although the hotel had an elevator, it was only used by the totally incapacitated. which did not mean that it was never used. it was operated by hand, usually by one of the native porters or bartenders getting a guest up to his room after the bar closed. it tended to get stuck between floors, a circumstance which was never attributed to anything but the incompetence of the native operating it.
despite his hangover and unsteadiness on his feet, nudworth did not even consider using it. he made his way unsteadily down the stairs to the bar. the stairwell had a comforting shadowed dinginess, and he winced as he entered the bar and was hit by a few blinding rays of noonday sunlight coming through the slats of the heavy blinds on the window.
he was a little surprised to find only two other white men there. pashwick, the banana company agent, and gurdy, the water man. they were seated together at a table in front of the bar, hunched over stiff ones.
nudworth took a seat at a table a little apart from theirs. he had absolutely no desire to talk to either of them, but it would have been rude to sit so far away from them that they would have had to raise their voices to speak to him.
pashwick only nodded, but gurdy, in that irritating way he had, stared at nudworth as if he had never seen him before and as if he were the strangest creature he had ever seen or ever would see.
the boy behind the bar, who knew bloody well what nudworth wanted, was carefully arranging some glasses on a shelf. nudworth stared straight ahead. he breathed as evenly as he could. it would not do to give in to an attack of bongo so early in the day. in the afternoon, actually.
no, it would not do at all to give in to bongo, especially with his head in the condition it was. "bongo" was the term the white men used for the insupportable rage that occasionally overwhelmed them when faced with the everlasting all-consuming, slow, drawling wide-eyed oh-so-innocent insolence of the natives.
when nudworth had been first been posted to the tropics, the fellow behind the desk in london had told him: "you will get used to the sun. you will get used to the dust. you will get used to the insects. you will get used to the paperwork. you will get used to never seeing a white woman. you may even get used to the food. you will never get used to the bloody insolence of the natives. it kills more chaps than malaria, depend upon it."
how true. nudworth took a dangerously deep breath and closed his eyes. when he opened them again the bartender was smiling down on him and placing his drink on the table - the drink he had had to describe two thousand times before the bloody bartenders began to get it half right.
smiling down on him with that infernal eternal native smile that had maddened a million bwanas and sent them screaming into the bush or across the dusty plantations into the sun.
nudworth seized the drink. he didn't care if the boy had made it right. he didn't care if his hand was trembling. he made sure he was holding it tight.
aaaaaaaaaaaah! that felt better.
he was walking down a long green lane under a sky of purest english gray. a figure in the distance was striding toward him...
gurdy was still staring at him. "heard the news?"
nudworth put his glass down. "news of what?"
"if you don't know what the news is about, then i imagine you haven't heard the news."
"no." nudworth didn't care what the news was. this too shall pass, he thought. he looked longingly down at his still half filled glass.
"chap arrived from the office. margrave and mercer are showing him around. wilkinson tagged along with them."
"the office? which office? about the mangoes?"
"no. the colonial office. sent the poor bugger all the way from cairo, can you believe it?"
nudworth didn't care about the poor bugger all the way from cairo. he took another pull from his glass before replying. "about the mangoes?"
"no, about hawkins!"
pashwick laughed. "you are knackered this morning, aren't you, mate? ready to
join the temperance society?"
gurdy ignored this. "hawkins. hawkins, the plantation manager that was murdered by the bloody wogs!"
"oh, of course. hawkins." suddenly nudworth felt completely awake and disgustingly alive. he finished his drink. what filthy swill, he thought. aloud he said, "parkins was right, then, they sent a man out right away. just like sending a chap from liverpool to glasgow."
"ah," pashwick answered. "but this fellow isn't replacing hawkins. he wasn't sent by the company - "
"no," cried gurdy, " didn't you hear me? he was sent by the colonial office, by the bloody bureaucrats in london and cairo!"
"you mean the colonial office is going to take over the plantation from the company?" nudworth held up his empty glass for the bartender to see it.
"no, no, he's not here to take over, he is here to investigate hawkins' death."
"whatever for? investigate what? you can't investigate anything in the bush. "
"ah, you try telling him that." pashwick laughed.
"margrave already tried, " gurdy added.
"there is nothing to investigate." nudworth stared over at the bartender as he took his sweet bloody time preparing his second drink - only his second drink of the day! "nothing is real out here, don't they know that? it's all just a bad dream."
"no, it would seem that they do not know that. you try explaining it to the gentleman when he returns."
