Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore
Henry Kuttner was an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He collaborated on many stories with his wife, C.L. Moore, who he met through “Lovecraft’s Circle.” He was considered one of the most important writers in genre in the 1940s. Although he wrote many novels, he is best known for his short fiction. Catherine L. Moore was an American science fiction and fantasy writer, most often known as C.L. Moore. She was one of the first women to write in either genre, and paved the way for many other female speculative fiction writers. Her earliest stories appeared in Weird Tales. Many of her stories were collaborations with her husband, Henry Kuttner, although this particular story is often credited to her alone. It was first published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1946 under the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell. “Vintage Season” inspired Robert Silverberg’s time travel story “In Another Country,” taking place at the same time yet told from a different point of view. In later years she wrote for television, most notably for Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip.
Three people came up the walk to the old mansion just at dawn on a perfect May morning. Oliver Wilson in his pajamas watched them from an upper window through a haze of conflicting emotions, resentment predominant. He didn’t want them there.
They were foreigners. He knew only that much about them. They had the curious name of Sancisco, and their first names, scrawled in loops on the lease, appeared to be Omerie, Kleph and Klia, though it was impossible as he looked down upon them now to sort them out by signature. He hadn’t even been sure whether they would be men or women, and he had expected something a little less cosmopolitan.
Oliver’s heart sank a little as he watched them follow the taxi driver up the walk. He had hoped for less self-assurance in his unwelcome tenants, because he meant to force them out of the house if he could. It didn’t look very promising from here.
The man went first. He was tall and dark, and he wore his clothes and carried his body with that peculiar arrogant assurance that comes from perfect confidence in every phase of one’s being. The two women were laughing as they followed him. Their voices were light and sweet, and their faces were beautiful, each in its own exotic way, but the first thing Oliver thought of when he looked at them was, Expensive!
It was not only that patina of perfection that seemed to dwell in every line of their incredibly flawless garments. There are degrees of wealth beyond which wealth itself ceases to have significance. Oliver had seen before, on rare occasions, something like this assurance that the earth turning beneath their well-shod feet turned only to their whim.
It puzzled him a little in this case, because he had the feeling as the three came up the walk that the beautiful clothing they wore so confidently was not clothing they were accustomed to. There was a curious air of condescension in the way they moved. Like women in costume. They minced a little on their delicate high heels, held out an arm to stare at the cut of a sleeve, twisted now and then inside their garments as if the clothing sat strangely on them, as if they were accustomed to something entirely different.
And there was an elegance about the way the garments fitted them which even to Oliver looked strikingly unusual. Only an actress on the screen, who can stop time and the film to adjust every disarrayed fold so that she looks perpetually perfect, might appear thus elegantly clad. But let these women move as they liked, and each fold of their clothing followed perfectly with the movement and fell perfectly into place again. One might almost suspect the garments were not cut of ordinary cloth, or that they were cut according to some unknown, subtle scheme, with many artful hidden seams placed by a tailor incredibly skilled at his trade.
They seemed excited. They talked in high, clear, very sweet voices, looking up at the perfect blue and transparent sky in which dawn was still frankly pink. They looked at the trees on the lawn, the leaves translucently green with an under color of golden newness, the edges crimped from constriction in the recent bud.
Happily and with excitement in their voices they called to the man, and when he answered his own voice blended so perfectly in cadence with theirs that it sounded like three people singing together. Their voices, like their clothing, seemed to have an elegance far beyond the ordinary, to be under a control such as Oliver Wilson had never dreamed of before this morning.
The taxi driver brought up the luggage, which was of a beautiful pale stuff that did not look quite like leather, and had curves in it so subtle it seemed square until you saw how two or three pieces of it fitted together when carried, into a perfectly balanced block. It was scuffed, as if from much use. And though there was a great deal of it, the taxi man did not seem to find his burden heavy. Oliver saw him look down at it now and then and heft the weight incredulously.
One of the women had very black hair and skin like cream, and smoke-blue eyes heavy-lidded with the weight of her lashes. It was the other woman Oliver’s gaze followed as she came up the walk. Her hair was a clear, pale red, and her face had a softness that he thought would be like velvet to touch. She was tanned to a warm amber darker than her hair.
Just as they reached the porch steps the fair woman lifted her head and looked up. She gazed straight into Oliver’s eyes and he saw that hers were very blue, and just a little amused, as if she had known he was there all along. Also they were frankly admiring.
Feeling a bit dizzy, Oliver hurried back to his room to dress.
* * *
“We are here on a vacation,” the dark man said, accepting the keys. “We will not wish to be disturbed, as I made clear in our correspondence. You have engaged a cook and housemaid for us, I understand? We will expect you to move your own belongings out of the house, then, and—”
“Wait,” Oliver said uncomfortably. “Something’s come up. I—” He hesitated, not sure just how to present it. These were such increasingly odd people. Even their speech was odd. They spoke so distinctly, not slurring any of the words into contractions. English seemed as familiar to them as a native tongue, but they all spoke as trained singers sing, with perfect breath control and voice placement.
And there was a coldness in the man’s voice, as if some gulf lay between him and Oliver, so deep no feeling of human contact could bridge it.
“I wonder,” Oliver said, “if I could find you better living quarters somewhere else in town. There’s a place across the street that—”
The dark woman said, “Oh, no!” in a lightly horrified voice, and all three of them laughed. It was cool, distant laughter that did not include Oliver.
The dark man said, “We chose this house carefully, Mr. Wilson. We would not be interested in living anywhere else.”
Oliver said desperately, “I don’t see why. It isn’t even a modern house. I have two others in much better condition. Even across the street you’d have a fine view of the city. Here there isn’t anything. The other houses cut off the view, and—”
“We engaged rooms here, Mr. Wilson,” the man said with finality. “We expect to use them. Now will you make arrangements to leave as soon as possible?”
Oliver said, “No,” and looked stubborn. “That isn’t in the lease. You can live here until next month, since you paid for it, but you can’t put me out. I’m staying.”
The man opened his mouth to say something. He looked coldly at Oliver and closed it again. The feeling of aloofness was chill between them. There was a moment’s silence. Then the man said, “Very well. Be kind enough to stay out of our way.”
It was a little odd that he didn’t inquire into Oliver’s motives. Oliver was not yet sure enough of the man to explain. He couldn’t very well say, “Since the lease was signed, I’ve been offered three times what the house is worth if I’ll sell it before the end of May.” He couldn’t say, “I want the money, and I’m going to use my own nuisance-value to annoy you until you’re willing to move out.” After all, there seemed no reason why they shouldn’t. After seeing them, there seemed doubly no reason, for it was clear they must be accustomed to surroundings infinitely better than this timeworn old house.
It was very strange, the value this house had so suddenly acquired. There was no reason at all why two groups of semi-anonymous people should be so eager to possess it for the month of May.
In silence Oliver showed his tenants upstairs to the three big bedrooms across the front of the house. He was intensely conscious of the red-haired woman and the way she watched him with a sort of obviously covert interest, quite warmly, and with a curious undertone to her interest that he could not quite place. It was familiar, but elusive. He thought how pleasant it would be to talk to her alone, if only to try to capture that elusive attitude and put a name to it.
Afterward he went down to the telephone and called his fiancée.
Sue’s voice squeaked a little with excitement over the wire.
“Oliver, so early? Why, it’s hardly six yet. Did you tell them what I said? Are they going to go?”
“Can’t tell yet. I doubt it. After all, Sue, I did take their money, you know.”
“Oliver, they’ve got to go! You’ve got to do something!”
“I’m trying, Sue. But I don’t like it.”
“Well, there isn’t any reason why they shouldn’t stay somewhere else. And we’re going to need that money. You’ll just have to think of something, Oliver.”
Oliver met his own worried eyes in the mirror above the telephone and scowled at himself. His straw-colored hair was tangled and there was a shining stubble on his pleasant, tanned face. He was sorry the red-haired woman had first seen him in his untidy condition. Then his conscience smote him at the sound of Sue’s determined voice and he said: “I’ll try, darling. I’ll try. But I did take their money.”
They had, in fact, paid a great deal of money, considerably more than the rooms were worth even in that year of high prices and high wages. The country was just moving into one of those fabulous eras which are later referred to as the Gay Forties or the Golden Sixties – a pleasant period of national euphoria. It was a stimulating time to be alive – while it lasted.
“All right,” Oliver said resignedly. “I’ll do my best.”
* * *
But he was conscious, as the next few days went by, that he was not doing his best. There were several reasons for that. From the beginning the idea of making himself a nuisance to his tenants had been Sue’s, not Oliver’s. And if Oliver had been a little less determined the whole project would never have got under way. Reason was on Sue’s side, but—
For one thing, the tenants were so fascinating. All they said and did had a queer sort of inversion to it, as if a mirror had been held up to ordinary living and in the reflection showed strange variations from the norm. Their minds worked on a different basic premise, Oliver thought, from his own. They seemed to derive covert amusement from the most unamusing things; they patronized, they were aloof with a quality of cold detachment which did not prevent them from laughing inexplicably far too often for Oliver’s comfort.
He saw them occasionally, on their way to and from their rooms. They were polite and distant, not, he suspected, from anger at his presence but from sheer indifference.
Most of the day they spent out of the house. The perfect May weather held unbroken and they seemed to give themselves up wholeheartedly to admiration of it, entirely confident that the warm, pale-gold sunshine and the scented air would not be interrupted by rain or cold. They were so sure of it that Oliver felt uneasy.
They took only one meal a day in the house, a late dinner. And their reactions to the meal were unpredictable. Laughter greeted some of the dishes, and a sort of delicate disgust others. No one would touch the salad, for instance. And the fish seemed to cause a wave of queer embarrassment around the table.
They dressed elaborately for each dinner. The man – his name was Omerie – looked extremely handsome in his dinner clothes, but he seemed a little sulky and Oliver twice heard the women laughing because he had to wear black. Oliver entertained a sudden vision, for no reason, of the man in garments as bright and as subtly cut as the women’s, and it seemed somehow very right for him. He wore even the dark clothing with a certain flamboyance, as if cloth-of-gold would be more normal for him.
