted a little pheasant feathered cloche hat knocked back on her head from the impact. She made a move to slip by but paused.

He thought he could read clear but unspoken pity in her reaction and first words. She had seen the crutches. "Oh, I thought that was the last of--" She looked as if she regretted not catching herself in time. He watched her blush, but he was used to the whole range of people's reactions by this time. Disgust, fear it could happen to them, pity--

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"Please excuse me for barging into you, it's my fault!" the girl said, smiling while he just stared at her. "You'll excuse me, won't you?" She now stood back and looked up at him curiously. Her large, dark eyes caught his. Then they passed over his face to his neat, Dutchboy cut hair, then to his stumpy legs and crutches. She looked again, pausing at his fly.

The next instant she darted off, jug in hand, before Pieter could stop her. He saw splashes of white on the red carpet leading toward the lobby.

Pieter naturally glanced where she had looked. His mouth fell open. All his fighting at the entrance and fast crutch work had popped a man's most important buttons. There, for the world to see, was Van Tootle's Best. No wonder! he thought. It wasn't just because he was so badly crippled that people had reacted so strangely to him in the lobby. He hastily made himself decent and then gazed in the direction she had fled. Would she ever come back? he wondered. Others were, at that moment, happy to see that it never happened again An army of mops and brooms and pots and pans was heading his way. But quick on their heels was the girl he thought he had scandalized and frightened away.

"Let him be," Dr. Pikkard's niece said to the leader, Mr. Terence Duckering-Puckett. The pompous, fat hotel manager from London, proud of his Britishness, gold watch, and a cross-shaped staurolite fob, shook his head and expostulated something.

She stood her ground, jug in hand. "We'll see he doesn't cause any trouble."

Dumbfounded, they all went, the girl too, and Pieter soon found he was alone.

Taking a deep breath at his close call, Pieter turned back to Dutch business. He was one of dozens of working men and shiftless "grauw" or scum of the streets who had answered the strange listing.

He knocked until he thought the milch cows must have come home. He paused. Surely, he thought, the employer must be hard of hearing or very busy drinking milk. What had happened to the girl with the blue pitcher? he wondered again, looking down the hall.

Some very fat ladies of fashion with feathery hats and long cigarette holders approached. Painfully shy in his countried clothes, Pieter acted from impulse. He let himself in at the outer office. What a room! He saw at once the big, high-ceilinged room wasn't meant to be a place where people could meet for coffee in tiny gilt-edged cups. It was more like a storage room, crammed with things even more incredible than the grand lobby's.

He also saw where the girl's milk had gone. To cats! And that wasn’t all. Bits of white bread had been added! This was most strange. Whoever fed cats? He had never seen it happen in New Alkmaar.The parquet floor's Persian carpet was covered with bowls. The cats gave him no notice but went on enjoying lunch as he looked about.

Was there any end to the strange sights? Never had he seen so many pictures either. New Alkmaar had no art such as this. Womenfolk hung up "Old Country" scenes--spindly, giraffe-necked Dutch trees, sway-backed barns, squat windmills and tall, high-gabled houses and frozen canals with red-cheeked ice skaters, and lots of pastures and cows.

But what he saw around him was vastly different. It took his breath away. Here each painting had an actual name inscribed in gold in the frame. Why would anyone want to go to that expense? It looked very suspicious and Jack Dutchy to him. "Soldiers Playing Dice," "The Cheater with the Ace of Diamonds," "The Backgammon Players" Tiepolo’s “Pharaoh Presenting the Signet Ring to Joseph,” “The Flood” by Jan van Scorel, “The Tower of Babel” were just a few gilt titles on the grand pictures stacked and hung all over the room.

There was even a gold-framed still of W.C. Fields in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”

"Does the professor just play games?" he wondered. "When does he do honest work?"

Not only were the pictures about games, but the actual game sets were strewn everywhere. He stood gazing at a shove ha'penny board and a big much-used dart board stamped “Paddy O’Pugg’s, Belfast, Ulster,” and then an orange and green wari game with pea-shaped beads in the shallow cups, and then an Inuit walrus tusk carved for playing cribbage.

He ran his hands over a jeweled gameboard of draughts and nearly forgot his reason for coming. The moments flicking by without his noticing, he picked up a nine men's morris board and tried to imagine how it was played.

Hoops, marbles, yo-yos, magic squares, cat's cradles, mathematical puzzles, spinning tops, shuttlecocks, a “Buck Rogers disintegrator.” Pieter picked up the disintegrator, looked into the barrell, and pulled the trigger until it clicked. Just as he thought. Nothing happened. Rapidly losing interest in such frivolous, wasteful trivia, he glanced at jump ropes and miniature hot air balloon kits, and odd gear like crampons, ice axes, and a open, hardened, gallon-can of orange paint.

"Could the man in the ad have collected all this rubbish?" he marveled. "What does he do with his time--just play games, or run a shop for old toys and junk?" Thinking he was throwing away his time and the effort it took to get to the interview, his heart sank, but he had nothing else to do so he stayed on.

How many minutes he spent there, he could not tell. After such sights, Pieter really wondered what he was getting into. He went into the next room and stepped back immediately to the threshold.

He expected a gentleman-professor-scientist in a proper suit or laboratory uniform. Instead, he saw someone in a shiney velvet and fur-trimmed dressing gown sitting back in his chair with a dreamy expression on his face.

Surely, Pieter thought, this could not be the man who placed the ad! In stark contrast to the hotel lobby and the office anteroom occupied solely by paintings, sculptures, furniture, and cats, the professor's surroundings had been mistreated and become very shabby. The walls in a number of places were stained by numerous chemical explosions of an experimental nature. What looked like calculations ran scribbled across unlikely open spaces with green or red chalk.

