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Authors: Murray Leinster

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BOOK: Time Tunnel
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“I’m not going to ask you to not to tell anybody what you just saw,” said Carroll casually. “You’d be an idiot if you did. But you’ve brought me a hell of a problem and I’d be foolish to try to be secretive with you. Come along!”

He opened another door, and they were in the kitchen of the cottage. The cooking arrangements were of that extreme primitiveness which an over-thrifty householder considers economy. There was a stair which evidently led to sleeping quarters overhead. There was a bench against one wall. The short, plump M. Dubois sat on that bench in his unbelievable garments. He held a remarkably large carving knife uncertainly in his hand. He looked woebegone. Beside him sat his sister, Madame Carroll, with a hatchet held firmly in her grip.

And, lying on the floor with his hands and feet securely bound with cords, there was a third individual. He wore baggy corduroy trousers and a blue sash and a red-checked shirt. His expression alternated between extreme apprehension and peevish resentment. He looked at Harrison and Pepe with wide and at first scared eyes. But Harrison flinched when Madame Carroll burst into shrill and infuriated complaints, uttered with such rapidity that only one accustomed to her speed could have understood her.

“M. Harrison and M. Ybarra,” said Carroll calmly, “are now involved with us. Not financially. They claim no share in the enterprise. Their interest is scientific only.” To Harrison and Pepe he added: “Perhaps I should also introduce the gentleman yonder. He is a burglar. His name is Albert. He is our present problem.”

Madame Carroll turned to them. Seething, she informed them that her husband was a fool of the most extreme imbecility. But for her he would be robbed, he would be destroyed, he would be murdered by such criminals as they observed had already made the attempt!

The bound man on the floor protested aggrievedly that he had not attempted murder. He had only intended a small, professional robbery. He was a burglar, not a murderer! They had only to ask the police, and they would certify that in all his career as a burglar he had never injured anybody but one
flic
who was standing eagerly underneath a window to trap him, when in his haste to escape he’d jumped out of the window and on him.

Madame Carroll silenced him with a wave of her hatchet. She was crimson with indignation, with desperation, perhaps with despair.

“What are we to do with him?” she demanded dramatically. “If we give him to the police it will become public! Our business will be revealed! We will have competitors thronging to offer higher prices than we can pay, and offering to sell for lower prices than we can afford! We shall be ruined, because of this scoundrel, this murderer!”

The bound man protested. They had held him captive for more than twelve hours, debating. It was illegal! Harrison said with a sort of stunned interest:

“The problem is that this Albert is a burglar?”

Carroll said vexedly that he’d been having a few glasses of wine in the town’s least offensive bistro. This man, Albert, doubtless saw him there and considered it an opportunity. When Carroll went home earlier than usual, he found Albert ransacking his possessions. Albert struggled desperately when Carroll seized him, but there he was. Carroll said ruefully, “And there he was, too, when Dubois came out of the time-tunnel. Which was unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate?” cried Madame Carroll, in a passion. “It was a crime! You imbecile! This criminal…”

“Just a moment,” said Pepe. “The gentleman is a burglar. He practises his profession privately, without witnesses. Perhaps he can understand that you prefer your business to be considered confidential, too.”

The prisoner said shrewdly:

“Counterfeiting, eh? We can make a deal.”

“For the sake of privacy,” Pepe added, more nearly in his normal manner, “he can see that you might find it necessary to report to the police that M. Carroll was forced to injure him fatally in order to subdue him.”

“That is not necessary!” objected Albert sharply. “It is not necessary at all! If I were a
flic
, perhaps! But since we are of similar professions…”

“The matter could be solved,” said Pepe with a grand air, “by the use of professional courtesy and a gentleman’s agreement.”


C’est vrai!
” said Albert. “Naturally! I will pledge my honor not to speak of anything that has occurred here! That will settle everything!”

Carroll grunted. “Harrison, any ideas?”

Harrison moistened his lips. Somehow he was still thinking of those vertical rays of sunlight beyond the tunnel in the other room, whereas he could look out of a window here and see the deep-red glow of the sky above a just-descended sun. That bright sunshine bothered him horribly. It was appalling; upsetting!