When they were in the house at other mealtimes, they ate in their rooms. They must have brought a great deal of food with them, from whatever mysterious place they had come. Oliver wondered with increasing curiosity where it might be. Delicious odors drifted into the hall sometimes, at odd hours, from their closed doors. Oliver could not identify them, but almost always they smelled irresistible. A few times the food smell was rather shockingly unpleasant, almost nauseating. It takes a connoisseur, Oliver reflected, to appreciate the decadent. And these people, most certainly, were connoisseurs.
Why they lived so contentedly in this huge ramshackle old house was a question that disturbed his dreams at night. Or why they refused to move. He caught some fascinating glimpses into their rooms, which appeared to have been changed almost completely by additions he could not have defined very clearly from the brief sights he had of them. The feeling of luxury which his first glance at them had evoked was confirmed by the richness of the hangings they had apparently brought with them, the half-glimpsed ornaments, the pictures on the walls, even the whiffs of exotic perfume that floated from half-open doors.
He saw the women go by him in the halls, moving softly through the brown dimness in their gowns so uncannily perfect in fit, so lushly rich, so glowingly colored they seemed unreal. That poise born of confidence in the subservience of the world gave them an imperious aloofness, but more than once Oliver, meeting the blue gaze of the woman with the red hair and the soft, tanned skin, thought he saw quickened interest there. She smiled at him in the dimness and went by in a haze of fragrance and a halo of incredible richness, and the warmth of the smile lingered after she had gone.
He knew she did not mean this aloofness to last between them. From the very first he was sure of that. When the time came she would make the opportunity to be alone with him. The thought was confusing and tremendously exciting. There was nothing he could do but wait, knowing she would see him when it suited her.
* * *
On the third day he lunched with Sue in a little downtown restaurant overlooking the great sweep of the metropolis across the river far below. Sue had shining brown curls and brown eyes, and her chin was a bit more prominent than is strictly accordant with beauty. From childhood Sue had known what she wanted and how to get it, and it seemed to Oliver just now that she had never wanted anything quite so much as the sale of this house.
“It’s such a marvelous offer for the old mausoleum,” she said, breaking into a roll with a gesture of violence. “We’ll never have a chance like that again, and prices are so high we’ll need the money to start housekeeping. Surely you can do something, Oliver!”
“I’m trying,” Oliver assured her uncomfortably.
“Have you heard anything more from that madwoman who wants to buy it?”
Oliver shook his head. “Her attorney phoned again yesterday. Nothing new. I wonder who she is.”
“I don’t think even the attorney knows. All this mystery – I don’t like it, Oliver. Even those Sancisco people— What did they do today?”
Oliver laughed. “They spent about an hour this morning telephoning movie theaters in the city, checking up on a lot of third-rate films they want to see parts of.”
“Parts of? But why?”
“I don’t know. I think … oh, nothing. More coffee?”
The trouble was, he thought he did know. It was too unlikely a guess to tell Sue about, and without familiarity with the Sancisco oddities she would only think Oliver was losing his mind. But he had from their talk, a definite impression that there was an actor in bit parts in all these films whose performances they mentioned with something very near to awe. They referred to him as Golconda, which didn’t appear to be his name, so that Oliver had no way of guessing which obscure bit-player it was they admired so deeply. Golconda might have been the name of a character he had once played – and with superlative skill, judging by the comments of the Sanciscos – but to Oliver he meant nothing at all.
“They do funny things,” he said, stirring his coffee reflectively. “Yesterday Omerie – that’s the man – came in with a book of poems published about five years ago, and all of them handled it like a first edition of Shakespeare. I never even heard of the author, but he seems to be a tin god in their country, wherever that is.”
“You still don’t know? Haven’t they even dropped any hints?”
“We don’t do much talking,” Oliver reminded her with some irony.
“I know, but— Oh, well, I guess it doesn’t matter. Go on, what else do they do?”
“Well, this morning they were going to spend studying ‘Golconda’ and his great art, and this afternoon I think they’re taking a trip up the river to some sort of shrine I never heard of. It isn’t very far, wherever it is, because I know they’re coming back for dinner. Some great man’s birthplace, I think – they promised to take home souvenirs of the place if they could get any. They’re typical tourists, all right – if I could only figure out what’s behind the whole thing. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Nothing about that house makes sense any more. I do wish—”
She went on in a petulant voice, but Oliver ceased suddenly to hear her, because just outside the door, walking with imperial elegance on her high heels, a familiar figure passed. He did not see her face, but he thought he would know that poise, that richness of line and motion, anywhere on earth.
“Excuse me a minute,” he muttered to Sue, and was out of his chair before she could speak. He made the door in half a dozen long strides, and the beautifully elegant passerby was only a few steps away when he got there. Then, with the words he had meant to speak already half-uttered, he fell silent and stood there staring.
It was not the red-haired woman. It was not her dark companion. It was a stranger. He watched, speechless, while the lovely, imperious creature moved on through the crowd and vanished, moving with familiar poise and assurance and an equally familiar strangeness as if the beautiful and exquisitely fitted garments she wore were an exotic costume to her, as they had always seemed to the Sancisco women. Every other woman on the street looked untidy and ill at ease beside her. Walking like a queen, she melted into the crowd and was gone.
She came from their country, Oliver told himself dizzily. So someone else nearby had mysterious tenants in this month of perfect May weather. Someone else was puzzling in vain today over the strangeness of the people from the nameless land.
In silence he went back to Sue.
* * *
The door stood invitingly ajar in the brown dimness of the upper hall. Oliver’s steps slowed as he drew near it, and his heart began to quicken correspondingly. It was the red-haired woman’s room, and he thought the door was not open by accident. Her name, he knew now, was Kleph.
The door creaked a little on its hinges and from within a very sweet voice said lazily, “Won’t you come in?”
The room looked very different indeed. The big bed had been pushed back against the wall and a cover thrown over it that brushed the floor all around looked like soft-haired fur except that it was a pale blue-green and sparkled as if every hair were tipped with invisible crystals. Three books lay open on the fur, and a very curious-looking magazine with faintly luminous printing and a page of pictures that at first glance appeared three-dimensional. Also a tiny porcelain pipe encrusted with porcelain flowers, and a thin wisp of smoke floating from the bowl.
Above the bed a broad picture hung, framing a square of blue water so real Oliver had to look twice to be sure it was not rippling gently from left to right. From the ceiling swung a crystal globe on a glass cord. It turned gently, the light from the windows making curved rectangles in its sides.
Under the center window a sort of chaise-longue stood which Oliver had not seen before. He could only assume it was at least partly pneumatic and had been brought in the luggage. There was a very rich-looking quilted cloth covering and hiding it, embossed all over in shining metallic patterns.
Kleph moved slowly from the door and sank upon the chaise-longue with a little sigh of content. The couch accommodated itself to her body with what looked like delightful comfort. Kleph wriggled a little and then smiled up at Oliver.
“Do come on in. Sit over there, where you can see out the window. I love your beautiful spring weather. You know, there never was a May like it in civilized times.” She said that quite seriously, her blue eyes on Oliver’s, and there was a hint of patronage in her voice, as if the weather had been arranged especially for her.
Oliver started across the room and then paused and looked down in amazement at the floor, which felt unstable. He had not noticed before that the carpet was pure white, unspotted, and sank about an inch under the pressure of the feet. He saw then that Kleph’s feet were bare, or almost bare. She wore something like gossamer buskins of filmy net, fitting her feet exactly. The bare soles were pink as if they had been rouged, and the nails had a liquid gleam like tiny mirrors. He moved closer, and was not as surprised as he should have been to see that they really were tiny mirrors, painted with some lacquer that gave them reflecting surfaces.
“Do sit down,” Kleph said again, waving a white-sleeved arm toward a chair by the window. She wore a garment that looked like short, soft down, loosely cut but following perfectly every motion she made. And there was something curiously different about her very shape today. When Oliver saw her in street clothes, she had the square-shouldered, slim-flanked figure that all women strove for, but here in her lounging robe she looked – well, different. There was an almost swanlike slope to her shoulders today, a roundness and softness to her body that looked unfamiliar and very appealing.
“Will you have some tea?” Kleph asked, and smiled charmingly.
A low table beside her held a tray and several small covered cups, lovely things with an inner glow like rose quartz, the color shining deeply as if from within layer upon layer of translucence. She took up one of the cups – there were no saucers – and offered it to Oliver.
It felt fragile and thin as paper in his hand. He could not see the contents because of the cup’s cover, which seemed to be one with the cup itself and left only a thin open crescent at the rim. Steam rose from the opening.
Kleph took up a cup of her own and tilted it to her lips, smiling at Oliver over the rim. She was very beautiful. The pale red hair lay in shining loops against her head and the corona of curls like a halo above her forehead might have been pressed down like a wreath. Every hair kept order as perfectly as if it had been painted on, though the breeze from the window stirred now and then among the softly shining strands.
Oliver tried the tea. Its flavor was exquisite, very hot, and the taste that lingered upon his tongue was like the scent of flowers. It was an extremely feminine drink. He sipped again, surprised to find how much he liked it.
The scent of flowers seemed to increase as he drank, swirling through his head like smoke. After the third sip there was a faint buzzing in his ears. The bees among the flowers, perhaps, he thought incoherently – and sipped again.
Kleph watched him, smiling.
“The others will be out all afternoon,” she told Oliver comfortably. “I thought it would give us a pleasant time to be acquainted.”
Oliver was rather horrified to hear himself saying, “What makes you talk like that?” He had had no idea of asking the question; something seemed to have loosened his control over his own tongue.
Kleph’s smile deepened. She tipped the cup to her lips and there was indulgence in her voice when she said, “What do you mean ‘like that?’”
He waved his hand vaguely, noting with some surprise that at a glance it seemed to have six or seven fingers as it moved past his face.
“I don’t know – precision, I guess. Why don’t you say ‘don’t,’ for instance?”
“In our country we are trained to speak with precision,” Kleph explained. “Just as we are trained to move and dress and think with precision. Any slovenliness is trained out of us in childhood. With you, of course—” She was polite. “With you, this does not happen to be a national fetish. With us, we have time for the amenities. We like them.”
Her voice had grown sweeter and sweeter as she spoke, until by now it was almost indistinguishable from the sweetness of the flower-scent in Oliver’s head, and the delicate flavor of the tea.