Unknown to Pieter, one calculation, concerning the number and kind of chemical reactions in the simple cell went round the suite and then out the window and along the ledge and down the fire escape to street level, where it enlisted the facades of buildings for fourteen blocks before the professor, who had mathematically demonstrated the chemical operations of only 1/400th of a one percent of the simple cell’s chemistry, was finally persuaded by the constabulary to retire indoors back indoors before he froze to death (it was minus forty, and he was in slippers and robe).

The odd gentleman barely glanced at Pieter. But then he finally spoke, losing his abstracted, dreaming expression completely.

"Scram, I can't be bothered today with any more beggars who don't want to put in an honest day's work."

Pieter, still overwhelmed by the world of games around him, now confused by the changeable man sitting behind the big, paper-littered desk, was even more befuddled by the desk itself. It was really not a proper Dutch desk at all. It was a huge slab of stone looking like the best preserved item in the lot.

Then Pieter started. He saw the same diagram for nine men's morris, along with some Egyptian hieroglyphics, etched into the ancient stone. Where had the fellow picked it up? Almost as out of place, a big slab of tree lay against the great stone, the rings plainly visible and marked with pins flagged with numbered pieces of paper.

It took more than a moment for him to absorb this scene, but there wasn't time, he found. He had to try now or never to make some sense of what he saw around him. His gruff reception, really a rebuff, helped to restore him to plain Dutch reality, his grasp of which had been so put off by all the incredible objects. It wasn't his ears gone bad like his grootvader's. “ He just won't see me!" Pieter thought, his heart sinking.

Pieter realized he had to go. Yet he could not help linger, even after being told to get out. It had been too hard to get that far for him to be happy about leaving so soon. Everything that surrounded Pieter seemed to beg him to look and loiter. On a solid Turkish alabaster stand stood what looked like a bird cage of pure gold. And in the cage, upon plush red velvet lining, a common crested swallow hopped about. Unable to stop looking, Pieter stared at the bird. There was something wrong about the way it moved. It used its beak like a parrot to get around. He forgot the Jack Dutch man in the blue-ribboned straw boater. He forgot what he had come for, he forgot the girl in the hall and all his plain Dutch embarrassment from the moment he entered the Wilhelmina--all was nothing compared to the bird in the cage.

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Slowly, a stern, displeased look came into his face. It was something so Jack Dutch he couldn't stand it. Hotel luxury was one thing--which was all right since people paid good money for it--but this was charity on the most lavish, unDutch scale. "What a waste, all for such a common bird as that!" Pieter thought indignantly. "Why, it's the same as with the cats in the next room, drinking up good Dutch milk and chewing white bread when grown, good-hearted men are starving outside these fancy palace walls!"

Finally, the man in the dark green smoking jacket, who had not bothered to give him more than a couple glances while he worked at mathematical calculations, broke the silence once again. "Cat nipped his wings," the man said without looking up from work on his latest Mersenne prime. "I'll never take my niece and her favorite Manx together in the balloon again. For the sake of the bird, Icarus my honorable colleague, I had to parachute both niece and her feline down, sorry to say. I like cats awfully, however, as you may have noticed when you broke in. It wasn't easy, but some things just have to be done in this world if genuine research is to go on."

Pieter swallowed. He could see he might be wrong. The Jack Dutch man with the toy collection had an unmistakable serious edge to him. But the scientist said no more and made no move to introduce himself or at least say Pieter might come back the following day for an interview. Moments ticked by on the elaborate pink and gold Bavarian cuckoo clock on the wall and Pieter was left to just stand there and feel like the fool he must have looked.

Realizing his coming was hopeless, Pieter straightened his wooden limbs. This was no place for a plain Dutch fellow anyway! He started for the door, then turned slowly around, though he could not have explained why. It was the picture on the wall behind the professor's desk. He had seen it too. There was a good reason why this item should have stopped Pieter from walking away. Amidst the Jack Dutch clutter and ruin and soiled splendor, a gilt-framed oil portrait Pieter did not recognize bore a gold name plate identifying a man with a true Dutch name. "Jacobus Hendricus van't Hoff, Nobel Prize for Chemistry, December 10, ANNO 1901," the whole inscription read.

Pieter, with his little education, could just make it out. But what was unusual to Pieter was not the distinguished, old man or his award, which signified nothing to him, but the thing under van't Hoff. A wicker wheelchair! For Pieter, that was what he needed, for one last try. He felt yet another surge within. He quickly figured that if the man in the picture could be crippled and win a place of honor above the professor's desk, then perhaps he could get the ear of the strange man at the strange desk.

3 The Contract

"Meinheer, I have come to ask for the assistant’s job. I am old enough and strong enough for whatever you want me to do." That should be plain enough! he thought, pleased with himself. While he said it, he couldn't help noting how his prospective employer seemed to be in some other world. Had he even been heard? Pieter wondered.

The man's head bobbed. As if surprised by the sudden little declamation, the scientist looked up sharply. He darted a look at Pieter above very dusty, water-spotted, round-rimmed spectacles. Then he looked even harder at Pieter. He took some time doing it too, and Pieter began to feel uncomfortable in a way the strange items all about had not made him feel. But there were some other things maybe not so visible but still present at that moment that made him feel even more uneasy. The canal. The mill. The fog--which poured like a huge, coiling serpent around his ankles.

As the professor gave him the probe with analytical eyes, the staunch Dutch courage and faith in human goodness that had got poor Pieter all the way from the gristmill to the Royal Wilhelmina began to sputter.

"What have I gotten myself into here?" he had to wonder once again. Then he did something rash and foolish. He blurted out what was on his heart. "I'll...I swear I'll throw myself in the river or a canal before I have to go back to the mill or beg on the streets with the grauw!" His own words shocked Pieter, even more now than when he had confronted the doorman. He couldn't help it and stumbled on. "All I've got, I got the hard way since I lost my legs. But I can still do any job fit for a good Dutch man!"