“I think,” he said awkwardly, “that I’d let him see what you just showed Pepe and me. I don’t think it’s likely that he’d tell about that!”

Carroll considered. Then he nodded. He picked up the bound man and walked effortlessly into the other room. Harrison heard the clatter of the opening door. There was silence.

Then Madame Carroll said bitterly, “It is unfortunate that one cannot…”

The hatchet in her hand moved suggestively. M. Dubois shivered. There was silence. A long silence. Then sounds in the next room again. The improvised door creaked and shut, and a moment later Carroll brought back the burglar. He laid him matter-of-factly on the floor. Albert’s face was ashen. His eyes rolled. Carroll regarded him meditatively, and then took a knife out of his pocket and opened it. He cut the cords which bound the prisoner.

“I think,” he said, “that he is impressed.”


M-mon Dieu!
” said the prisoner hoarsely, “
M-mon Dieu!

Harrison saw Carroll bending to lift the small, scared Albert to his feet. He helped. The little man’s teeth chattered. Carroll nodded.

“Let him out, Harrison. Good idea! He won’t talk!”

Harrison led the burglar through the dining room and the room which opened toward the street. The small criminal wavered and shook upon his feet. His teeth continued to chatter. Harrison said, frowning, “You’ll attract attention if you stumble and shake like this! Have you any money?”

Albert shook his head. Harrison handed him half a dozen hundred-franc notes.

“Here,” he said distastefully. “You need a drink. Several of them. If I were you, I think I’d have about as many as I could find room for. I wouldn’t mind joining you! But anyhow I advise you to keep your mouth shut!”


Mais oui
,” gasped the former prisoner. “
Mon Dieu, oui!

Harrison opened the door for him. He watched as the little man went unsteadily out to the street and then turned to the left. There was a wine shop not more than a hundred yards away. The former prisoner headed for it. He walked fast. With purpose. Harrison watched him out of sight.

He went back to the kitchen. Carroll was saying briskly, “Get out of those clothes, Georges, and into something befitting a modern business man. Then we’ll divide up the stock you brought back and Harrison and Ybarra and you will take it to Paris on the next bus out of town. If our friend Albert should be indiscreet, I’ll be here alone and of course can deny everything. Naturally, I’ll be believed.”

He turned to Harrison.

“That’s precaution. But you’ve brought a problem that’s much more important than our own affairs! What you’ve told me is that most alarming news anybody could imagine! I don’t think,” he added, “that my brother-in-law can be responsible for what you report. He could take a modern scientific book back in time, but he wouldn’t know where to place it. Anyhow, there is normally a sort of dynamic stability in the grand outline of events. But this de Bassompierre seems to be tapping at history like a stone-cutter tapping at a rock. Enough tappings, and the thing will crack! We’ve got to stop him! So we’ll get this stock for the shop to Paris and set about handling this de Bassompierre!”

Perhaps an hour later, Harrison and Pepe passed the wine shop a hundred yards from Carroll’s cottage. A familiar figure drooped over a table inside. It was Albert the burglar. He was comatose. He had no troubles. Under the circumstances, he was probably wise.

But Pepe shifted his heavy parcel and said detachedly:

“I observe one sane and admirable result of our researches so far. So far as you are concerned, anyhow.”

“What?” asked Harrison.

“You have found this Valerie,” said Pepe. “She is charming. She remembers you with affection. True, her aunt is as unpleasant a character as one could wish to find, but now she will not object to your friendship. She will not dare. You know too much!”

Harrison wasn’t altogether pleased with Pepe’s viewpoint, but that was the way Pepe’s mind worked. He changed the subject as he changed his own burden from his right hand to bis left.

“Carroll’s right,” be said uneasily. “Something’s got to be done about this de Bassompierre trying to change all of past history! Apparently there’s no great damage done yet, but if he keeps on passing out information a hundred-odd years before its proper time…”

“Yes,” agreed Pepe. “From one point of view he should be strangled. Yet that would be unfortunate, since history says he was not.”