“What country do you come from?” he asked, and tilted the cup again to drink, mildly surprised to notice that it seemed inexhaustible.
Kleph’s smile was definitely patronizing this time. It didn’t irritate him. Nothing could irritate him just now. The whole room swam in a beautiful rosy glow as fragrant as the flowers.
“We must not speak of that, Mr. Wilson.”
“But—” Oliver paused. After all, it was, of course, none of his business. “This is a vacation?” he asked vaguely.
“Call it a pilgrimage, perhaps.”
“Pilgrimage?” Oliver was so interested that for an instant his mind came back into sharp focus. “To – what?”
“I should not have said that, Mr. Wilson. Please forget it. Do you like the tea?”
“You will have guessed by now that it is not only tea, but an euphoriac.”
Oliver stared. “Euphoriac?”
Kleph made a descriptive circle in the air with one graceful hand, and laughed. “You do not feel the effects yet? Surely you do?”
“I feel,” Oliver said, “the way I’d feel after four whiskeys.”
Kleph shuddered delicately. “We get our euphoria less painfully. And without the aftereffects your barbarous alcohols used to have.” She bit her lip. “Sorry. I must be euphoric myself to speak so freely. Please forgive me. Shall we have some music?”
Kleph leaned backward on the chaise-longue and reached toward the wall beside her. The sleeve, falling away from her round tanned arm, left bare the inside of the wrist, and Oliver was startled to see there a long, rosy streak of fading scar. His inhibitions had dissolved in the fumes of the fragrant tea; he caught his breath and leaned forward to stare.
Kleph shook the sleeve back over the scar with a quick gesture. Color came into her face beneath the softly tinted tan and she would not meet Oliver’s eyes. A queer shame seemed to have fallen upon her.
Oliver said tactlessly, “What is it? What’s the matter?”
Still she would not look at him. Much later he understood that shame and knew she had reason for it. Now he listened blankly as she said:
“Nothing … nothing at all. A … an inoculation. All of us … oh, never mind. Listen to the music.”
This time she reached out with the other arm. She touched nothing, but when she had held her hand near the wall a sound breathed through the room. It was the sound of water, the sighing of waves receding upon long, sloped beaches. Oliver followed Kleph’s gaze toward the picture of the blue water above the bed.
The waves there were moving. More than that, the point of vision moved. Slowly the seascape drifted past, moving with the waves, following them toward shore. Oliver watched, half-hypnotized by a motion that seemed at the time quite acceptable and not in the least surprising.
The waves lifted and broke in creaming foam and ran seething up a sandy beach. Then through the sound of the water music began to breathe, and through the water itself a man’s face dawned in the frame, smiling intimately into the room. He held an oddly archaic musical instrument, lute-shaped, its body striped light and dark like a melon and its long neck bent back over his shoulder. He was singing, and Oliver felt mildly astonished at the song. It was very familiar and very odd indeed. He groped through the unfamiliar rhythms and found at last a thread to catch the tune by – it was “Make-Believe,” from Showboat, but certainly a showboat that had never steamed up the Mississippi.
“What’s he doing to it?” he demanded after a few moments of outraged listening. “I never heard anything like it!”
Kleph laughed and stretched out her arm again. Enigmatically she said, “We call it kyling. Never mind. How do you like this?”
It was a comedian, a man in semi-clown make-up, his eyes exaggerated so that they seemed to cover half his face. He stood by a broad glass pillar before a dark curtain and sang a gay, staccato song interspersed with patter that sounded impromptu, and all the while his left hand did an intricate, musical tattoo of the nailtips on the glass of the column. He strolled around and around it as he sang. The rhythms of his fingernails blended with the song and swung widely away into patterns of their own, and blended again without a break.
It was confusing to follow. The song made even less sense than the monologue, which had something to do with a lost slipper and was full of allusions which made Kleph smile, but were utterly unintelligible to Oliver. The man had a dry, brittle style that was not very amusing, though Kleph seemed fascinated. Oliver was interested to see in him an extension and a variation of that extreme smooth confidence which marked all three of the Sanciscos. Clearly a racial trait, he thought.
Other performances followed, some of them fragmentary as if lifted out of a completer version. One he knew. The obvious, stirring melody struck his recognition before the figures – marching men against a haze, a great banner rolling backward above them in the smoke, foreground figures striding gigantically and shouting in rhythm, “Forward, forward the lily banners go!”
The music was tinny, the images blurred and poorly colored, but there was a gusto about the performance that caught at Oliver’s imagination. He stared, remembering the old film from long ago. Dennis King and a ragged chorus, singing “The Song of the Vagabonds” from – was it Vagabond King?
“A very old one,” Kleph said apologetically. “But I like it.”
The steam of the intoxicating tea swirled between Oliver and the picture. Music swelled and sank through the room and the fragrant fumes and his own euphoric brain. Nothing seemed strange. He had discovered how to drink the tea. Like nitrous oxide, the effect was not cumulative. When you reached a peak of euphoria, you could not increase the peak. It was best to wait for a slight dip in the effect of the stimulant before taking more.
Otherwise it had most of the effects of alcohol – everything after awhile dissolved into a delightful fog through which all he saw was uniformly enchanting and partook of the qualities of a dream. He questioned nothing. Afterward he was not certain how much of it he really had dreamed.
There was the dancing doll, for instance. He remembered it quite clearly, in sharp focus – a tiny, slender woman with a long-nosed, dark-eyed face and a pointed chin. She moved delicately across the white rug – knee-high, exquisite. Her features were as mobile as her body, and she danced lightly, with resounding strokes of her toes, each echoing like a bell. It was a formalized sort of dance, and she sang breathlessly in accompaniment, making amusing little grimaces. Certainly it was a portrait-doll, animated to mimic the original perfectly in voice and motion. Afterward, Oliver knew he must have dreamed it.
What else happened he was quite unable to remember later. He knew Kleph had said some curious things, but they all made sense at the time, and afterward he couldn’t remember a word. He knew he had been offered little glittering candies in a transparent dish, and that some of them had been delicious and one or two so bitter his tongue still curled the next day when he recalled them, and one – Kleph sucked luxuriantly on the same kind – of a taste that was actively nauseating.
As for Kleph herself – he was frantically uncertain the next day what had really happened. He thought he could remember the softness of her white-downed arms clasped at the back of his neck, while she laughed up at him and exhaled into his face the flowery fragrance of the tea. But beyond that he was totally unable to recall anything, for a while.
There was a brief interlude later, before the oblivion of sleep. He was almost sure he remembered a moment when the other two Sanciscos stood looking down at him, the man scowling, the smoky-eyed woman smiling a derisive smile.
The man said, from a vast distance, “Kleph, you know this is against every rule—” His voice began in a thin hum and soared in fantastic flight beyond the range of hearing. Oliver thought he remembered the dark woman’s laughter, thin and distant too, and the hum of her voice like bees in flight.
“Kleph, Kleph, you silly little fool, can we never trust you out of sight?”
Kleph’s voice then said something that seemed to make no sense. “What does it matter, here?”
The man answered in that buzzing, faraway hum. “The matter of giving your bond before you leave, not to interfere. You know you signed the rules—”
Kleph’s voice, nearer and more intelligible: “But here the difference is … it does not matter here! You both know that. How could it matter?”
Oliver felt the downy brush of her sleeve against his cheek, but he saw nothing except the slow, smokelike ebb and flow of darkness past his eyes. He heard the voices wrangle musically from far away, and he heard them cease.
When he woke the next morning, alone in his own room, he woke with the memory of Kleph’s eyes upon him very sorrowfully, her lovely tanned face looking down on him with the red hair falling fragrantly on each side of it and sadness and compassion in her eyes. He thought he had probably dreamed that. There was no reason why anyone should look at him with such sadness.
* * *
Sue telephoned that day.
“Oliver, the people who want to buy the house are here. That madwoman and her husband. Shall I bring them over?”
Oliver’s mind all day had been hazy with the vague, bewildering memories of yesterday. Kleph’s face kept floating before him, blotting out the room. He said, “What? I … oh, well, bring them if you want to. I don’t see what good it’ll do.”
“Oliver, what’s wrong with you? We agreed we needed the money, didn’t we? I don’t see how you can think of passing up such a wonderful bargain without even a struggle. We could get married and buy our own house right away, and you know we’ll never get such an offer again for that old trashheap. Wake up, Oliver!”
Oliver made an effort. “I know, Sue – I know. But—”
“Oliver, you’ve got to think of something!” Her voice was imperious.
He knew she was right. Kleph or no Kleph, the bargain shouldn’t be ignored if there was any way at all of getting the tenants out. He wondered again what made the place so suddenly priceless to so many people. And what the last week in May had to do with the value of the house.
A sudden sharp curiosity pierced even the vagueness of his mind today. May’s last week was so important that the whole sale of the house stood or fell upon occupancy by then. Why? Why?
“What’s going to happen next week?” he asked rhetorically of the telephone. “Why can’t they wait till these people leave? I’d knock a couple of thousand off the price if they’d…”
“You would not, Oliver Wilson! I can buy all our refrigeration units with that extra money. You’ll just have to work out some way to give possession by next week, and that’s that. You hear me?”
“Keep your shirt on,” Oliver said practically. “I’m only human, but I’ll try.”
“I’m bringing the people over right away,” Sue told him. “While the Sanciscos are still out. Now you put your mind to work and think of something, Oliver.” She paused, and her voice was reflective when she spoke again. “They’re … awfully odd people, darling.”
* * *
It was an elderly woman and a very young man who trailed Sue up the walk. Oliver knew immediately what had struck Sue about them. He was somehow not at all surprised to see that both wore their clothing with the familiar air of elegant self-consciousness he had come to know so well. They, too, looked around them at the beautiful, sunny afternoon with conscious enjoyment and an air of faint condescension. He knew before he heard them speak how musical their voices would be and how meticulously they would pronounce each word.
There was no doubt about it. The people of Kleph’s mysterious country were arriving here in force – for something. For the last week of May? He shrugged mentally; there was no way of guessing – yet. One thing only was sure: all of them must come from that nameless land where people controlled their voices like singers and their garments like actors who could stop the reel of time itself to adjust every disordered fold.