There was no more sound in the room. No scratching of a pen, not even the pecking of the fat, pampered swallow at its overflowing seed tray. It was a horrible moment for Pieter. He thought he must have turned green, he felt so odd and out of place.

The disheveled man with the cool, gray eyes looked Pieter over again and didn't miss the makeshift legs and crutches and carpet bag. He stroked his chin, his manner saying nothing to reassure Pieter. The playboy-professor, the scientist-gamester, glanced to the portrait on the wall that had caught Pieter's attention. He then faced Pieter. His eyes became full of interest. He pushed a paper toward Pieter he had already signed and dated January 8.

Pieter stared at it dumbly and the professor smiled. "To get in to see me was a real feat, for I left strict instructions at the door. I admire your faith in pressing toward the goal, my boy, but I think I do no disrespect when I say sheer determination is beside the point here. It's no game, like those who see in the next room.

This position I'm offering involves extremely hazardous duty. Do you think I, or God Almighty, should be made responsible where you should be? Well, do you? Read this contract carefully. I've lost five or six assistants already from accidents that are unavoidable in my line of work. The contract's good for a year. Afterwards, it can be renewed, if you survive and I like your work. Be forewarned, lad. My last assistant is, you may as well know, alive still, but he is presently tramping the streets with the grauw, for two good reasons. First, he paid too much attention to my niece's excellent lunches.

He grew so large my excellent balloons refused to carry him. Then he developed into an Enrico Casanova and paid unwanted attention to my excellent niece. That, for me, was the last straw. She complained to me after he proposed marriage several times in the balloon shed. But, then, I don't suppose there is any danger of a repeat of his follies in your condition? And, by the way, I think my carpenters in the balloon shed can fix you up with a decent wood leg-brace or two that should enable you to dispense with at least one crutch."

The long speech gave Pieter time to recover a bit. It dawned on him what the paper signified. Amazement and relief must have shown in his features. "I can't believe he's giving me work!" Pieter thought in the rush of comprehension, though he had a secret feeling that he deserved it.

Now that the job was in the bag, his good fortune seemed impossible to a plain Dutch youth.

"Let Sir Spectacles look me over all he wants! Landing a job in this big of a city is too good to be true!" thought the desperate refugee from little Alkmaar's gristmill. “I must have done something good for this to happen,” he reflected, without realizing any contradiction.

With a jolt, he remembered the professor had already ordered him to look at the contract. Pieter made a dive at the paper . His heart soared within him, an eagle against the wind. He took the pen offered and scribbled without looking at the paper's print.

The scientist slowly shook his odd, Coney-hatted head. "Boy Friday, you are signing over your foolish, young life a little too precipitately."

But he broke into a laugh and added "--and you don't want to read WHAT FOR?"

Overjoyed as he was, Pieter's cheeks reddened. He darted another look of Dutch determination at his new employer. But there was an added element--which had seen the doorman fleeing. He felt called to give a speech of sorts. "I don't have much schoolin' maybe, but I can write my own name. I worked in a mill since I was twelve. And I can make decisions on my own, now that both my parents be passed on. I want work you promised in the paper--that be all I need to know, Meinheer."

It was a good defense too, evidently serving the purpose. For the scientist, toy merchant, rich eccentric--whatever he was, his laughter gone, played a bit with the ends of his mustache. He was somewhat annoyed by the prospective employee’s hardness of eye. Then he smiled with approval, and the smile was so infectious and reassuring to Pieter he forgot he was dealing with an absolute stranger and had just signed his life over to him to boot.

"Enough English twaddle from you and me! There's work waiting to be done! I think you'll do just fine, young fellow. Oh, one more thing, what religion are you? In my line of work, we go out in all weathers and on every day left in the week--including the Sabbath."

"Reformed, Meinheer."

"Yes, I gathered that much from the looks of you, but which Dutch Reformed church body--there are three, so they tell me--a lapsed member though not entirely unbelieving and unwashed. Now is it the D.R.C., or the R.D.C., or the C.OR.D.? The government requires a strict accounting of these things, you know."

Pieter had never heard of three church bodies. Why should he have? New Alkmaar had one church, and he had always supposed it to be Dutch Reformed, pure and simple. Having attended so very little, he had no idea there were two other Dutch Churches in the country. It came as something of a revelation, but one which he needed to think long upon, lest he fall in heresy by choosing the wrong division.

"Oh, never mind!" laughed the professor. "We don't have time to waste on it. The third sacred body is the more liberal and allows for hauling out mules from wells on the Sabbath, which gets us around the laws against any business and scientific activity on that day. I took the precaution of legally registering my ballooning and other endeavors as a non-profit engineering business set up for Mule Search and Rescue. Of course, I've never found occasion to actually rescue a mule at 16,000 feet either above or below sea level, but I'm legally empowered and authorized to do it."

The registered mule-rescue engineer then took a final glance at the portrait on the wall before punching a button on his desk. This gave Pieter a chance to swallow hard, now that he was getting his feet back on the ground. He realized the job was still for real--despite the professor's odd remarks about religion and mules.

"Now where was I before you came in? Oh, yes, do sit down and eat lunch!" his employer ordered.

He motioned to covered dishes on a nearby stand. "I'm busy with some important work--a jolly good prime-- and don't have time to waste on food just now, and my niece will be very, very angry if it gets cold and goes uneaten again. So please eat it all while it's still hot!"

In a daze over how quickly his life had altered, Pieter sank down on a chair beside the wonderful aromas. He lifted a napkin over a basket and found the largest loaf of white bread he had ever seen. But that was only the beginning, as he lifted a series of smaller silver lids. It was his first decent hot meal since his father was crushed by the boiler on the barge. Never had he eaten this much and well in New Alkmaar. While he was thanking his lucky stars for the job and making up for lost time on pure white bread, hot chowders, chicken dumplings, oysters, coffee and fresh fruit, his employer gave a deep snort of disgust and stopped writing. Someone was knocking at the inner door.

