Time After Time

Karl Alexander

Forge Books

Time After Time
Number 7 Mornington Place was a tall and narrow brick house with a well-kept yard bordered by a hedge and an iron-railing fence. With its three-gabled roof and dark-brown trim, it looked like all the other residences east of Regency Park between Euston and Camden Town. The streets appeared similar, too, for they were well laid out and at night were always crowded with lively, energetic people who liked to mingle in the gas-lit haze visiting or going on errands, despite the fog and the extremely cold weather. Discomfort could always be outweighed by a wool scarf, a heavy coat and the good fellowship of neighbors strolling to and fro. Besides, the warmth of a snifter full of brandy was never more than a short distance away inside a friendly pub.
The tenant at 7 Mornington Place was in love with the neighborhood, perhaps because for the first time in his twenty-seven years he was living in a decent borough and was free to do as he pleased. Recently he had purchased a new Raleigh bicycle equipped with the latest in safety brakes, and every night he leisurely rode through Mornington-Crescent and absorbed the sights, sounds and smells. Then he turned those impressions into controversial, hence popular, articles for which he was paid a decent living wage.
This evening he had decided to look in Regent's Park, which inthe past always had been a good environment for source material. He had pedaled all the way to York Gate on the narrow Outer Circle and the well-kept, familiar beauty of the green lawns and low overhanging trees softened by the constant mist had not even registered on him. He seemed to be within a dense fog of his own creation. When he reached the curved finger of the park's placid lake, however, he suddenly recalled delightful summer afternoons of boating with sophisticated female companions, a bottle of chilled French wine, bread and cheese; the memory made him realize that he had not been able to curtail his own inner excitement and allow himself to become the detached, yet passionate, observer that Londoners were so used to reading. It was as if he had bicycled five miles from Mornington-Crescent with blinders on. He hadn't even felt the cobblestones which normally were a constant source of jolts and a cause for new bicycle tires. He cursed his own lack of concentration, then laughed. The reason was obvious. Later that night old friends and former classmates were coming over, and--great Scott--did he have a surprise for them.
He wouldn't have been out bicycling on this evening at all except that Mr. Hastings--the intrepid editor of the Pall Mall Gazette--had asked for three more articles by the end of next week. Yes, he was definitely behind in his work, for he had been devoting more time than usual to an obsessive scientific project in his private laboratory. He had also been spending more money than the articles--no matter how well received--had been paying. So it was imperative that he find material and find it quickly.
The mist was turning into a light rain. He wiped his handsome angular face dry with a large handkerchief. Wetness had caused his thick, dark-brown walrus mustache to droop. He imagined it made him look like an expatriate Russian bohemian living in Paris, so he rode no-handed for a short distance and used both hands to twirl the mass of hair back into shape. He reminded himself that he wasfresh out of mustache wax and should pick up a jar the next time he was near the chemist's.
He rounded a turn, passed the Hanover Gate to the park and saw a very tall, thin and stately gentleman walking an equally tall and thin brace of Borzois. Perhaps an article about the striking physical (and psychological) resemblances between the owners and their pets would do. He chuckled at the thought of receiving irate letters from royalty and commoners alike who happened to own bulldogs or basset hounds. The only problem was that he would not have time to research the various and sundry breeds and species of animals that humans liked to surround themselves with. Oh, well. Perchance that was material for a more leisurely time.
He steered around a cart carrying milk cans, and as he passed he noticed that the horse pulling the cart suddenly lifted his tail and deposited a pile of feces in the middle of the road. A common enough occurrence, he thought, but what about the poor wretches who clean it up day in and day out? How did they (eastern European immigrants, no doubt) feel about the eccentric excesses of the Duke of Clarence, for example? Was there humor in that? No, the subject was much too verisimilar and socially realistic for the cyclist's romantic tastes. And he had no desire to imitate the venerable Charles Dickens. So he would just have to keep looking.
But after another mile of laborious pedaling, the cyclist had seen nothing more of interest and decided to stop. He left the Outer Circle, turned north on Prince Albert Road, then coasted down a hill that curled through great stands of elm and maple. He wheeled to a halt in front of the Regent's Inn, a gathering place for couples returning from vigorous walks through the park. He went inside for a pint and took a table near the great stone fireplace. Bayberry logs were ablaze and radiated heat from the hearth. He removed his scarf and blazer, then loosened his tie.