The elderly woman took full charge of the conversation from the start. They stood together on the rickety, unpainted porch, and Sue had no chance even for introductions.
“Young man, I am Madame Hollia. This is my husband.” Her voice had an underrunning current of harshness, which was perhaps age. And her face looked almost corseted, the loose flesh coerced into something like firmness by some invisible method Oliver could not guess at. The make-up was so skillful he could not be certain it was make-up at all, but he had a definite feeling that she was much older than she looked. It would have taken a lifetime of command to put so much authority into the harsh, deep, musically controlled voice.
The young man said nothing. He was very handsome. His type, apparently, was one that does not change much no matter in what culture or country it may occur. He wore beautifully tailored garments and carried in one gloved hand a box of red leather, about the size and shape of a book.
Madame Hollia went on. “I understand your problem about the house. You wish to sell to me, but are legally bound by your lease with Omerie and his friends. Is that right?”
Oliver nodded. “But—”
“Let me finish. If Omerie can be forced to vacate before next week, you will accept our offer. Right? Very well. Hara!” She nodded to the young man beside her. He jumped to instant attention, bowed slightly, said, “Yes, Hollia,” and slipped a gloved hand into his coat.
Madame Hollia took the little object offered on his palm, her gesture as she reached for it almost imperial, as if royal robes swept from her outstretched arm.
“Here,” she said, “is something that may help us. My dear –” she held it out to Sue – “if you can hide this somewhere about the house, I believe your unwelcome tenants will not trouble you much longer.”
Sue took the thing curiously. It looked like a tiny silver box, no more than an inch square, indented at the top and with no line to show it could be opened.
“Wait a minute,” Oliver broke in uneasily. “What is it?”
“Nothing that will harm anyone, I assure you.”
Madame Hollia’s imperious gesture at one sweep silenced him and commanded Sue forward. “Go on, my dear. Hurry, before Omerie comes back. I can assure you there is no danger to anyone.”
Oliver broke in determinedly. “Madame Hollia, I’ll have to know what your plans are. I—”
“Oh, Oliver, please!” Sue’s fingers closed over the silver cube. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure Madame Hollia knows best. Don’t you want to get those people out?”
“Of course I do. But I don’t want the house blown up or—”
Madame Hollia’s deep laughter was indulgent. “Nothing so crude, I promise you, Mr. Wilson. Remember, we want the house! Hurry, my dear.”
Sue nodded and slipped hastily past Oliver into the hall. Outnumbered, he subsided uneasily. The young man, Hara, tapped a negligent foot and admired the sunlight as they waited. It was an afternoon as perfect as all of May had been, translucent gold, balmy with an edge of chill lingering in the air to point up a perfect contrast with the summer to come. Hara looked around him confidently, like a man paying just tribute to a stageset provided wholly for himself. He even glanced up at a drone from above and followed the course of a big transcontinental plane half dissolved in golden haze high in the sun. “Quaint,” he murmured in a gratified voice.
Sue came back and slipped her hand through Oliver’s arm, squeezing excitedly. “There,” she said. “How long will it take, Madame Hollia?”
“That will depend, my dear. Not very long. Now, Mr. Wilson, one word with you. You live here also, I understand? For your own comfort, take my advice and…”
Somewhere within the house a door slammed and a clear high voice rang wordlessly up a rippling scale. Then there was the sound of feet on the stairs, and a single line of song. Come hider, love, to me—
Hara started, almost dropping the red leather box he held.
“Kleph!” he said in a whisper. “Or Klia. I know they both just came on from Canterbury. But I thought…”
“Hush.” Madame Hollia’s features composed themselves into an imperious blank. She breathed triumphantly through her nose, drew back upon herself and turned an imposing facade to the door.
* * *
Kleph wore the same softly downy robe Oliver had seen before, except that today it was not white, but a pale, clear blue that gave her tan an apricot flush. She was smiling.
“Why, Hollia!” Her tone was at its most musical. “I thought I recognized voices from home. How nice to see you. No one knew you were coming to the—” She broke off and glanced at Oliver and then away again. “Hara, too,” she said. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Sue said flatly, “When did you get back?”
Kleph smiled at her. “You must be the little Miss Johnson. Why, I did not go out at all. I was tired of sightseeing. I have been napping in my room.”
Sue drew in her breath in something that just escaped being a disbelieving sniff. A look flashed between the two women, and for an instant held – and that instant was timeless. It was an extraordinary pause in which a great deal of wordless interplay took place in the space of a second.
Oliver saw the quality of Kleph’s smile at Sue, that same look of quiet confidence he had noticed so often about all of these strange people. He saw Sue’s quick inventory of the other woman, and he saw how Sue squared her shoulders and stood up straight, smoothing down her summer frock over her flat hips so that for an instant she stood posed consciously, looking down on Kleph. It was deliberate. Bewildered, he glanced again at Kleph.
Kleph’s shoulders sloped softly, her robe was belted to a tiny waist and hung in deep folds over frankly rounded hips. Sue’s was the fashionable figure – but Sue was the first to surrender.
Kleph’s smile did not falter. But in the silence there was an abrupt reversal of values, based on no more than the measureless quality of Kleph’s confidence in herself, the quiet, assured smile. It was suddenly made very clear that fashion is not a constant. Kleph’s curious, out-of-mode curves without warning became the norm, and Sue was a queer, angular, half-masculine creature beside her.
Oliver had no idea how it was done. Somehow the authority passed in a breath from one woman to the other. Beauty is almost wholly a matter of fashion; what is beautiful today would have been grotesque a couple of generations ago and will be grotesque a hundred years ahead. It will be worse than grotesque; it will be outmoded and therefore faintly ridiculous.
Sue was that. Kleph had only to exert her authority to make it clear to everyone on the porch. Kleph was a beauty, suddenly and very convincingly, beautiful in the accepted mode, and Sue was amusingly old-fashioned, an anachronism in her lithe, square-shouldered slimness. She did not belong. She was grotesque among these strangely immaculate people.
Sue’s collapse was complete. But pride sustained her, and bewilderment. Probably she never did grasp entirely what was wrong. She gave Kleph one glance of burning resentment and when her eyes came back to Oliver there was suspicion in them, and mistrust.
Looking backward later, Oliver thought that in that moment, for the first time clearly, he began to suspect the truth. But he had no time to ponder it, for after the brief instant of enmity the three people from – elsewhere – began to speak all at once, as if in a belated attempt to cover something they did not want noticed.
Kleph said, “This beautiful weather—” and Madame Hollia said, “So fortunate to have this house—” and Hara, holding up the red leather box, said loudest of all, “Cenbe sent you this, Kleph. His latest.”
Kleph put out both hands for it eagerly, the eiderdown sleeves falling back from her rounded arms. Oliver had a quick glimpse of that mysterious scar before the sleeve fell back, and it seemed to him that there was the faintest trace of a similar scar vanishing into Hara’s cuff as he let his own arm drop.
“Cenbe!” Kleph cried, her voice high and sweet and delighted. “How wonderful! What period?”
“From November 1664,” Hara said. “London, of course, though I think there may be some counterpoint from the 1347 November. He hasn’t finished – of course.” He glanced almost nervously at Oliver and Sue. “A wonderful example,” he said quickly. “Marvelous. If you have the taste for it, of course.”
Madame Hollia shuddered with ponderous delicacy. “That man!” she said. “Fascinating, of course – a great man. But – so advanced!”
“It takes a connoisseur to appreciate Cenbe’s work fully,” Kleph said in a slightly tart voice. “We all admit that.”
“Oh yes, we all bow to Cenbe,” Hollia conceded. “I confess the man terrifies me a little, my dear. Do we expect him to join us?”
“I suppose so,” Kleph said. “If his – work – is not yet finished, then of course. You know Cenbe’s tastes.”
Hollia and Hara laughed together. “I know when to look for him, then,” Hollia said. She glanced at the staring Oliver and the subdued but angry Sue, and with a commanding effort brought the subject back into line.
“So fortunate, my dear Kleph, to have this house,” she declared heavily. “I saw a tridimensional of it – afterward – and it was still quite perfect. Such a fortunate coincidence. Would you consider parting with your lease, for a consideration? Say, a coronation seat at…”
“Nothing could buy us, Hollia,” Kleph told her gaily, clasping the red box to her bosom.
HoIlia gave her a cool stare. “You may change your mind, my dear Kleph,” she said pontifically. “There is still time. You can always reach us through Mr. Wilson here. We have rooms up the street in the Montgomery House – nothing like yours, of course, but they will do. For us, they will do.”
Oliver blinked. The Montgomery House was the most expensive hotel in town. Compared to this collapsing old ruin, it was a palace. There was no understanding these people. Their values seemed to have suffered a complete reversal.
Madame Hollia moved majestically toward the steps.
“Very pleasant to see you, my dear,” she said over one well-padded shoulder. “Enjoy your stay. My regards to Omerie and Klia. Mr. Wilson—” she nodded toward the walk. “A word with you.”
Oliver followed her down toward the street. Madame Hollia paused halfway there and touched his arm.
“One word of advice,” she said huskily. “You say you sleep here? Move out, young man. Move out before tonight.”
* * *
Oliver was searching in a half-desultory fashion for the hiding place Sue had found for the mysterious silver cube, when the first sounds from above began to drift down the stairwell toward him. Kleph had closed her door, but the house was old, and strange qualities in the noise overhead seemed to seep through the woodwork like an almost visible stain.
It was music, in a way. But much more than music. And it was a terrible sound, the sounds of calamity and of all human reaction to calamity, everything from hysteria to heartbreak, from irrational joy to rationalized acceptance.
The calamity was – single. The music did not attempt to correlate all human sorrows; it focused sharply upon one and followed the ramifications out and out. Oliver recognized these basics to the sounds in a very brief moment. They were essentials, and they seemed to beat into his brain with the first strains of the music which was so much more than music.
But when he lifted his head to listen he lost all grasp upon the meaning of the noise and it was sheer medley and confusion. To think of it was to blur it hopelessly in the mind, and he could not recapture that first instant of unreasoning acceptance.
He went upstairs almost in a daze, hardly knowing what he was doing. He pushed Kleph’s door open. He looked inside … What he saw there he could not afterward remember except in a blurring as vague as the blurred ideas the music roused in his brain. Half the room had vanished behind a mist, and the mist was a three-dimensional screen upon which were projected – he had no words for them. He was not even sure if the projections were visual. The mist was spinning with motion and sound, but essentially it was neither sound nor motion that Oliver saw.