Motioning to Pieter to keep on eating, Dr. Pikkard went and gave a message to the red and gold jacketed hotel courier.

Pieter thought the scientist moved rather awkwardly, favoring the right leg. He looked closer when his employer returned, and he saw how his leg terminated in a special, tall patent leather shoe strapped to his calf.

The professor had a sharp eye. He caught Pieter's glance. But still he didn't wince with annoyance or embarrassment, only shrugged. "A South American jaguar--a blessed female," he explained. "She took the foot off after I gave her a good kick in the rump for raiding my jungle aviary of rare birds." Pieter was still stuffing himself as only someone his age and with his background could, but he noted something. The gentleman had commented most matter-of-factly about an accident most people would have taken as a terrible tragedy, as the end of their usefulness and value as human beings.

"I don't want that monstrous chocolate-strawberry torte either, young fellow. When you think you've had enough, go in the room off the bedroom to my right and take a look at the pretty rug on the floor."

As soon as his ferocious, long suppressed appetite let go, Pieter went as directed to a room beyond a massive, oak-bedded chamber stuffed, floor to ceiling, with chemicals and chemistry laboratory gear--proof the professor did real scientific work when he wasn’t playing games.

Treading a perilous path between bottles and vials of strangely colored mixtures, he got to the next room. He found it very large and fitted with a luxurious Roman bath, not big enough to float a barge perhaps, but large enough to drown an ox, or Horst Van Syckle--if either were first knocked hard enough in the head. Pieter also found the water running in a big marble wash basin. A fantastically ornate, gold dolphin spigot was pouring out hot water full blast. Some careless person, obviously, had left it on.

Job or no job, Pieter was again scandalized almost as much as by the sparrow in the gilded cage.

"How could someone do such a thing? I would never leave good clean water running like this!" he thought, shaking his blond head. He, after all, had grown up in a household without hot running water. They had to heat bath water on the stove, and then carry it to the tub--naturally, there was only a couple inches at best to bathe in, and that amount quickly cooled.

Pieter's eye fell on something else. On the tiled floor was a rug. No, it was a pelt of some animal. Eyes widening, he looked long at it. Silently snarling at him, its eyes glaring with fury--it actually gave him a cold sweat.

"My sweet little niece dispatched it," said his employer when Pieter found his way back through the jungle like tangle of scientific gear. He seemed to be amused by his new assistant’s look of disbelief. "Otherwise, my boy, I should not be around to tell about it."

Dr. August Pikkard and Pieter van de Wordt. Except for handicaps, they had little or nothing in common as scientific researchers. One couldn't be more Jack Dutch, by appearances. The other less plain Dutch. One constantly left the hot water taps running. One would never dream of it. Yet it was the beginning.

"Allow me to explain one thing about myself," Dr. Pikkard began with his employee, when he had been settled in a chair.

Pieter looked toward him expectantly, as if eager to learn some new thing.

"Since we’re going to work together, you might well take note of a few oddities about me. I don't do things like other people do them--purposely. I don't think like them either. And you'll soon find that I firmly believe, contrary to public opinion, that this whole society is going to Meinheer Bosch’s hell on a bubble-domed toboggan sled! Is that understood?"

Naturally, Pieter just stared and had no idea whatsoever what the good man meant. His remarks were one piece with the rest of the strange and incomprehensible office scenery.

"My niece will be coming in a minute," said the professor the following noon. "She's in deep, deep mourning for her departed mother, so don't expect much out of her. She's all glum looks and tears these days. It’ll spoil her looks if she keeps on--but you know these Dutch women. They’re mad about showing proper respect for the departed."

The door swung open as if it had been kicked. It nearly crashed against a Ming vase, and a less than demure girl pranced in, a lyric from the latest musical comedy hit on her lips.

To all lads and lassies I have this to say: Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may! Ma-a-a-a-y, Ma-a-a-a-y, Ma-a-a-a-y! Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may!

Pieter's mouth opened and shut. His eyes had not misled him. He hadn’t forgotten her. She was holding a milk pitcher as before! He scratched his blond thatch for a moment. Obvious to him, she was going to take some getting used to. A small-town refugee, Pieter knew he had never seen her likes before in New Alkmaar. No Dutch blondie, her! He decided she couldn't be Dutch at all with her dark hair. As for the professor, he must have adopted her. Otherwise, he couldn't be proper Dutch either and put up with such frivolity in his presence.

She soon reached a finale.

Oh, gather ye rosebuds, gather ye rosebuds, gather ye rosebuds, Oh, gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may!

Proper Dutch or not, she knew not only had a good singing voice but knew what was good food, Pieter had to observe. Also, she seemed not to regard herself under her uncle's restriction about fraternizing on the job when she brought daily hot lunches, specially ordered and personally delivered from the kitchens. "Oom's too absent-minded or busy or just plain stupid to eat properly," she told Pieter right out without lowering her voice one degree.

The professor seemed to give no heed as he sat working at his desk, scribbling on paper. "Why, I even have to see that the old fool's head and mustache are trimmed!" she said. "For a genius you’ll soon find he's quite a magnificent dope in ordinary matters!"

As Pieter saw it, the professor was intellectually engrossed in other, larger issues and didn't notice what was being said about him. Just the same he burned with terrible embarrassment for the professor, until he learned to take her remarks as casually as she produced them.

Until then, it was Dr. Pikkard and Pieter van de Wordt and Anne Kilpaison, whether Pieter liked it or not.

4 Dendrochronology, the Professor’s Folly

Pieter began to wonder just why the professor kept a raw slice of tree propped against his desk.