"if he returns."
pashwick and gurdy both laughed heartily at this sally. nudworth felt a surge of pleasure - his fellows almost never laughed at his jokes.
maybe it would not be such a bad day. maybe he could get through it.
the hon. matilda shirley to diana, marchioness of d--------, sept 10, 181-.:
my dear friend, in my last letter, if you recall, i mentioned the romance that dear percival has so winningly persuaded me to spend a few lazy hours penning. without further comment, therefore, i give you the first page or so of:
the last woman
it was a dark and gloomy morning - a true harbinger of things to come.
the duc de montardon paced in front of the window of the main salon of the castle on the grounds of his estate in the southern mountains. the duc, who in his long career in politics was famous for his imperturbability, was on this morning quite openly agitated, making no effort to hide his distress and impatience from the servants who attended him, or from the two personages of his own rank who watched him from their chairs in front of the fireplace.
the first of these persons was the baron de romette, the duc's long time ally in the council rooms of the kingdom, who had, like himself, been deposed in the latest round of upheavals. the duc, who had held the true power, had had the humble title of minister at large. the baron had held the twin portfolios of finance and foreign affairs.
the baron's ample frame filled his chair beyond its capacity, but he lounged in it comfortably enough. he gazed out the window at the gray sky and took a pinch of snuff.
"come, old fellow, surely we will get through this day as we have so many others. how many of these fanatics have we seen come and go? and these new fellows are the most ridiculous of all. are they not?" the baron turned and smiled at the occupant of the chair opposite his - a woman a good forty years the junior of the two men , and the duc's betrothed. or so she had become, only the day before.
"and yet," the young woman answered evenly, "each of these fanatics in turn claim their prizes and their hostages, do they not, before the wheel turns and things return to - normal." she leaned back in her chair. "someday so called normality, like a horse that has been whipped one time too many, may fall down in its traces and not rise again."
"and you imagine that this is that time? bah!" the baron turned his gaze back out the window. "i understand, my dear, that you, being more directly threatened by the decrees of these lunatics, may feel some apprehension at the thought that they will actually be implemented -" he shrugged. "but, really... they are just too absurd, too absurd..."
the young woman smiled. "let us hope so. meanwhile, the heavens have certainly cooperated to the extent of providing a suitable background for the occasion, have they not?" a few large raindrops struck the window. the young woman took a sip from the teacup in her lap, and grimaced slightly.
a servant immediately sprung forward. "would mademoiselle like a fresh serving of tea?"
"yes, please. this is a bit cold."
"right away. and would mademoiselle like something else - a cream tart, perhaps?"
"not at this time."
"but i would," interjected the baron. "three or four of them, in fact."
"right away, monsieur."
montardon laughed shortly and shook his head. "some things never change." he moved away from the window, took up the poker in front of the fireplace and pushed it around the logs, waving away the servant who sprang over to assist him. "you will have the devil carry a full plate in front of you, when you descend into hell."
"and why not?" replied the baron. "if these fellows are going to show up with baskets for all our heads, why not enjoy these last minutes, eh? "
the duc shot him a look of reproach, but he affected to not notice. nor did the young woman seem discountenanced by the remark.
"they should be here shortly," she murmured. "they do have a reputation for punctuality, do they not?"
"oh yes," the duc answered her. "you can generally count on a zealot for that." and returning the poker to its place, he turned back to the window, which was now streaked with rain.
"unless," said the baron, "they are caught up in a discourse or disputation on the fine points of their doctrine."
they fell silent. the rain continued to fall. the servant returned with the fresh tea and the baron's cream tarts.
the baron was finishing his second tart when the duc's major domo entered. "two carriages are coming up the pass, monsieur."
"two! thank you, jacques."
"then they have come to take at least one of us away," observed the baron.
the young woman paled slightly.
"we shall see," said the duc. he rubbed his hands together. "we shall see,"
they had not long to wait. jacques returned twenty minutes later, followed by two men in plain gray dress, and two members of the revolutionary militia, in blue uniforms with pistols at their belts.
"these gentlemen, monsieur, are from the committee for the promulgation of the new order." jacques bowed and turned to leave but the duc stopped him.
"stay, jacques. i do not expect to keep these gentlemen long. so, monsieurs, you have for me a response to my request to the committee? presumably in writing?"
the older and taller of the two men replied after a pause. "nothing in writing, monsieur le duc." he turned to face the young woman. "this is the woman annette de normand, regarding whom you made your request for an exception to the declaration of june 23?"
the young woman stood up. "yes, i am the marquise annette de normand."