This was a work of art. Oliver knew no name for it. It transcended all art-forms he knew, blended them, and out of the blend produced subtleties his mind could not begin to grasp. Basically, this was the attempt of a master composer to correlate every essential aspect of a vast human experience into something that could be conveyed in a few moments to every sense at once.
The shifting visions on the screen were not pictures in themselves, but hints of pictures, subtly selected outlines that plucked at the mind and with one deft touch set whole chords ringing through the memory. Perhaps each beholder reacted differently, since it was in the eye and the mind of the beholder that the truth of the picture lay. No two would be aware of the same symphonic panorama, but each would see essentially the same terrible story unfold.
Every sense was touched by that deft and merciless genius. Color and shape and motion flickered in the screen, hinting much, evoking unbearable memories deep in the mind; odors floated from the screen and touched the heart of the beholder more poignantly than anything visual could do. The skin crawled sometimes as if to a tangible cold hand laid upon it. The tongue curled with remembered bitterness and remembered sweet.
It was outrageous. It violated the innermost privacies of a man’s mind, called up secret things long ago walled off behind mental scar tissue, forced its terrible message upon the beholder relentlessly though the mind might threaten to crack beneath the stress of it.
And yet, in spite of all this vivid awareness, Oliver did not know what calamity the screen portrayed. That it was real, vast, overwhelmingly dreadful he could not doubt. That it had once happened was unmistakable. He caught flashing glimpses of human faces distorted with grief and disease and death – real faces, faces that had once lived and were seen now in the instant of dying. He saw men and women in rich clothing superimposed in panorama upon reeling thousands of ragged folk, great throngs of them swept past the sight in an instant, and he saw that death made no distinction among them.
He saw lovely women laugh and shake their curls, and the laughter shriek into hysteria and the hysteria into music. He saw one man’s face, over and over – a long, dark, saturnine face, deeply lined, sorrowful, the face of a powerful man wise in worldliness, urbane – and helpless. That face was for a while a recurring motif, always more tortured, more helpless than before.
* * *
The music broke off in the midst of a rising glide. The mist vanished and the room reappeared before him. The anguished dark face for an instant seemed to Oliver printed everywhere he looked, like after-vision on the eyelids. He knew that face. He had seen it before, not often, but he should know its name—
“Oliver, Oliver—” Kleph’s sweet voice came out of a fog at him. He was leaning dizzily against the doorpost looking down into her eyes. She, too, had that dazed blankness he must show on his own face. The power of the dreadful symphony still held them both. But even in this confused moment Oliver saw that Kleph had been enjoying the experience.
He felt sickened to the depths of his mind, dizzy with sickness and revulsion because of the superimposing of human miseries he had just beheld. But Kleph – only appreciation showed upon her face. To her it had been magnificence, and magnificence only.
Irrelevantly Oliver remembered the nauseating candies she had enjoyed, the nauseating odors of strange food that drifted sometimes through the hall from her room.
What was it she had said downstairs a little while ago? Connoisseur, that was it. Only a connoisseur could appreciate work as – as advanced – as the work of someone called Cenbe.
A whiff of intoxicating sweetness curled past Oliver’s face. Something cool and smooth was pressed into his hand.
“Oh, Oliver, I am so sorry,” Kleph’s voice murmured contritely. “Here, drink the euphoriac and you will feel better. Please drink!”
The familiar fragrance of the hot sweet tea was on his tongue before he knew he had complied. Its relaxing fumes floated up through his brain and in a moment or two the world felt stable around him again. The room was as it had always been. And Kleph—
Her eyes were very bright. Sympathy showed in them for him, but for herself she was still brimmed with the high elation of what she had just been experiencing.
“Come and sit down,” she said gently, tugging at his arm. “I am so sorry – I should not have played that over, where you could hear it. I have no excuse, really. It was only that I forgot what the effect might be on one who had never heard Cenbe’s symphonies before. I was so impatient to see what he had done with … with his new subject. I am so very sorry, Oliver!”
“What was it?” His voice sounded steadier than he had expected. The tea was responsible for that. He sipped again, glad of the consoling euphoria its fragrance brought.
“A … a composite interpretation of … oh, Oliver, you know I must not answer questions!”
“No – drink your tea and forget what it was you saw. Think of other things. Here, we will have music – another kind of music, something gay…”
She reached for the wall beside the window, and as before, Oliver saw the broad framed picture of blue water above the bed ripple and grow pale. Through it another scene began to dawn like shapes rising beneath the surface of the sea.
He had a glimpse of a dark-curtained stage upon which a man in a tight dark tunic and hose moved with a restless, sidelong pace, his hands and face startlingly pale against the black about him. He limped; he had a crooked back and he spoke familiar lines. Oliver had seen John Barryrnore once as the crook-backed Richard, and it seemed vaguely outrageous to him that any other actor should essay that difficult part. This one he had never seen before, but the man had a fascinatingly smooth manner and his interpretation of the Plantagenet king was quite new and something Shakespeare probably never dreamed of.
“No,” Kleph said, “not this. Nothing gloomy.” And she put out her hand again. The nameless new Richard faded and there was a swirl of changing pictures and changing voices, all blurred together, before the scene steadied upon a stageful of dancers in pastel ballet skirts, drifting effortlessly through some complicated pattern of motion. The music that went with it was light and effortless too. The room filled up with the clear, floating melody.
Oliver set down his cup. He felt much surer of himself now, and he thought the euphoriac had done all it could for him. He didn’t want to blur again mentally. There were things he meant to learn about. Now. He considered how to begin.
Kleph was watching him. “That Hollia,” she said suddenly. “She wants to buy the house?”
Oliver nodded. “She’s offering a lot of money. Sue’s going to be awfully disappointed if…” He hesitated. Perhaps, after all, Sue would not be disappointed. He remembered the little silver cube with the enigmatic function and he wondered if he should mention it to Kleph. But the euphoriac had not reached that level of his brain, and he remembered his duty to Sue and was silent.
Kleph shook her head, her eyes upon his warm with – was it sympathy?
“Believe me,” she said, “you will not find that – important – after all. I promise you, Oliver.”
He stared at her. “I wish you’d explain.”
Kleph laughed on a note more sorrowful than amused. But it occurred to Oliver suddenly that there was no longer condescension in her voice. Imperceptibly that air of delicate amusement had vanished from her manner toward him. The cool detachment that still marked Omerie’s attitude, and Klia’s, was not in Kleph’s any more. It was a subtlety he did not think she could assume. It had to come spontaneously or not at all. And for no reason he was willing to examine, it became suddenly very important to Oliver that Kleph should not condescend to him, that she should feel toward him as he felt toward her. He would not think of it.
He looked down at his cup, rose-quartz, exhaling a thin plume of steam from its crescent-slit opening. This time, he thought, maybe he could make the tea work for him. For he remembered how it loosened the tongue, and there was a great deal he needed to know. The idea that had come to him on the porch in the instant of silent rivalry between Kleph and Sue seemed now too fantastic to entertain. But some answer there must be.
Kleph herself gave him the opening.
“I must not take too much euphoriac this afternoon,” she said, smiling at him over her pink cup. “It will make me drowsy, and we are going out this evening with friends.”
“More friends?” Oliver asked. “From your country?”
Kleph nodded. “Very dear friends we have expected all this week.”
“I wish you’d tell me,” Oliver said bluntly, “where it is you come from. It isn’t from here. Your culture is too different from ours – even your names…” He broke off as Kleph shook her head.
“I wish I could tell you. But that is against all the rules. It is even against the rules for me to be here talking to you now.”
She made a helpless gesture. “You must not ask me, Oliver.” She leaned back on the chaise-longue, which adjusted itself luxuriously to the motion, and smiled very sweetly at him. “We must not talk about things like that. Forget it, listen to the music, enjoy yourself if you can—” She closed her eyes and laid her head back against the cushions. Oliver saw the round tanned throat swell as she began to hum a tune. Eyes still closed, she sang again the words she had sung upon the stairs. “Come hider, love, to me…”
A memory clicked over suddenly in Oliver’s mind. He had never heard the queer, lagging tune before, but he thought he knew the words. He remembered what Hollia’s husband had said when he heard that line of song, and he leaned forward. She would not answer a direct question, but perhaps—
“Was the weather this warm in Canterbury?” he asked, and held his breath. Kleph hummed another line of the song and shook her head, eyes still closed.
“It was autumn there,” she said. “But bright, wonderfully bright. Even their clothing, you know … everyone was singing that new song, and I can’t get it out of my head.” She sang another line, and the words were almost unintelligible – English, yet not an English Oliver could understand.
He stood up. “Wait,” he said. “I want to find something. Back in a minute.”
She opened her eyes and smiled mistily at him, still humming. He went downstairs as fast as he could – the stairway swayed a little, though his head was nearly clear now – and into the library. The book he wanted was old and battered, interlined with the penciled notes of his college days. He did not remember very clearly where the passage he wanted was, but he thumbed fast through the columns and by sheer luck found it within a few minutes. Then he went back upstairs, feeling a strange emptiness in his stomach because of what he almost believed now.
“Kleph,” he said firmly, “I know that song. I know the year it was new.”
Her lids rose slowly; she looked at him through a mist of euphoriac. He was not sure she had understood. For a long moment she held him with her gaze. Then she put out one downy-sleeved arm and spread her tanned fingers toward him. She laughed deep in her throat.
“Come hider, love, to me,” she said.
He crossed the room slowly, took her hand. The fingers closed warmly about his. She pulled him down so that he had to kneel beside her. Her other arm lifted. Again she laughed, very softly, and closed her eyes, lifting her face to his.
The kiss was warm and long. He caught something of her own euphoria from the fragrance of the tea breathed into his face. And he was startled at the end of the kiss, when the clasp of her arms loosened about his neck, to feel the sudden rush of her breath against his cheek. There were tears on her face, and the sound she made was a sob.