Dr. Pikkard looked up from his primes one day and noticed Pieter’s glance. He rose and pulled out another specimen. With two set side by side, he pointed out the large rings on one and the very narrow rings on the opposite. “I have over 900 specimens, sawn and drilled, taken from all over the country and stored somewhere, but these will do nicely for our little inquiry. Now what has caused them to grow so divergently?” he asked Pieter, two penetrating gleams darting at him over his spectacles.

Pieter thought he could tell, having lived in a rural town and so near the forests, but he was hesitant to tread the solemn, ivied halls of science, so the professor prodded him.

“The one on the left dates from the year 2170. The other dates before 2170. You see the tremendous contrast in the sizes of their rings. Why, the “from ones” look almost tropical, they’re nearly ringless they grow so fast. What could have done it?”

“Good rains made the rings on the tree grow faster,” Pieter finally ventured. “The one on the left didn’t get enough water.

Dr. Pikkard smiled gently. “Good try. I too thought that might be the cause when I first started looking at such specimens. But I soon found I was wrong, after examining dozens of other specimens, the channels of creek and river beds in the area, and other tell-tale signs of changing rainfall patterns. Eventually, I put my findings all together in a strip-calendar by which I use to date specimens. Well, the cause could have been drought before 2170, only I found the rainfall was ample and there was no significant drop in precipitation. It could have been insect blight--except the rings did not show anything unusual in that respect. That left heavy cone production. But the question follows: why did all the trees go into excessive cone production just before 2170. 2170 and on the trees exploded in numbers, it appears.”

Dr. Pikkard paced the floor, stirred up by the question. The same had once repeatedly pulled him away from the comfortable life of the Wilhelmina to forests stretching over thousands of miles of land, land he had found was formerly highly populated and filled with huge cities and productive farms producing wheat and a beautiful, golden-kerneled corn.

He stopped abruptly, giving the tree rings a whack with a pointing stick before turning back to Pieter with sharp glance . “I will tell you what I concluded! The two tree ring segments are evidence of a complete reversal in climate and nature, which might have begun even before the fatal year of 2170! But what caused the forests to explode back across vast territories in so short a time? My boy, we’ve got to find out! The explosion is still going on--we simply can’t cut and burn trees fast enough and our cities and towns, ever declining in population, will be covered in less than another generation. Strangely enough, no one believes me, though super-abundant evidence stands and grows right in front of us, in the cold light of day! But come with me, we needn’t rely wholly on sense data which human stupidity and tight-minded prejudice can contradict. Dendrochronology, a wonderful new science created by an astronomer-monk named Douglass around ANNO 1900, has given us a most valuable and accurate history of Earth’s weather going back centuries. We can use his same techniques to study the centuries after him as well! That’s exactly what I’ve done. Now let me show you the incredible results of my research!”

Grabbing a box of bright yellow chalk and taking Pieter out into the hall, Dr. Pikkard started writing on the red brocaded wall a number from memory. The professor did not seem to mind several aristocratic, fat, English ladies passing by, staring at him through lorgnettes as if he were a prize specimen of madness.

“This is the number of trees before 2170 in North America,” he eagerly began as he examined his figures. “This is the number after that catastrophic year. Please note this is the rate of increase in the number of trees from 2170 and afterward. Compare that rate with our birth rate, which is...”

He turned around to see how Pieter was taking the information. Noticing that Pieter's eyes were glazed over, he sighed, dropped the chalk and went back to his primes. He had albums of collected daguerreotypes from a copper-plate process showing New Amsterdam over a hundred year period.

He wanted Pieter to see how the city had once been much larger and populous and the forests miles away from the city limits.

Obvious to him, Pieter first needed to be “primed” if he was to appreciate science and what it had to say about the world’s condition.

It was going to be hard to keep interested in his new job, Pieter could see very soon on. Though he made a good Dutch effort, he just couldn’t force himself to get interested in trees and how they grew, whether fast or slow. It had never mattered to him that forests were always growing into cultivated areas, or how hard it was for farmers to keep pine, fir, and beech seedlings from spreading over newly plowed or sown fields. He knew very well that New Alkmaar had to do a thorough tree removal, yard to yard, or it would become thick forest. But such things, however, were the way it had always been, so why make a fuss? Things had always been like that. Heaven had ordained it.

If he wasn't going to be given any real work, and he could just spend his time looking at books, what was he to do with all the hours? But at least he could spend the time eating and going through the books on mathematics the professor handed him. Putting on needed weight, he ate the wonderful lunches Anne brought up every day from the kitchen and studied beside the gigantic volume of discovered primes the mathematical and game-loving Dr. Pikkard was compiling. It must have stood six or seven feet high on the floor beside his desk--obviously the world’s biggest book.

Work on the gargantuan “prime-a-copia” went on and on. Pieter came to "work" everyday as usual and, when not eating and studying, made himself "useful" by cleaning the bird's cage and tidying up the rooms as best he could in the incredible clutter of expensive collectibles. Surprising both himself and the professor, he also made good progress in mathematics, so that he opened a copy of Van Euclid's Geometry and with coaching by the professor started working through it with a skill that had to please his mathematics-obsessed employer.

Adding variety to the mathematical “work” schedule, at least once a week Anne varied her routine and dove at the professor with a pair of scissors and forced his flying locks and mustaches back to a semblance of a civilized Dutch gentleman's.

Still wondering if he would ever do any real work, Pieter asked Anne one time when the professor left the suite for a few minutes. He had gone to see some newly purchased museum works of art--mostly oil paintings and game sets--dropped off in the lobby by mistake. Anne smiled and let her eyes rove over him for a moment before she answered. "I think he's just letting you get used to him first, before he plunges you over your head in deep water! He’s learned to do it that way ever since drowning quite a few assistants before you."

5 Just What the Doctor Ordered

As for real Dutch work for Pieter, it came at last one day. As soon as the professor's supplies had arrived, he threw down his smoking stub of a pencil and was all Dutch business and vinegar.