"we do not recognize titles in women."
the baron, still seated in his chair, laughed. he brushed a few crumbs of cream tart from his vest with a silk handkerchief. "what idiocy!"
"this is all very well, monsieur, " the duc addressed the man in gray, "but what of my request? it has, of course, been granted, has it not? i had the assurance of the duc de - "
the man in gray interrupted him. "do you have anything in writing?"
"no, but i had an understanding - "
"we do not care if you had an understanding with the archangel michael, monsieur. your request has been denied. summarily denied."
"denied by whom?"
"by monsieur le fer himself."
the duc paled. "i see. i request, then, to make an appeal."
"there are no appeals. the committee has no time for such nonsense."
"then, the marquise - "
"will come with us."
"so, i am under arrest, then?" asked the young marquise.
now the second, younger man in gray stepped forward. "arrest is a rude word. as prescribed by the declaration of june 23 the lady will come with us." he smiled at annette, and surveyed her with the eye and air of a gallant. it was quickly apparent from his speech that he was more at home, much more at home, in the company of dukes and marquises than was his companion.
"and do i dare ask where you are taking me?" asked annette. "as it seems that i am no longer a marquise, am i then to suffer the fate of my fellow daughters of eve?"
"you mean, as if you were a seamstress, or a milkmaid, or the wife of a country town mayor? probably not. i can not speak for the committee, being only a humble servant of the revolution - "
"enough of this japery!" cried the duc. "speak plainly, fellow! what do you intend to do with mademoiselle?"
''fair enough, monsieur," the young man replied in a colder tone. "what will become of mademoiselle?" he turned, and looked her up and down. "she will probably be offered to the masters of the huns, or of the tartars, or of some other savage empire. you have some experience of diplomacy, monsieur, do you not? of the wide world. what did you think we would do with her?"
"this is all preposterous! i do not know who you are, young man, or what your game is, but the masters you are serving are mad! "
"really, monsieur? and you are just becoming aware of it? june 23 has come and gone and here we are. here we are. the young lady will come with us."
the marquise took a deep breath. "surely you will allow me to pack a few things."
"no. we have everything you need. we need not detain these distinguished gentlemen longer. come with us."
the two militiamen stepped forward, with their hands on their pistols.
it is not considered an "element", like air or water, because humans can not grasp or manipulate it in any way.
it can not be stopped, slowed down, speeded up or reversed.
you raise your eyebrows, dear reader, at such trite observations.
but consider, that all of the philosophies and religions, the most successful and the most humble, all that have so exercised the passions and violent impulses of humans through the millennia, those that have commanded armies of tens of millions and those that consisted of a lone prophet being jeered and pelted on a street corner, have as their common thread that they do indeed aspire to stop, slow, speed or reverse time.
the myriad movements and multitudinous prophets who filled the streets and squares of europe after "the great war" had their fair share of those who aspired to "reverse" time - to return to a golden age, usually one that the potential convert had living memory of. but by far the greater number appealed to the desire to speed up time, and bring the happy fruits of the perfected future to a swift, rather than a slowly gestated glory.
how many would would be messiahs, standing in the soup and bread lines in their tattered overcoats and castoff military uniforms, seated on rain-slicked sidewalks or slouched across the bars and tables of unlit cafes, had to make a hard decision - the present or the past? how many knew the difference? how many made their choice based on what we may fairly call the "market" for one or the other? reader, it is no intention of ours to mock these poor fellows (and occasional fellowettes). who is to say that the positions taken in the highest chairs of philosophy and jurisprudence, may, in the parliaments and cabinets and privy councils of the world, are not dictated by similar considerations?
ah, you grow restless again. civilized as you are, the signs are unmistakable. stop. i beg you! - well, i don't beg you, but i politely request that you bear with me...
let us return to our tale. a tale, so far, of two men. one who has been somewhat perfunctorily introduced, the titular hero, professor zender. and one who has so far only been hinted at - the worthy professor's quarry, the moderately (very moderately) famous frommer.
zender had spent the years of conflict in an advisory capacity to the minister of propaganda. in the early days he had visited the offices of the minister only when summoned, which was not often, and the visits hardly inconvenienced him or interfered with his schedule at the university.
as the conflict wore on, his attendance was demanded more frequently. by the end of the hostilities zender was, for all practical purposes, the minister and ministry of propaganda. fortunately for himself, such decrees and pronouncements as he issued were not acted upon as there was no one left to act upon them. all the clerks and functionaries in the department had been theoretically sent to "the front". actually many of them had just walked away and gone - where? some back to their native villages in the former empire, others to the streets and coffee houses where they would, in the coming days, become the objects of the professor's curiosity.