He held her off and looked down in amazement. She sobbed once more, caught a deep breath, and said, “Oh, Oliver, Oliver—” Then she shook her head and pulled free, turning away to hide her face. “I … I am sorry,” she said unevenly. “Please forgive me. It does not matter … I know it does not matter … but—”
“What’s wrong? What doesn’t matter?”
“Nothing. Nothing … please forget it. Nothing at all.” She got a handkerchief from the table and blew her nose, smiling at him with an effect of radiance through the tears.
Suddenly he was very angry. He had heard enough evasions and mystifying half-truths. He said roughly, “Do you think I’m crazy? I know enough now to—”
“Oliver, please!” She held up her own cup, steaming fragrantly. “Please, no more questions. Here, euphoria is what you need, Oliver. Euphoria, not answers.”
“What year was it when you heard that song in Canterbury?” he demanded, pushing the cup aside.
She blinked at him, tears bright on her lashes. “Why … what year do you think?”
“I know,” Oliver told her grimly. “I know the year that song was popular. I know you just came from Canterbury – Hollia’s husband said so. It’s May now, but it was autumn in Canterbury, and you just came from there, so lately the song you heard is still running through your head. Chaucer’s Pardoner sang that song some time around the end of the fourteenth century. Did you see Chaucer, Kleph? What was it like in England that long ago?”
Kleph’s eyes fixed his for a silent moment. Then her shoulders drooped and her whole body went limp with resignation beneath the soft blue robe. “I am a fool,” she said gently. “It must have been easy to trap me. You really believe what you say?”
She said in a low voice, “Few people do believe it. That is one of our maxims, when we travel. We are safe from much suspicion because people before The Travel began will not believe.”
The emptiness in Oliver’s stomach suddenly doubled in volume. For an instant the bottom dropped out of time itself and the universe was unsteady about him. He felt sick. He felt naked and helpless. There was a buzzing in his ears and the room dimmed before him.
He had not really believed – not until this instant. He had expected some rational explanation from her that would tidy all his wild half-thoughts and suspicions into something a man could accept as believable. Not this.
Kleph dabbed at her eyes with the pale-blue handkerchief and smiled tremulously.
“I know,” she said. “It must be a terrible thing to accept. To have all your concepts turned upside down. We know it from childhood, of course, but for you … here, Oliver. The euphoriac will make it easier.”
He took the cup, the faint stain of her lip rouge still on the crescent opening. He drank, feeling the dizzy sweetness spiral through his head, and his brain turned a little in his skull as the volatile fragrance took effect. With that turning, focus shifted and all his values with it.
He began to feel better. The flesh settled on his bones again, and the warm clothing of temporal assurance settled upon his flesh, and he was no longer naked and in the vortex of unstable time.
* * *
“The story is very simple, really,” Kleph said. “We – travel. Our own time is not terribly far ahead of yours. No. I must not say how far. But we still remember your songs and poets and some of your great actors. We are a people of much leisure, and we cultivate the art of enjoying ourselves.
“This is a tour we are making – a tour of a year’s seasons. Vintage seasons. That autumn in Canterbury was the most magnificent autumn our researchers could discover anywhere. We rode in a pilgrimage to the shrine – it was a wonderful experience, though the clothing was a little hard to manage.
“Now this month of May is almost over – the loveliest May in recorded times. A perfect May in a wonderful period. You have no way of knowing what a good, gay period you live in, Oliver. The very feeling in the air of the cities – that wonderful national confidence and happiness – everything going as smoothly as a dream. There were other Mays with fine weather, but each of them had a war or a famine, or something else wrong.” She hesitated, grimaced and went on rapidly. “In a few days we are to meet at a coronation in Rome,” she said. “I think the year will be 800 – Christmastime. We—”
“But why,” Oliver interrupted, “did you insist on this house? Why do the others want to get it away from you?”
Kleph stared at him. He saw the tears rising again in small bright crescents that gathered above her lower lids. He saw the look of obstinacy that came upon her soft, tanned face. She shook her head.
“You must not ask me that.” She held out the steaming cup. “Here, drink and forget what I have said. I can tell you no more. No more at all.”
* * *
When he woke, for a little while he had no idea where he was. He did not remember leaving Kleph or coming to his own room. He didn’t care, just then. For he woke to a sense of overwhelming terror.
The dark was full of it. His brain rocked on waves of fear and pain. He lay motionless, too frightened to stir, some atavistic memory warning him to lie quiet until he knew from which direction the danger threatened. Reasonless panic broke over him in a tidal flow; his head ached with its violence and the dark throbbed to the same rhythms.
A knock sounded at the door. Omerie’s deep voice said, “Wilson! Wilson, are you awake?”
Oliver tried twice before he had breath to answer. “Y-yes – what is it?”
The knob rattled. Omerie’s dim figure groped for the light switch and the room sprang into visibility. Omerie’s face was drawn with strain, and he held one hand to his head as if it ached in rhythm with Oliver’s.
It was in that moment, before Omerie spoke again, that Oliver remembered Hollia’s warning. “Move out, young man – move out before tonight.” Wildly he wondered what threatened them all in this dark house that throbbed with the rhythms of pure terror.
Omerie in an angry voice answered the unspoken question.
“Someone has planted a subsonic in the house, Wilson. Kleph thinks you may know where it is.”
“Call it a gadget,” Omerie interpreted impatiently. “Probably a small metal box that—”
Oliver said, “Oh,” in a tone that must have told Omerie everything.
“Where is it?” he demanded. “Quick. Let’s get this over.”
“I don’t know.” With an effort Oliver controlled the chattering of his teeth. “Y-you mean all this – all this is just from the little box?”
“Of course. Now tell me how to find it before we all go crazy.”
Oliver got shakily out of bed, groping for his robe with nerveless hands. “I s-suppose she hid it somewhere downstairs,” he said. “S-she wasn’t gone long.”
Omerie got the story out of him in a few brief questions. He clicked his teeth in exasperation when Oliver had finished it.
“That stupid Hollia—”
“Omerie!” Kleph’s plaintive voice wailed from the hall. “Please hurry, Omerie! This is too much to stand! Oh, Omerie, please!”
Oliver stood up abruptly. Then a redoubled wave of the inexplicable pain seemed to explode in his skull at the motion, and he clutched the bedpost and reeled.
“Go find the thing yourself,” he heard himself saying dizzily. “I can’t even walk—”
Omerie’s own temper was drawn wire-tight by the pressure in the room. He seized Oliver’s shoulder and shook him, saying in a tight voice, “You let it in – now help us get it out, or—”
“It’s a gadget out of your world, not mine!” Oliver said furiously.
And then it seemed to him there was a sudden coldness and silence in the room. Even the pain and the senseless terror paused for a moment. Omerie’s pale, cold eyes fixed upon Oliver a stare so chill he could almost feel the ice in it.
“What do you know about our – world?” Omerie demanded.
Oliver did not speak a word. He did not need to; his face must have betrayed what he knew. He was beyond concealment in the stress of this night-time terror he still could not understand.
Omerie bared his white teeth and said three perfectly unintelligible words. Then he stepped to the door and snapped, “Kleph!”
Oliver could see the two women huddled together in the hall, shaking violently with involuntary waves of that strange, synthetic terror. Klia, in a luminous green gown, was rigid with control, but Kleph made no effort whatever at repression. Her downy robe had turned soft gold tonight; she shivered in it and the tears ran down her face unchecked.
“Kleph,” Omerie said in a dangerous voice, “you were euphoric again yesterday?”
Kleph darted a scared glance at Oliver and nodded guiltily.
“You talked too much.” It was a complete indictment in one sentence. “You know the rules, Kleph. You will not be allowed to travel again if anyone reports this to the authorities.”
Kleph’s lovely creamy face creased suddenly into impenitent dimples.
“I know it was wrong. I am very sorry – but you will not stop me if Cenbe says no.”
Klia flung out her arms in a gesture of helpless anger. Omerie shrugged. “In this case, as it happens, no great harm is done,” he said, giving Oliver an unfathomable glance. “But it might have been serious. Next time perhaps it will be. I must have a talk with Cenbe.”
“We must find the subsonic first of all,” Klia reminded them, shivering. “If Kleph is afraid to help, she can go out for a while. I confess I am very sick of Kleph’s company just now.”
“We could give up the house!” Kleph cried wildly. “Let Hollia have it! How can you stand this long enough to hunt—”
“Give up the house?” Klia echoed. “You must be mad! With all our invitations out?”
“There will be no need for that,” Omerie said. “We can find it if we all hunt. You feel able to help?” He looked at Oliver.
With an effort Oliver controlled his own senseless panic as the waves of it swept through the room. “Yes,” he said. “But what about me? What are you going to do?”
“That should be obvious,” Omerie said, his pale eyes in the dark face regarding Oliver impassively. “Keep you in the house until we go. We can certainly do no less. You understand that. And there is no reason for us to do more, as it happens. Silence is all we promised when we signed our travel papers.”
“But—” Oliver groped for the fallacy in that reasoning. It was no use. He could not think clearly. Panic surged insanely through his mind from the very air around him. “All right,” he said. “Let’s hunt.”
It was dawn before they found the box, tucked inside the ripped seam of a sofa cushion. Omerie took it upstairs without a word. Five minutes later the pressure in the air abruptly dropped and peace fell blissfully upon the house.
“They will try again,” Omerie said to Oliver at the door of the back bedroom. “We must watch for that. As for you, I must see that you remain in the house until Friday. For your own comfort, I advise you to let me know if Hollia offers any further tricks. I confess I am not quite sure how to enforce your staying indoors. I could use methods that would make you very uncomfortable. I would prefer to accept your word on it.”
Oliver hesitated. The relaxing of pressure upon his brain had left him exhausted and stupid, and he was not at all sure what to say.
Omerie went on after a moment. “It was partly our fault for not insuring that we had the house to ourselves,” he said. “Living here with us, you could scarcely help suspecting. Shall we say that in return for your promise, I reimburse you in part for losing the sale price on this house?”
Oliver thought that over. It would pacify Sue a little. And it meant only two days indoors. Besides, what good would escaping do? What could he say to outsiders that would not lead him straight to a padded cell?
“All right,” he said wearily. “I promise.”
* * *
By Friday morning there was still no sign from Hollia. Sue telephoned at noon. Oliver knew the crackle of her voice over the wire when Kleph took the call. Even the crackle sounded hysterical; Sue saw her bargain slipping hopelessly through her grasping little fingers.