The professor and Pieter hurried to the docks for the balloon and bathyscaph shipment. Starting a new career is not always a sure thing as Pieter soon found out--particularly when it had to do with balloons. Pieter discovered a strange feeling in his stomach as soon as the balloon lifted off from the launch site at New Amsterdam on an usually fine though brisk day in early spring.

A big and sweet pink pill or two or a drop of Van Kuiper’s All-Purpose Snake Oil for Gustatory Complaints might have solved Pieter's indisposition on the ground. In the air it was soon uncomfortable enough to threaten to end his ballooning and ground him indefinitely, even before it had really begun.

It was an easy thing to fly equipped with fuel, first-aid kit, navigation charts, protective clothing, and food enough to last the outing, but keeping that air-borne meal down presented the greatest challenge Pieter had yet faced on his new job.

The first time up a little breeze rocked the gondola and from then on Pieter was clutching his midriff. Dr. Pikkard, of course, had an iron-cast constitution. He could, he said, eat a full-course dinner upside down hanging in a stalled Ferris Wheel. He claimed he had not once experienced having trouble that way and said so a number of times.

His previous assistant, on the contrary, had made a poor balloonist because of his touchy digestive tract, or tendency toward developing "mal de mer." Dr. Pikkard had been forced to go to the trouble to make room for a weighty book that was the authority in Dutch home remedies--Doctor Winkelhorst's Pharmacopoeia, or 1,001 Science Tips for Perfect Dutch Health and Hygiene.

The professor then looked around in the gondola's gear bags and, with a shout of 'Eureka!' fished out a book along with some sure-fire cures. "This will fix you up!" he said, handing the green Pieter a jar of pickled onions. Pieter took one, somehow slipped it down, and was suddenly much worse for following the first of Winkelhorst's "scientifically-demonstrated cures."

He groaned and hung dangerously to the side of the gondola until he was thoroughly relieved of the pickled onion.

"Okay, my boy, Winkelhorst and I evidently miscalculated on that. So take a little of this. I never got to try it on your unfortunate predecessor, what's his name?"

Gagging down a packet of dry, powdered charcoal, Pieter chased it with a sip of ordinary water in order to stop a violent coughing seizure. A moment later, he disappointed the nurse again by upchucking the chunks of charcoal.

"You ARE a hard case," acknowledged the professor, his hand rubbing his chin. He rummaged in the first-aid kit once again. A big grin on his face, he grabbed Pieter's swimming head and gave him a liberal dose of raw egg and brandy from a Delft container. Perhaps it had been there too long. Winkelhorst had assured Dr. Pikkard it would last indefinitely because of the pickling agent of excellent high proof brandy.

The basket pitched with the least movement and again Pieter threw himself against the side. He gave a most violent heave before he was rid of the latest cure. After that, it was a chew of ginger, which left Pieter none the worse, but certainly not improved.

Groaning, wondering if his ballooning days were over, Pieter had almost despaired of Winkelhorst when the professor, at the end of his stock of remedies and nostrums, fished out some stewed tomatoes and a can of sardines. "There are two ways to take them. First, if I remember rightly, you're supposed to mix the two together and coat your mouth and tongue with the thick paste, not swallowing and keeping it there for an hour--"

Pieter's greenish eyes rolled violently upwards in their sockets. He made to lunge back to the gunwales to retch like he had never retch before, but the professor caught him.

The professor held his fingers for luck as Pieter ate one stewed tomato. Dr. Pikkard held out the sardines. "According to the good Doctor Winkelhorst, you chase it with these, or it will never work.

Pieter took one, but he immediately came to grief with it. The sardine flew earthward, rewarding some hungry, cruising gull.

Pieter went back to unchased tomatoes, and minutes passed. The gull circled once, twice, then left them in peace. Dr. Pikkard slapped the youth on his back, who managed a queasy smile. Already color was returning to his cheeks.

"We've done it!" the professor cheered. "By the white horse of St. George, we've hit the prime on the head! From now on we carry plenty of stewed tomatoes. They're Anne's specialty, some recipe of her grandmother's, by the way. You'll have to tell her they worked. I never could abide tomatoes, stewed or raw or put in pie, so she'll be pleased they saved the day for you."

The balloon, with the recovering Pieter stuffed with Anne's tomatoes, continued more merrily on its way. Now the two could continue researching together. The ugly, toothy snout of the gristmill sank momentarily back out of sight.

6 Decline in a Dutch Paradise?

In the days ahead, the two men became very busy. Whatever Dr. Pikkard decided to investigate, the effort was badly needed, thanks to devastating wars and the even more disruptive, degenerative effects of the "Greek disease"--the equally lethal "English disease" of Dutch lands. So much knowledge had been blown up, hidden, and just forgotten. Crystal Age civilization collapsed with the "Greek" outbreak and any remaining encoded knowledge apparently decayed from neglect, damp, and the failure of auxiliary power systems where nuclear power was not utilized. Except for random old printed volumes, there was precious little left anymore to stop a deadly, dark ooze of ignorance from spreading across the planet. For the Earth the return to Dark Ages was only a question of time. A few more slips down the ladder of human progress, that would do it. Not even the plucky Dutch, who asserted control over the chaos of North America and traditionally supported the three P's--Plainness, Practicality, and Persistence--could stop the fatal slippage. But yet no one but Dr. Pikkard could see there was any such problem confronting mankind. When he has first begun presenting evidence of the slippage to the scientific and academic community, he was accused of deliberately falsifying his data.

"Where, after all, is the proof that we have declined and not progressed?" the professor queried Pieter one day on the matter. "Well, getting and assembling that proof is exactly our business, my boy! We'll certainly not find it in any books! All the authorities oppose me and take your position. They seem to think we’re living in a second Eden just because it’s Dutch!"

