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Authors: L. Sprague de Camp,Fletcher Pratt

Land of Unreason

BOOK: Land of Unreason
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CHAPTER
I

 

            As the torn clouds trailed
out in wisps and streaks, the moon seemed to rock among them with a boatlike
motion, rising over the Pennine moors. Small wonder, thought Fred Barber, that
peoples as far apart as Assyria and Hawaii made it the celestial ship of their
mythology. One needed only a certain ignorance of the true character of natural
phenomena, a certain practical familiarity with the effect of wave motion on a
floating craft—provided, of course, that the common craft of the country, the
thing one instinctively thought of when someone said "ship," were
round, with high ends ...

 

            Beside him Mr. Gurton
grunted, spat into a warm night redolent of broom and dog rose, and reached
across to knock his pipe against the doorpost. The few last live sparks in the
heel traced an intricate pattern down the dark.

 

            "Time were,"
remarked Mr. Gurton, "when I'd have said that looked beautiful. Nah all a
man can think of is t'damned Jerries on our necks befoor moornin'."

 

            As though to furnish a
comment on the relative unimportance of Jerries in a world that held higher
things a voice called from within: "Sooper's ready."

 

            Barber crushed out his
cigarette and took two steps toward the door. As he turned, the tail of his eye
caught in the moonlit landscape a flicker of something that did not belong. He
froze, at gaze. It was there, all right—a jagged row of crimson flashes
climbing up the sky from some point below the horizon. Barber caught his
breath.

 

            "Leed's is catchin' it,"
said Mr. Gurton's low-pitched, evenly stressed voice. They stood watching for a
moment till the dull
boom, boom, beroom
drifted to them along the avenue
of sound made by the valley of the Aire. Then Gurton, with a sudden jerking
movement, as though the noise had released him from a spell, flung the door
open.

 

            It snapped to behind them,
and with an extra tug to ensure its tightness Gurton led the way down a passage
illuminated only by an overflow of light from the living room. He jerked his
thumb at a curtained door as they passed it. "Bloody fine world to bring a
nipper oop in," said he.

 

            Mrs. Gurton accosted them at
the entrance to the living room, a thin-faced woman with hair pulled tight back
and nervous hands. "Ssh, Jock," she said, "don't you know it's
St. John's Eve? They say 'twill bring t'child bad loock all his life long to
talk so abaht him tonight." She managed a smile in Barber's direction, but
there was a hint of earnestness in the voice and the movement with which she
caught her apron.

 

            Gurton smiled slowly.
"Nah, lass," he said, with the patience of a man going over the
gambits of a long-familiar argument, "that's nowt boot superstition. What
would vicar say?" He sighed. "Maybe t'flashes we saw were nowt boot fairy-fires."

 

           
Boom, Boomity. Boom.

 

           
They began to
eat. Barber, surveying the soggy meal before him, reflected that he was
becoming a culinary chauvinist. Spanish cooking burned his insides. It was
probably invented to enable Spanish cooks to conceal the fact that they were serving
horse meat instead of the beef they were given money to buy. "Si,
senor," said Ramon, the cook at the Seville consulate, when Barber
explained to him the mysteries of two-inch-thick broiled steak, the night the
Congressman from Texas came for dinner. "Si, señor," and it had
indubitably been horse meat and the Congressman's wife was sick. With a certain
grim amusement Barber recalled his own horrified realization that the man was
on the Foreign Relations Committee, and the black scowl with which the Congressman
regarded that horse-meat steak meant that Fred Barber's career in diplomacy was
probably over. It had seemed very important at the time, that horrible dinner,
much more important than the fact that they were using ersatz coffee In Germany
and selling the butter to buy guns ...

 

           
Boom. Boomm!

 

           
"That were
Bradford," remarked Mr. Gurton.

 

            Oh, hell, why couldn't the
war let him alone? Why couldn't he let the war alone? They would be at it
again, half the night. Must everything he did, everything he ate or touched or
thought, remind him of it, keep him lying sleepless and twisting? There was the
bottle of Scotch, of course, kept side for an emergency, which might be
tonight. The thought was more disquieting than comforting. That was the
insomnia cure he had been trying to get away from. That was the reason why he
was here.

 

            He wished he had gone on to
Scotland, as he had planned, instead of letting young Leach talk him into
finishing his convalescence in a Yorkshire cottage. "I know just the place
for you." Damn young Leach for a plausible, well-intentioned ass! It was
the plausible, well-intentioned people that made the real trouble in the world,
not the malicious ones. If Chamberlain had not been ...