Kleph’s voice was soothing. “I am sorry,” she said many times, in the intervals when the voice paused. “I am truly sorry. Believe me, you will find it does not matter. I know … I am sorry—”
She turned from the phone at last. “The girl says Hollia has given up,” she told the others.
“Not Hollia,” Klia said firmly.
Omerie shrugged. “We have very little time left. If she intends anything more, it will be tonight. We must watch for it.”
“Oh, not tonight!” Kleph’s voice was horrified. “Not even Hollia would do that!”
“Hollia, my dear, in her own way is quite as unscrupulous as you are,” Omerie told her with a smile.
“But – would she spoil things for us just because she can’t be here?”
“What do you think?” Klia demanded.
Oliver ceased to listen. There was no making sense out of their talk, but he knew that by tonight whatever the secret was must surely come into the open at last. He was willing to wait and see.
For two days excitement had been building up in the house and the three who shared it with him. Even the servants felt it and were nervous and unsure of themselves. Oliver had given up asking questions – it only embarrassed his tenants – and watched.
All the chairs in the house were collected in the three front bedrooms. The furniture was rearranged to make room for them, and dozens of covered cups had been set out on trays. Oliver recognized Kleph’s rose-quartz set among the rest. No steam rose from the thin crescent-openings, but the cups were full. Oliver lifted one and felt a heavy liquid move within it, like something half-solid, sluggishly.
Guests were obviously expected, but the regular dinner hour of nine came and went, and no one had yet arrived. Dinner was finished; the servants went home. The Sanciscos went to their rooms to dress, amid a feeling of mounting tension.
Oliver stepped out on the porch after dinner, trying in vain to guess what it was that had wrought such a pitch of expectancy in the house. There was a quarter moon swimming in haze on the horizon, but the stars which had made every night of May thus far a dazzling translucency, were very dim tonight. Clouds had begun to gather at sundown, and the undimmed weather of the whole month seemed ready to break at last.
Behind Oliver the door opened a little, and closed. He caught Kleph’s fragrance before he turned, and a faint whiff of the fragrance of the euphoriac she was much too fond of drinking. She came to his side and slipped a hand into his, looking up into his face in the darkness.
“Oliver,” she said very softly. “Promise me one thing. Promise me not to leave the house tonight.”
“I’ve already promised that,” he said a little irritably.
“I know. But tonight – I have a very particular reason for wanting you indoors tonight.” She leaned her head against his shoulder for a moment, and despite himself his irritation softened. He had not seen Kleph alone since that last night of her revelations; he supposed he never would be alone with her again for more than a few minutes at a time. But he knew he would not forget those two bewildering evenings. He knew too, now, that she was very weak and foolish – but she was still Kleph and he had held her in his arms, and was not likely ever to forget it.
“You might be – hurt – if you went out tonight,” she was saying in a muffled voice. “I know it will not matter, in the end, but – remember you promised, Oliver.”
She was gone again, and the door had closed behind her, before he could voice the futile questions in his mind.
* * *
The guests began to arrive just before midnight. From the head of the stairs Oliver saw them coming in by twos and threes, and was astonished at how many of these people from the future must have gathered here in the past weeks. He could see quite clearly now how they differed from the norm of his own period. Their physical elegance was what one noticed first – perfect grooming, meticulous manners, meticulously controlled voices. But because they were all idle, all, in a way, sensation-hunters, there was a certain shrillness underlying their voices, especially when heard all together. Petulance and self-indulgence showed beneath the good manners. And tonight, an all-pervasive excitement.
By one o’clock everyone had gathered in the front rooms. The teacups had begun to steam, apparently of themselves, around midnight, and the house was full of the faint, thin fragrance that induced a sort of euphoria all through the rooms, breathed in with the perfume of the tea.
It made Oliver feel light and drowsy. He was determined to sit up as long as the others did, but he must have dozed off in his own room, by the window, an unopened book in his lap.
For when it happened he was not sure for a few minutes whether or not it was a dream. The vast, incredible crash was louder than sound. He felt the whole house shake under him, felt rather than heard the timbers grind upon one another like broken bones, while he was still in the borderland of sleep. When he woke fully he was on the floor among the shattered fragments of the window.
How long or short a time he had lain there he did not know. The world was still stunned with that tremendous noise, or his ears still deaf from it, for there was no sound anywhere.
He was halfway down the hall toward the front rooms when sound began to return from outside. It was a low, indescribable rumble at first, prickled with countless tiny distant screams. Oliver’s eardrums ached from the terrible impact of the vast unheard noise, but the numbness was wearing off and he heard before he saw it the first voices of the stricken city.
The door to Kleph’s room resisted him for a moment. The house had settled a little from the violence of the – the explosion? – and the frame was out of line. When he got the door open he could only stand blinking stupidly into the darkness within. All the lights were out, but there was a breathless sort of whispering going on in many voices.
The chairs were drawn around the broad front windows so that everyone could see out; the air swam with the fragrance of euphoria. There was light enough here from outside for Oliver to see that a few onlookers still had their hands to their ears, but all were craning eagerly forward to see.
Through a dreamlike haze Oliver saw the city spread out with impossible distinctness below the window. He knew quite well that a row of houses across the street blocked the view – yet he was looking over the city now, and he could see it in a limitless panorama from here to the horizon. The houses between had vanished.
On the far skyline fire was already a solid mass, painting the low clouds crimson. That sulphurous light reflecting back from the sky upon the city made clear the rows upon rows of flattened houses with flame beginning to lick up among them, and farther out the formless rubble of what had been houses a few minutes ago and was now nothing at all.
The city had begun to be vocal. The noise of the flames rose loudest, but you could hear a rumble of human voices like the beat of surf a long way off, and staccato noises of screaming made a sort of pattern that came and went continuously through the web of sound. Threading it in undulating waves the shrieks of sirens knit the web together into a terrible symphony that had, in its way, a strange, inhuman beauty.
Briefly through Oliver’s stunned incredulity went the memory of that other symphony Kleph had played there one day, another catastrophe retold in terms of music and moving shapes.
He said hoarsely, “Kleph—”
The tableau by the window broke. Every head turned, and Oliver saw the faces of strangers staring at him, some few in embarrassment avoiding his eyes, but most seeking them out with that avid, inhuman curiosity which is common to a type in all crowds at accident scenes. But these people were here by design, audience at a vast disaster timed almost for their coming.
Kleph got up unsteadily, her velvet dinner gown tripping her as she rose. She set down a cup and swayed a little as she came toward the door, saying, “Oliver … Oliver—” in a sweet, uncertain voice. She was drunk, he saw, and wrought up by the catastrophe to a pitch of stimulation in which she was not very sure what she was doing.
Oliver heard himself saying in a thin voice not his own, “W-what was it, Kleph? What happened? What—” But “happened” seemed so inadequate a word for the incredible panorama below that he had to choke back hysterical laughter upon the struggling questions, and broke off entirely, trying to control the shaking that had seized his body.
Kleph made an unsteady stoop and seized a steaming cup. She came to him, swaying, holding it out – her panacea for all ills.
“Here, drink it, Oliver – we are all quite safe here, quite safe.” She thrust the cup to his lips and he gulped automatically, grateful for the fumes that began their slow, coiling surcease in his brain with the first swallow.
“It was a meteor,” Kleph was saying. “Quite a small meteor, really. We are perfectly safe here. This house was never touched.”
Out of some cell of the unconscious Oliver heard himself saying incoherently, “Sue? Is Sue—” He could not finish.
Kleph thrust the cup at him again. “I think she may be safe – for a while. Please, Oliver – forget about all that and drink.”
“But you knew!” Realization of that came belatedly to his stunned brain. “You could have given warning, or—”
“How could we change the past?” Kleph asked. “We knew – but could we stop the meteor? Or warn the city? Before we come we must give our word never to interfere—”
* * *
Their voices had risen imperceptibly to be audible above the rising volume of sound from below. The city was roaring now, with flames and cries and the crash of falling buildings. Light in the room turned lurid and pulsed upon the walls and ceiling in red light and redder dark.
Downstairs a door slammed. Someone laughed. It was high, hoarse, angry laughter. Then from the crowd in the room someone gasped and there was a chorus of dismayed cries. Oliver tried to focus upon the window and the terrible panorama beyond, and found he could not.
It took several seconds of determined blinking to prove that more than his own vision was at fault. Kleph whimpered softly and moved against him. His arms closed about her automatically, and he was grateful for the warm, solid flesh against him. This much at least he could touch and be sure of, though everything else that was happening might be a dream. Her perfume and the heady perfume of the tea rose together in his head, and for an instant, holding her in this embrace that must certainly be the last time he ever held her, he did not care that something had gone terribly wrong with the very air of the room.
It was blindness – not continuous, but a series of swift, widening ripples between which he could catch glimpses of the other faces in the room, strained and astonished in the flickering light from the city.
The ripples came faster. There was only a blink of sight between them now, and the blinks grew briefer and briefer, the intervals of darkness more broad.
From downstairs the laughter rose again up the stairwell. Oliver thought he knew the voice. He opened his mouth to speak, but a door nearby slammed open before he could find his tongue, and Omerie shouted down the stairs.
“Hollia?” he roared above the roaring of the city. “Hollia, is that you?”
She laughed again, triumphantly. “I warned you!” her hoarse, harsh voice called. “Now come out in the street with the rest of us if you want to see any more!”
“Hollia!” Omerie shouted desperately. “Stop this or—”
The laughter was derisive. “What will you do, Omerie? This time I hid it too well – come down in the street if you want to watch the rest.”
* * *
There was angry silence in the house. Oliver could feel Kleph’s quick, excited breathing light upon his cheek, feel the soft motions of her body in his arms. He tried consciously to make the moment last, stretch it out to infinity. Everything had happened too swiftly to impress very clearly on his mind anything except what he could touch and hold. He held her in an embrace made consciously light, though he wanted to clasp her in a tight, despairing grip, because he was sure this was the last embrace they would ever share.
The eye-straining blinks of light and blindness went on. From far away below the roar of the burning city rolled on, threaded together by the long, looped cadences of the sirens that linked all sounds into one.