Pieter, naturally, did not know what the professor was talking about. Decline? No! Things had always been hard for the Dutch in America! That was just life. Things weren't really going backward. After all, the infamous Treaty of Westminister, imposed on the Dutch by the English seven centuries before, had been reversed, and America redeemed by the people best fitted for the job--Netherlanders! Every Dutch boy had been taught that by the first or second grade.

But the professor knew better than his pupil. Recent Dutch-English wars of the 23rd and into the 24th Century had not helped, no matter what Wooden-Head thought. Newly built lending libraries, re-commissioned as munitions storage and temporary forts, suffered accordingly, and Dark Ages apparently no one but he, Dr. Pikkard, would acknowledge or recognize drew near. But there was something equally disturbing that may or may not have been caused by the same thing that crumpled, mutilated, and otherwise ruined man-made things.

Only Dr. Pikkard knew from his researches that the planet's rotation had speeded up in the last two hundred years. Earth had lost one whole day! And the days were shorter--something, again, only he knew and was not afraid to face. The day had lost seven hours, and though the process had seemingly stabilized after four hundred years, he worried how long it would last.

What was causing such tremendous havoc? Why so many earthquakes in the past couple hundred years? And where would it end? He had committed his life and every penny of his fortune to finding out. If only he could pass on his findings! Poor Pieter! He was proving a difficult heir.

7 Vent and Rip

After Pieter's stomach problem was satisfactorily dealt with, the professor decided it was time his assistant try his own hand at the controls of the balloon as a necessary step toward solving the Earth's rotational problem. He had deepening suspicions about the galaxies as well, those closest to Earth’s Milky Way, but he had to settle the question of Earth first. To introduce his somewhat reluctant fledgling to the realities of ballooning, he took him to the deep interior of the country, to the wilds of the high Brabants once the snows had melted away sufficiently to get in.

By this time Denver, despite the enormous, world-class dome, was only a tired and very dusty village of less than five hundred people. Hired nags took them and their gear to a launching site on a peak ominously called Merryweather's Downfall. They arrived at the "launch field", a wide but rock-studded plat of mountain meadow, in the early morning.

Pieter soon found there was nothing particular merry about the local climate. As if distracted by more important things on his mind, the professor, despite some warning blasts, did not seem to notice the wind. They continued preparations while Pieter kept looking about, a crease of concern deepening in his forehead. Working hard with big draught horses, at last the balloon was laid out. They began the long process of heating the air for inflation as Pieter hauled on the crown line attached to the top of the 80-foot envelope. Staked to the ground, the balloon, after several hours, plumped out and showed its bright colors against a gusty, light blue sky that was getting lighter blue all the time. It was now late afternoon of that day in late spring. Pieter was not exactly happy when the professor, normally quite cautious about such things, decided to go for it.

Feeling something like lead sink in his heart, he quit biting his nails and hurried to get the balloon aloft as ordered. Towering higher than many a building in New Amsterdam, the balloon soon dispelled his misgivings. Even a plain Dutch boy was captivated by the sheer beauty of something so colorful straining to fly free of all lines and anchors.

The professor, taking a string and securing his straw hat which had blown off the moment before, hopped in the wicker gondola. Pieter was last to get in, dragging his feet as if he couldn’t leave terra firma without a decent struggle. Without waiting, the balloon lifted off, following the breeze.

As the earth grew smaller to their eyes, the professor turned his attention to his instruments. He began furiously checking results and findings in his notebook. Meanwhile, Pieter, to gain altitude, pulled the lanyard attached to the burner valve. Flames erupted from the gas line into the balloon's mouth, and they rose ever higher.

Dr. Pikkard, between "burns," explained to Pieter the use of the fuel gauges, the variometer registering rise or fall, and their rate. Since they were new and thus highly susceptible to the English disease, a box of spare parts was essential gear on board, and the parts were a very odd assortment. A temperature gauge had lost its dial, so Dr. Pikkard had fixed a tinpot whistle which could alert Pieter when it was time to turn the burner on or off.

Dr. Pikkard slapped Pieter on the back. “Well, my boy, that’s all there’s to it. See how simple it is? That’s why I favor the balloon over the aeroplane, for it takes much less manual control or constant surveillance of the instruments, freeing me to do my observations.”

Flying along in the high Rockies with nothing but an eagle or two as companions, Pieter and the professor were minding their ballooning when, after an hour, the breeze increased to a definite red flag.

Pieter glanced with meaning at the professor, who caught the glance and did not look straight back down to his computations. They both knew that if they did not want to be blown straight to China, it was time to call it a day and spend the night in the basket on the ground. Holding his hat to his head, the professor ordered Pieter to take her down. Letting the temperature drop, the balloon went with it, and soon the professor spotted a spot between peaks. It wasn't much of a landing field, Pieter saw at once. Huge rocks jutted out on which they could come to grief in an instant. It would take an expert to slip through them to the little level ground just beyond.

"Yes! I see them plainly, my boy!" shouted the professor. He gave Pieter a reassuring slap on his shoulders. "Seeing the problem is half the solution! And I've been in far worse pickles."

Pieter closed his eyes, muttering something between a curse or a prayer. "Watch your young head!" laughed the professor, it seemed a bit nervously, as they swung crazily toward the two monoliths. "Their names are most quaint. That charmer with big white teeth is, according to my ballooning map, called Jack the Ripper," he said pointing to the right. "And the other is called Mae Van West, possibly an allusion to the ship-swallowing maelstrom of ancient Dutch mythology. But to rip us to pieces, they'll first have to catch their prey!"

"And Anne could hardly hold her horses, wanting to come along with us!" Pieter swore beneath his breath as they careened straight at the first balloon-gobbling rock. “She could have my place, if I had anything to say!”