 

            Mr. Gurton set his knife
against his plate with a small clink and looked at the clock. It read 10:45. He
said: "Let's have t'savory, lass." As Mrs. Gurton was taking away the
remnants of his supper, he remarked apologetically to Barber: "You see,
t'foor-to-midneet chap on ma drill press is a lazy booger; 'as a rotten 'abit
o' lettin' it roon dry, and I want to get theer i' time to see her well oiled
oop."
Boom!

 

           
The dishes
rattled slightly. The savory was a slice of toast upon which reposed a small
and very dead sardine. Mrs. Gurton said: "I kept your toast 'ot special,
Mr. Barber."

 

            "Thanks ever so
much," said Barber. It was lukewarm. Mr. Gurton picked up his sardine with
a long, knobby, oil-blackened hand. It vanished and his own decently frigid
toast with it.

 

            Lukewarm, thought Barber,
with his mind divided into two parts. One part ran desperately around a great
black hole that was the war and all the things that came up out of it and went
down into it. Lukewarm, said the other part, and he tried to distract himself
with the question of why Luke should be less warm than the other evangelists.
Why not Matthew-warm, Mark-warm, John-warm? Why the evangelists for that
matter? Why not Adolf-warm, which would be hell-hot? ...

 

           
Boomboom.

 

           
Mr. Gurton rose
and put on a cloth cap, with a creased and sagging peak that shadowed all of a
cadaverous face except his long chin. He said: "You'll not worry, Mr.
Barber. Unless they come this way to bomb Keighley, all's well 'ere. Good
neet." His brisk tread hardly showed the limp as he went to get his
bicycle and pedal off to work.

 

            Mrs. Gurton looked after him
calmly. The door banged, and all at once a stream of conversation burst from
her lips, as though the small stimulus of the sound had released a spring that
held her tongue prisoner. The war, the war, Barber's mind kept saying to him
from the background, his ears only partly registering this monotonous flow of
sound.

 

            "... ma aunt's yoong
man. I remember 'e were 'urt i't' gurt war, joost t'way Jock 'ere, only it were
a shell and noot a aeroplane bomb that fell
V
t'trench joost when they
were 'avin' breekfast and 'e were eatin' ploom-and-apple, and always after that
whenever 'e 'eered a sharp sound like a mautercar backfirin' it made him retch,
and 'e did say it were all because he saw a black cat ..." Taptap.

 

            Bombs that tapped? No, door.
Mrs. Gurton was opening. The lamplight fell dimly on a small boy with the
plucked look English small boys have and a bicycle, and an anxious, excited
face. He should be calmed with light conversation. "Calm them with light
conversation before undertaking the diplomatic approach," Barber's old
chief in the State Department had told him before letting him go out on his
first mission, vice-consul at Seville. The boy was talking in a high voice:

 

            "Please, moom, a gurt
bomb 'it near t' Winstanley's 'oose, and Mrs. Winstanley's 'urt soomat nasty
and Dr. Thawley says please would you coom ..."

 

            "Wait a bit," said
Mrs. Gurton. Barber saw the eyes regard him sharply over her shoulder as she
picked up her shawl.

 

            He stood up a little too
quickly; his head began to throb. He said: "Can't I—"

 

            "Nah, Mr. Barber,
remember what t'doctor telled you; s'ouldn't strain yoursen. You go off to bed
like a good lad." She was out the door before he had a chance to argue—the
back door, on some errand, then in again, through the house and out the front
door into the warm light, where things went boom-boom.

 

            Barber slumped back into the
uncomfortable chair, his legs spreading to find an easier angle. His head
ached. It was not that one feared death after having the possibility so long as
a familiar companion. It was this damned waiting for it or anything else
decisive to happen. It would be almost a relief. "Fate worse than
death"—he had laughed with the rest of the audience at the line when it
had been used in a comedy revival of an old-fashioned melodrama. Well, there
were fates worse than death. One of them was living on and waiting to drop dead
after being clipped on the head by a bomb splinter or piece of shrapnel (he had
never learned which) as you ran out of the Embassy into the night when the
German raiders came. British or German? German or British? Somebody had thrown
into that
night
a missile that struck a neutral American in a quarrel
that was none of his own. Diplomatic immunity did not, he reflected, exist in
the material world. It was a purely spiritual quality, and he was feeling sorry
for himself, which ...
Boom. Boom.

BOOK: Land of Unreason
11.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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