Then in the bewildering dark another voice sounded from the hall downstairs. A man’s voice, very deep, very melodious, saying:
“What is this? What are you doing here? Hollia – is that you?”
Oliver felt Kleph stiffen in his arms. She caught her breath, but she said nothing in the instant while heavy feet began to mount the stairs, coming up with a solid, confident tread that shook the old house to each step. Then Kleph thrust herself hard out of Oliver’s arms. He heard her high, sweet, excited voice crying, “Cenbe! Cenbe!” and she ran to meet the newcomer through the waves of dark and light that swept the shaken house.
* * *
Oliver staggered a little and felt a chair seat catching the back of his legs. He sank into it and lifted to his lips the cup he still held. Its steam was warm and moist in his face, though he could scarcely make out the shape of the rim.
He lifted it with both hands and drank.
* * *
When he opened his eyes it was quite dark in the room. Also it was silent except for a thin, melodious humming almost below the threshold of sound. Oliver struggled with the memory of a monstrous nightmare. He put it resolutely out of his mind and sat up, feeling an unfamiliar bed creak and sway under him.
This was Kleph’s room. But no – Kleph’s no longer. Her shining hangings were gone from the walls, her white resilient rug, her pictures. The room looked as it had looked before she came, except for one thing.
In the far corner was a table – a block of translucent stuff – out of which light poured softly. A man sat on a low stool before it, leaning forward, his heavy shoulders outlined against the glow. He wore earphones and he was making quick, erratic notes upon a pad on his knee, swaying a little as if to the tune of unheard music.
The curtains were drawn, but from beyond them came a distant, muffled roaring that Oliver remembered from his nightmare. He put a hand to his face, aware of a feverish warmth and a dipping of the room before his eyes. His head ached, and there was a deep malaise in every limb and nerve.
As the bed creaked, the man in the corner turned, sliding the earphones down like a collar. He had a strong, sensitive face above a dark beard, trimmed short. Oliver had never seen him before, but he had that air Oliver knew so well by now, of remoteness which was the knowledge of time itself lying like a gulf between them.
When he spoke his deep voice was impersonally kind.
“You had too much euphoriac, Wilson,” he said, aloofly sympathetic. “You slept a long while.”
“How long?” Oliver’s throat felt sticky when he spoke.
The man did not answer. Oliver shook his head experimentally. He said, “I thought Kleph said you don’t get hangovers from—” Then another thought interrupted the first, and he said quickly, “Where is Kleph?” He looked confusedly toward the door.
“They should be in Rome by now. Watching Charlemagne’s coronation at St. Peter’s on Christmas Day a thousand years from here.”
That was not a thought Oliver could grasp clearly. His aching brain sheered away from it; he found thinking at all was strangely difficult. Staring at the man, he traced an idea painfully to its conclusion.
“So they’ve gone on – but you stayed behind? Why? You … you’re Cenbe? I heard your – symphonia, Kleph called it.”
“You heard part of it. I have not finished yet. I needed – this.” Cenbe inclined his head toward the curtains beyond which the subdued roaring still went on.
“You needed – the meteor?” The knowledge worked painfully through his dulled brain until it seemed to strike some area still untouched by the aching, an area still alive to implication. “The meteor? But—”
There was a power implicit in Cenbe’s raised hand that seemed to push Oliver down upon the bed again. Cenbe said patiently, “The worst of it is past now, for a while. Forget if you can. That was days ago. I said you were asleep for some time. I let you rest. I knew this house would be safe – from the fire at least.”
“Then – something more’s to come?” Oliver only mumbled his question. He was not sure he wanted an answer. He had been curious so long, and now that knowledge lay almost within reach, something about his brain seemed to refuse to listen. Perhaps this weariness, this feverish, dizzy feeling would pass as the effect of the euphoriac wore off.
Cenbe’s voice ran on smoothly, soothingly, almost as if Cenbe too did not want him to think. It was easiest to lie here and listen.
“I am a composer,” Cenbe was saying. “I happen to be interested in interpreting certain forms of disaster into my own terms. That is why I stayed on. The others were dilettantes. They came for the May weather and the spectacle. The aftermath – well, why should they wait for that? As for myself – I suppose I am a connoisseur. I find the aftermath rather fascinating. And I need it. I need to study it at first hand, for my own purposes.”
His eyes dwelt upon Oliver for an instant very keenly, like a physician’s eyes, impersonal and observing. Absently he reached for his stylus and the note pad. And as he moved, Oliver saw a familiar mark on the underside of the thick, tanned wrist.
“Kleph had that scar, too,” he heard himself whisper. “And the others.”
Cenbe nodded. “Inoculation. It was necessary, under the circumstances. We did not want disease to spread in our own time-world.”
Cenbe shrugged. “You would not recognize the name.”
“But, if you can inoculate against disease—” Oliver thrust himself up on an aching arm. He had a half-grasp upon a thought now which he did not want to let go. Effort seemed to make the ideas come more clearly through his mounting confusion. With enormous effort he went on.
“I’m getting it now,” he said. “Wait. I’ve been trying to work this out. You can change history? You can! I know you can. Kleph said she had to promise not to interfere. You all had to promise. Does that mean you really could change your own past – our time?”
Cenbe laid down his pad again. He looked at Oliver thoughtfully, a dark, intent look under heavy brows. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, the past can be changed, but not easily. And it changes the future, too, necessarily. The lines of probability are switched into new patterns – but it is extremely difficult, and it has never been allowed. The physiotemporal course tends to slide back to its norm, always. That is why it is so hard to force any alteration.” He shrugged. “A theoretical science. We do not change history, Wilson. If we changed our past, our present would be altered, too. And our time-world is entirely to our liking. There may be a few malcontents there, but they are not allowed the privilege of temporal travel.”
Oliver spoke louder against the roaring from beyond the windows. “But you’ve got the power! You could alter history, if you wanted to – wipe out all the pain and suffering and tragedy—”
“All of that passed away long ago,” Cenbe said.
“Not – now! Not – this!”
Cenbe looked at him enigmatically for a while. Then— “This, too,” he said.
* * *
And suddenly Oliver realized from across what distances Cenbe was watching him. A vast distance, as time is measured. Cenbe was a composer and a genius, and necessarily strongly empathic, but his psychic locus was very far away in time. The dying city outside, the whole world of now was not quite real to Cenbe, falling short of reality because of that basic variance in time. It was merely one of the building blocks that had gone to support the edifice on which Cenbe’s culture stood in a misty, unknown, terrible future.
It seemed terrible to Oliver now. Even Kleph – all of them had been touched with a pettiness, the faculty that had enabled Hollia to concentrate on her malicious, small schemes to acquire a ringside seat while the meteor thundered in toward Earth’s atmosphere. They were all dilettantes, Kleph and Omerie and the other. They toured time, but only as onlookers. Were they bored – sated – with their normal existence?
Not sated enough to wish change, basically. Their own time-world was a fulfilled womb, a perfection made manifest for their needs. They dared not change the past – they could not risk flawing their own present.
Revulsion shook him. Remembering the touch of Kleph’s lips, he felt a sour sickness on his tongue. Alluring she had been; he knew that too well. But the aftermath—
There was something about this race from the future. He had felt it dimly at first, before Kleph’s nearness had drowned caution and buffered his sensibilities. Time traveling purely as an escape mechanism seemed almost blasphemous. A race with such power—
Kleph – leaving him for the barbaric, splendid coronation at Rome a thousand years ago – how had she seen him? Not as a living, breathing man. He knew that, very certainly Kleph’s race were spectators.
But he read more than casual interest in Cenbe’s eyes now. There was an avidity there, a bright, fascinated probing. The man had replaced his earphones – he was different from the others. He was a connoisseur. After the vintage season came the aftermath – and Cenbe.
Cenbe watched and waited, light flickering softly in the translucent block before him, his fingers poised over the note pad. The ultimate connoisseur waited to savor the rarities that no non-gourmet could appreciate.
Those thin, distant rhythms of sound that was almost music began to be audible again above the noises of the distant fire. Listening, remembering, Oliver could very nearly catch the pattern of the symphonia as he had heard it, all intermingled with the flash of changing faces and the rank upon rank of the dying—
He lay back on the bed, letting the room swirl away into the darkness behind his closed and aching lids. The ache was implicit in every cell of his body, almost a second ego taking possession and driving him out of himself, a strong, sure ego taking over as he himself let go.
Why, he wondered dully, should Kleph have lied? She had said there was no aftermath to the drink she had given him. No aftermath – and yet this painful possession was strong enough to edge him out of his own body.
Kleph had not lied. It was no aftermath to drink. He knew that – but the knowledge no longer touched his brain or his body. He lay still, giving them up to the power of the illness which was aftermath to something far stronger than the strongest drink. The illness that had no name – yet.
* * *
Cenbe’s new symphonia was a crowning triumph. It had its premiere from Antares Hall, and the applause was an ovation. History itself, of course, was the artist – opening with the meteor that forecast the great plagues of the fourteenth century and closing with the climax Cenbe had caught on the threshold of modern times. But only Cenbe could have interpreted it with such subtle power.
Critics spoke of the masterly way in which he had chosen the face of the Stuart king as a recurrent motif against the montage of emotion and sound and movement. But there were other faces, fading through the great sweep of the composition, which helped to build up to the tremendous climax. One face in particular, one moment that the audience absorbed greedily. A moment in which one man’s face loomed huge in the screen, every feature clear. Cenbe had never caught an emotional crisis so effectively, the critics agreed. You could almost read the man’s eyes.
* * *
After Cenbe had left, he lay motionless for a long while. He was thinking feverishly—
I’ve got to find some way to tell people. If I’d known in advance, maybe something could have been done. We’d have forced them to tell us how to change the probabilities. We could have evacuated the city.
If I could leave a message—
Maybe not for today’s people. But later. They visit all through time. If they could be recognized and caught somewhere, sometime, and made to change destiny—
* * *
It wasn’t easy to stand up. The room kept tilting. But he managed it. He found pencil and paper and through the swaying of the shadows he wrote down what he could. Enough. Enough to warn, enough to save.
He put the sheets on the table, in plain sight, and weighted them down before he stumbled back to bed through closing darkness.
The house was dynamited six days later, part of the futile attempt to halt the relentless spread of the Blue Death.