Winds swirling with a roar and high-pitched screeches changed their direction. The balloon swept rapidly away from the looming Jack, but next threatened to pound them to pieces on the equally horrid Mae. The balloon-o-nauts were holding as hard as they could to leather grips inside the gondola when they hit the Mae, or, rather, she walloped them. Tumbling along the rock face of the monolithic rock, the fabric also caught on an outcropping--and Pieter's heart froze. A badly torn balloon would dump them, just beyond the meadow's edge, into a two thousand foot deep chasm.

Somehow they slipped off Mae without major damage. They were still alive! All they sustained was a bad fright as they drifted beyond the two killers to a landing.

"Well, I guess we'll spend the night here," remarked the professor breezily as they prepared for immediate landing in the meadow. For the master balloonist, brushes with destruction were all in a day's work. He went to replace his hat, then, testing the wind, decided against it and let his hair blow free. They were very low by now. The ground came up rough and mean toward the gondola. In fact, never had innocent, sweet wildflowers looked so menacing, so lethal Pieter, at a glance, saw they were not quite out of harm's way after all, and Mae must have thrown a backhanded curse.

The moment the gondola touched earth, plowing into rocks and alpine flowers, the jolting threw them both so violently Dr. Pikkard, his hat, pencil and notebook sailing with him, was flipped and thrown past Pieter out on the ground. Sliding and plowing along, the pitching gondola tried to throw Pieter too, but a stubborn Dutch streak wasn't about to let anything do that to him. He might break his neck or, worse, what remained of his legs, he thought. He hung on for dear life, uprooted wildflowers and dirt striking his face and getting in his mouth and eyes. The balloon and basket continued toward the edge of the meadow and the abyss. Dr. Pikkard, his teardrop glasses hanging from one ear, got up dazedly, shouted and started to run after it. A moment or two later the surprised and sputtering Pieter sailed free over the cliff. He was alone in the sky, gazing back down at the receding face of his employer.

"You're really in no danger, my boy! Just do what I taught you!" Dr. Pikkard called with all his lung power, just before Pieter passed from earshot. "Be sure and pull the vent line, not the--"

Half-blinded with a mass of dirt and flowers on his head, Pieter was in no condition at first to follow any instructions. Giving his head a furious shake, he got rid of the worst and was able to see again. The scene took his breath away. He looked out at peak after peak, thousands of them, from his eagle's aerie. At first his view was so stunning he almost forgot the real "pickle" the professor had put him in.

Without a sound, the balloon raced through the sky toward the tallest of the balloon-crunchers. The sight was so beautiful, Pieter was given the impression he could come to no harm, but as he gained on the peaks the impression died away to another, which was just the opposite--he was sure to come to harm!His hand steady on the blast valve, he waited and then shot a 12-foot flame into the balloon. She barely and agonizingly cleared the ugliest of the brutes that poked at him like a mad barber brandishing drawn razors at a non-paying customer.

Beyond lay vast meadows again, slopes of a colossus of unknown name. There he hoped to find his way safely to ground, if he could pitch into the right valley or mountain meadow. But no such luck! He was going too fast and sailed right by. The dying light threw a reddish glory against the next peaks where he hoped a landing-field could be found. The first peak came up fast, and Pieter had to think fast as he readied the balloon for "descent."

This time he pulled what he believed was the vent line when he saw what he thought fairly level ground flying toward him. Not knowing it was really the rip cord, he sent the balloon plummeting. It fell so fast that Pieter did not have time to realize his mistake. The gondola dropped like a stone, fabric whirling sickeningly like sodden laundry tangled up in clotheslines. It was the worst jam Pieter had been in since his tangle with the mill's drive shaft. Down he fell, then stopped with a jolt that made him bite his tongue. Caught on a rock that jutted out over the "landing-field"--actually a series of New Amsterdam-sized crevasses which could have swallowed him more times than he could count--the balloon held.

But for how long? The hapless balloon-o-naut swung in the breeze among the curious eagles and hawks, praying the balloon skin would hold until Dr. Pikkard could reach him with a rope.

Pieter still had no idea what had gone wrong. He went through the landing procedures in his mind. Since he had hours to think about his actions, he slowly realized he was at fault. He had pulled rip, not vent. Then he did a strange thing. The moment he faced the inescapable conclusion, he put the mistake out of mind as though he had never made it--which was odd considering how he could not forget when it was someone else's.

The next day, after the successful rescue, Pieter felt his muscles had turned to rubber and he tottered about like an old man. His tongue was also so sore it would be several days before the swelling would go down and he could eat normally. Dr. Pikkard's ballooning feat made the headlines of several Rocky Mountain newspapers still extant in the declining region of mostly ghost cities and towns. With his picture and reputation for daring exploits, it made good copy, and editions sold out.

The balloon was soon repaired. The damage was, despite the hair-raising and tongue-biting experience Pieter received, surprisingly minimal. On their way again, they had no more trouble. At over 11,000 feet, floating above the mountains of North Brabant westward toward Reno, Pieter, swathed in blankets, had the best view of anyone on Earth. Dr. Pikkard, his straw boater tied to his head, used various instruments and then took copious notes with a pencil frosted white with his breath.

Every chance he had, he was attempting to determine if the planet's rotation had begun to speed up again--or, on the other hand, had it slowed? It was a very sensitive subject for him, since he guessed but had not been able to prove that the stabilization was only temporary and that it could go either way at any time.

"What is that bright light over there? Is it a star or comet?" Pieter asked, forgetting he should not interrupt the professor at his calculations. “And that dark streak, what is that?”

The professor looked up somewhat irritably from his frosty calculations and glanced briefly at the two spots where Pieter was pointing. "I don't know. And I don't have time right now to look it up in my star charts. Maybe later when I finish with this, if you don't mind!

Pieter continued to look at the light, which had grown somewhat in size while he was observing it. As it didn't seem to change size any more, he lost interest after a while and went to looking at other parts of the heavens for his old favorite among the constellations--the Prow of Argo.


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