He sipped his beer and looked around the room, listening forthe spark of an idea. A couple in the corner was complaining that too many people used Regent's Park despite the November cold.
"What we really ought to do, love, is spend your next holiday at the seaside," suggested the wife. "Even the fishermen won't be about."
The husband concurred. "Being out of season, the rates would be cheaper, too."
The cyclist's face wrinkled up into a broad grin, and his brown eyes sparkled. He pulled a note pad and pencil out of his knickers and began scribbling. Why hadn't he thought of it before? The seashore was his favorite of all places within a half day's train ride from the city. He recalled--more with relief than pain--a weekend he had spent there a year ago January. He had gone with his wife-and-cousin, Isabel, to recover from a mild attack of exhaustion and tuberculosis. He had been teaching biology at the time, and Isabel insisted that he give up his dreams of becoming a great writer and inventor and devote all of his time to his job and marriage. She had become the champion for everything that he detested and demanded that he choose between her and his radical ideas. He had chosen himself, then. Now he allowed himself an ironic chuckle and penned a working title: "How to Go to the Seashore Married on Friday and Return to London a Bachelor on Monday."
He put his pencil down, drained his beer, leaned back and sighed. He might even get all three articles out of that experience. Add Isabel's knickknack-collecting aunt and a former student with both suffrage and seduction on her mind, and he just might have a whole damned book.
He was about to purchase another pint when he thought better of it and pulled his watch out of its vest pocket to check the time.
"Good Lord!" He exclaimed. It was half-past eight, and his guests were due to arrive anytime after nine. He grabbed his coat and hurried from the pub.
He leaped onto his bicycle and furiously began pedaling towardhome. Almost immediately he came to the hill that a half hour ago he had so casually coasted down. He worked his legs hard and strained to increase speed, but the twisting grade was unusually steep. His breathing became labored, and he began perspiring under his clothes despite the chill. Uncomfortable, he hoped that his exertion would not ultimately result in pneumonia, a disease he had feared ever since an opposing grammar school rugger had kicked in his frail chest and collapsed his lung.
Finally he hopped off and pushed the Raleigh the last few yards to the top of the hill. As he walked, he wondered why bicycles were so primitive. They could be manufactured with gearing mechanisms designed to alter the revolutions of the wheels. Other machines were. Better yet, perhaps they could be outfitted with a lightweight power source such as an adaptation of the Daimler-Benz internal combustion engine developed by the Prussians.
"Hmm" he uttered. Maybe he'd start working on that soon. The idea seemed infinitely more simple than his current invention. He grinned, remounted the bicycle and quickly pedaled off. The devil with articles on the seashore! Once his project came into his mind, he grew excited all over again and could think of nothing else. He had finished the device in his laboratory that morning, and he could hardly wait for the reactions of his friends. True, the contraption needed testing, but still the occasion made him feel extremely proud and self-fulfilled. Despite a subsistence-level childhood and a beloved mother who always held the Bible over his head as a philosophic truncheon, despite his failure at apprenticeships, his chronic tuberculosis, his poor record at the university and the suffocating effects of his first marriage--despite all this he was going to change history. Tonight his friends would be the first to know, and eventually the faculty at the Normal School of Science just might want to bestow an honorary degree on a former student who had been sent down seven years ago.
H. G. Wells got off his Raleigh in front of 7 Mornington Place, wheeled it through the gate and left it leaning against the side of the house under the archway.
"Mr. Wells," exclaimed the punctilious Mrs. Nelson as he hurried into the kitchen. "Where on earth have you been?" She folded up the Daily Mail, poured a cup of tea, rose and handed it to him, then said, "You shouldn't be gadding about on that machine of yours in weather like this."
"The weather's always like this," he replied to his housekeeper, then took a large gulp of tea.
"But a man in your condition--"
"I've never felt better in my entire life."
She shook her head and sighed. "That's what Mr. Nelson said. The day before he died, God bless him."