He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Harrison said gloomily, “I think Carroll will use the time-tunnel to try to fix things up. If one can import snuffboxes from a former time, one can certainly argue with somebody in the past! He needs to be persuaded not to mess up all the present we know and the future we guess at.”

“The present,” said Pepe, “is not intolerable, but the future is less than satisfactory. I regret that I have to remain only a bystander. I mentioned that my great-great-grandfather, Ignacio Ybarra, was in Paris in 1804. Later, after the independence of the colony of Mexico, be was Ambassador to France. But if I went with you and Carroll to argue with this de Bassompierre, it might happen that by some unhappy accident I might meet and cause the death of my great-great-grandfather. In such a case, of course, I would not be born to be the cause of his death. So he would not meet an untimely fate, and I would be born to cause his death. So I would not be born. So I would. So I would not. And so on. I prefer not to try to solve this paradox. I shall remain unwillingly a bystander.”

Harrison said nothing. They trudged on together to where the antiquated bus to Paris would be found. Presently Harrison ceased to think about Pepe, and Carroll, and Albert, and Madame Carroll, and even about whoever de Bassompierre might be and all the other things involved in the idea of a possibly—or certainly—variable history.

He thought about Valerie. He had a date with her for tomorrow. He cheered up.

4

Valerie smiled cheerfully at Harrison and said: “Shall we sit here?”

He agreed immediately, as he would have agreed to anything else she said. This was Bonmaison, and all about them there was the atmosphere of picnics and tranquil romance and all the natural and ordinary affairs which are the only truly important ones. Low down on the horizon, toward Paris, there was a white streak of vapor in the sky. It was unquestionably the contrail of a jet-plane flying so high that it was invisible. Only the train of moisture condensed upon flame-formed ions could be seen. The jet was part of that round-the-world patrol maintained over Paris—and London and New York and nearly all the great cities of the world—in case some person in authority somewhere should decide to start a war. But it did not apply to Bonmaison. It was a symptom of the insanity of human beings in a cosmos obviously designed for them to live in, but which they industriously prepare to make unlivable.

But at Bonmaison one did not think of such things. There, and at many similar places all over the world, people adhered to an almost universal conspiracy to pretend that international organizations and agreements had made the world really safe, and that the alarming situations of which one reads are actually only arrangements so the newspapers will have something to print.

Harrison could not fully act according to this conspiracy today. He’d encountered proof that possibilities existed which were more horrifying even than atomic war. If history changed, if past events were disrupted, if some day bygone events would cease to have occurred and other quite different events took their place, why, he might not ever have been! Much worse, even Valerie might not ever have existed!

Valerie had seemed to choose this spot for them to repose and talk comfortably, but she continued to look about her. People of no importance go to Bonmaison to sit on the grass and eat ices and solve such profound questions as to what degree unparalleled affection justifies recklessness, and to what degree one should be practical. Usually, the girls are the practical ones. But they are disappointed if the young men are not urgently impractical.

A carousel made alleged music a little distance off. Children rode on it, gleefully. There were booths where young men were fleeced of five and ten-franc pieces as they tried to demonstrate to their companions their skill at complicated and rigged games. There were boats on the small meandering stream, and shirt-sleeved swains rowed clumsily while girls admired them. There were shrieks of laughter when Polichinelle behaved sadistically for the amusement of innocent childhood. There were other couples—many of them who had either already settled themselves comfortably or still sauntered in quest of exactly the spot the precise development of their romance dictated.

“Perhaps,” said Valerie reflectively, “over there might be more pleasant.”

Again Harrison agreed. Pepe’s prediction that Harrison would be tolerated as an acquaintance of Valerie had come true. Madame Carroll had smiled frigidly when Valerie presented him as a friend of her childhood. Now they were together at Bonmaison, and provided that Valerie returned very soon after sunset, they were permitted a temporary escape from Madame Carroll’s direction.

Valerie looked contented. Harrison, of course, looked foolish. She sank gracefully to the ground and smiled warmly at him.

“Now,” she pronounced, “now we can talk!”

And Harrison immediately found it impossible to find anything to say. He looked at her, and actually his manner of looking said many things Valerie. appeared to find satisfactory.

BOOK: Time Tunnel
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