zender stayed at his post until the end, spending much of his time at his desk reading fichte and schopenhauer and looking out the window at a solitary tree, not much frequented by birds.
on the day that "peace" was proclaimed, zender left the empty office of the ministry of propaganda in the old imperial building (the one behind the palace), locked it, pocketed the key, walked down the corridor (none of the other offices on the floor, the seventh, seemed occupied), down the sadly unpolished broad staircases to the sound of an occasional typewriter still clacking birdlike somewhere in the labyrinth, and returned to his office at the university.
he had not held military office or worn a uniform the whole time. nor had he, during the conflict or at any other time in his life belonged to a political party. nor expressed any adherence to a church or religion.
his colleague morgenstern was at his desk in the modern history department. he barely glanced up from the two page newspaper he was reading. like zender, he had been absent for long stretches during the conflict. they had never discussed with each othertheir occupations during these absences .
"good morning, zender."
"good morning." zender placed his walking stick in a rack beside the door. he hesitated. "been back long?"
morgenstern seemed mildly amused by the question. "a couple of days."
"the place seems quiet. any staff on hand?"
"can a man still get a raspberry torte around here? is frau grimm still here?"
"my, you have been gone a while, haven't you? when was the last time you popped round?"
zender shrugged. "four or five months ago."
"i see. no, frau grimm disappeared a few months ago. but we have a replacement who can whip something up for you. who won't poison you at any rate."
"oh, coffee has never been a problem, the count has seen to that."
"ah. and how is the count?"
"not been discomforted by events, has he?"
"oh no. it would take more than a world war to discomfit the count."
"quite. the bells still in order, then?"
"yes. just ring and fraulein mommsen will be with you." morgenstern turned his gaze back to his paper. "perhaps not as quickly as frau grimm used to be."
zender entered his private office. as head of the department only he had one. he did not ring for fraulein mommsen right away but stood looking out the window. he ran his finger along the windowsill. it appeared to have been dusted. the desk also looked dusted. he had not left anything in the office that might be stolen.
he sighed. would everything be as before? he hoped not.
esteemed scholars in the universities of europe believe that humans first appeared in africa.
others, equally esteemed, posit that civilization, based on war and human sacrifice, first arose in the mountains of central and south america.
the empire of atlantis arose in what is now french guinea.
nothing of the sort happened in north america, home of the current united states.
great beasts filled the plains and swamps of north america and were followed timidly by the mild mannered inhabitants, who were grateful to be allowed to live.
that was a long time ago.
today these same plains are filled with little white houses with red windowsills and white picket fences.
women bake blueberry and peach pies and put them on the red windowsills to cool.
dogs and hoboes sometimes steal the pies from the windowsills.
dang it, mrs winters gets mad as all tarnation when that happens.
this was the world of harriet harris,
before the great disrespecter, death, showed his smiling face.
and it was the world of bob fisher, idealistic young reporter, who longed to ask harriet's daughter, hermione, for her hand.
the sun was shining as brightly as bob's eyes when he showed up at work on the morning that harriet harris got the news of her imminent demise from doctor wilson.
sam wilson, the editor of the local newspaper, the times-gazette, thought it was a splendid day . he had not even started drinking when bob showed up, and it was already eight o'clock in the morning.
"good morning, bob."
"good morning, sam. any big stories to follow up on, or can i take my coat off?" and bob began to unbutton his coat.
sam chuckled. his gray eyes twinkled. "well, i can think of one big story you can follow up on ."
bob could always tell when sam was funning. "and what might that be?"
"how the fish are biting up at shag creek!"
"ha. ha! yes, i think you should go check that right out right away." sam shook his head. "you won't find a better day for it this year."
bob had started to take of his hat but now he put it back on his head. "well, that's mighty white of you, sam." he looked out the window. "say, why don't you come with me? we can leave a note on the door. if something really big pops up, folks will know where to find us."
sam stroked his chin. "well, that's not a bad idea. tell you what, why don't you go on up, and maybe i'll join you later this morning. i got a little business to attend to first."
bob understood perfectly what sam's little business was. he was not going anywhere or doing anything without getting a buzz on first. "that sounds like a swell idea! i'll go home and get my rod and then i'll stop at millie's and get us some sandwiches and a couple of sodas."
"great, kid, great. i'll see you up there."
bob departed. outside the sky was a perfect american blue. what a glorious day!