H.G. ignored her remark and drained his cup. "Is anyone here yet, Mrs. Nelson?"
"No, sir." She looked up--her eyes sparkling--and added with a touch of sarcasm, "Of course, if your friends are like you, we can expect them to be late, can't we?"
"If it's fashionable," he retorted with a smile. Then he placed his cup and saucer on the counter and turned to leave the room.
"I've laid out a sweater for you," she said affectionately. "There's a chill in the drawing room."
"It's not a drawing room, Mrs. Nelson, it's a library."
"Call it what you like, sir, but the fact is--"
"I'll put another log on the fire." He left the kitchen.
Mrs. Nelson returned to her Daily Mail, but couldn't concentrate. She violently disagreed with every opinion Mr. Wells had ever voiced to her, especially his views on religion and marriage. What was it he had said? Oh, yes. Ninety-nine percent of all marriageseither end in revolt or passive endurance. And: If God exists, how could he allow nature to be so mindlessly cruel? Wasn't that condoning torture? When she had disapproved of his divorce, he had laughed and pointed out that if he were not single, she would not have a job. To her further consternation, he took delight in saying that there might be hope for the country after all if more conservatives like Mrs. Nelson ended up working for radicals like H. G. Wells. Still, being the man's housekeeper was the most challenging and exciting thing that had ever happened to her.
She poured herself more tea and hoped that Mr. Wells would approve of the canapés. She had spent the entire afternoon toasting bread, cutting it into small wedges, then spreading it with her own special cheese mix, relish and sausage. She sighed. Given the hour and the company, he would probably be more interested in the wine.
Which wasn't altogether true. For after adding three logs to the small fire that burned on the hearth, H.G. took one of the artistic little canapés off the pewter hors d'oeuvres tray, tried it and found it delightful. As he munched, he saw that aside from the canapés, Mrs. Nelson had laid out a handsome bowl of fruit, cheeses, bread, silverware, fine crystal glasses and several bottles of a passable French claret. Candles burned behind the spread on the sideboard, and he smiled with pride and admiration.
He inspected the rest of the room. His housekeeper had made it look bright and comfortable despite the lack of rugs, decent curtains and abundant furniture. The one settee had been freshly covered, the two red-velvet chairs cleaned and the imitation Chippendale desk polished.
H.G. was ecstatic. Mrs. Nelson had given the room both a dignified sense of order and an air of warmth and comfort. She had transformed it from a place he used only to read into the perfect haunt for a scientific romantic such as himself. The room was now the ideal setting for his revolutionary announcement.
He knew that his friends would be pleased and surprised, for some of them hadn't seen him since the university days when he was subsisting in a West End basement room on the meager stipend of a pound a week. Ah, Mrs. Nelson! he thought. What a wonderful woman. He hoped that she would be his housekeeper forever. Besides, what would a household be if everyone always agreed?
He hurried upstairs and changed into gray tweed trousers and his comfortable Norfolk jacket. Then he brushed his dark-brown hair and critically inspected himself in the mirror. He grinned as usual, for he liked his face; he felt that his sharp yet subtle features complemented his devotion to writing and inventing. And someday he had no doubt that his affable countenance would attract a charming, sophisticated and intelligent woman; an emancipated woman--both on the boardwalk and in the boudoir.
With a flourish, he ran a comb through his mustache and was ready.
The guests began arriving shortly after ten o'clock, trickling in from various affairs they had attended earlier in the evening. Mrs. Nelson took their coats and hats and hung them in the hall cupboard, wondering why Mr. Wells--or anyone else, for that matter--would want to impress gentlemen she suspected were bohemians or libertarians. Nevertheless, she remained polite and courteous and showed the guests into the drawing room qua library where Wells greeted them warmly. Then she closed the door to the room and gratefully went to bed, for it was almost eleven, and she was very tired.
In the library there was a brief interlude of awkward small talk about the post-university years, the guests realizing that whereas their careers had taken them steadily upward, Wells's grip on the bottom rung of the ladder seemed tenuous at best. Optimistic and bubbling with enthusiasm nonetheless, H.G. passed the canapés around, thenpoured the wine and handed each guest a glass along with a personable remark. Then, with a sweeping gesture, he directed them to make themselves comfortable. They occupied the settee and chairs and began sipping the claret. Since he had only enough furniture to seat five, H.G. remained standing, but that was fine with him. He could dominate the conversation.
And so the evening began.
H.G. paced near the fireplace liberally drinking his wine. H. Ronald Smythe, now a myopic economist doing research for the Queen, was making a long-winded comment about the frivolity of fiction. H.G. listened patiently and waited. His slim and dashing figure moved gracefully, yet was poised, for he always spoke with his entire body. His dark eyes never left Smythe's face.
"Fiction has always been falsehood, and I would even say that it encouraged crime," said Smythe. A half glass of wine had dulled his already pedestrian wit so that he didn't realize he was speaking too loud and repeating himself.
"I was never aware that books committed crimes," said James Preston, a barrister who intended to run for Parliament. "I always thought that men were the culprits."
Everyone chuckled.
"Well, I should like to hear our host's comment," said Smythe, now the color of his maroon bow tie.
H.G. half turned. His voice was thin and reedy, yet confident. "First, may I compliment Ronald for his tenacious ability to put up with the Queen's unegalitarian views on finance?"
The guests laughed, now completely at ease.
"We were discussing fiction and crime," the portly economist remarked dryly.
"So we were," replied H.G. "So we were. I'm not sure about the connection you've made, Ronald, but I would agree that it is a crime some things get published." He paused for another laugh. "It is alsoa crime that some things don't." His eyes sparkled. And then he launched into his discourse slowly, realizing had to put them in the right frame of mind for his announcement or they would deride him.
"We all want a world free from social injustice and moral systems which give man less credit than the gorilla from which he ascended."
Only mildly interested so far, the surgeon, Leslie John Stephenson, continually leaned out of his chair to take wedges of cheese and canapés from the hors d'oeuvres tray. Famished, he didn't stop until he realized he had eaten almost half of the food by himself. Always concerned about his appearance and dress, he dabbed at the corners of his brooding mouth with a linen napkin, then inspected himself. There were several crumbs of cheese and toast on his lap. He carefully brushed the offending bits of food off his trousers and into the napkin, which he folded into a precise tricorn and placed on the table. Then he sipped wine, sighed, sat back, stroked his cleft chin and listened.
"You speak of crime, my friends," H.G. continued. "Crime exists because the British monarchy and the Church hierarchy oppress most of the people and let a privileged few do as they please."
"Are you implying that the Queen and the Bishop of Canterbury are criminals?" Preston asked.
"Only that they do not know any better," H.G. replied, "Although in my view, Queen Victoria has sat upon men's minds like a great paperweight for almost one half a century. A rational man of intellect just might consider that the greatest social crime in recent history."
When the laughter died down, Stephenson cleared his throat and interrupted in a soft and musical voice that had a touch of cultured melancholy. "It doesn't matter what kind of society we live in. Crime will always exist."
"Not if we have a society where all men are well fed and free enough to adhere to a modern ethical system."
Stephenson smiled thinly. "The only way that will ever happen is if you lobotomize entire populations."
The guests chuckled at Wells's expense, and H.G. recalled that while playing for the university's cricket team, Stephenson used to bowl with reverse spins so the hardwood ball would bounce into the legs of opposing batsmen.
"My dear Stephenson," said H.G., "don't you look forward to a day when you could read good news in The Times?"
"What's the difference? You, yourself, have already cited the Queen's inadequate justice system. And the absurdity of a religion telling you what to eat and how to behave! If justice, itself, is amoral, then why have it? If some criminals avoid punishment, and there is no God in heaven with a final retribution, then bully for crime! Let men do as they please. Their comeuppance will occur when they turn their backs on the wrong person."
H.G. was momentarily at a loss for words. Stephenson had scored telling points just as he used to when he and Wells were opponents in the school's Debating Society. Stephenson had been a formidable adversary then and clearly hadn't lost any of his talent or cynicism. But H.G. wasn't exactly faint-hearted when it came to arguments, either. His eyes narrowed.
"Don't you feel that we should instill morality in people, John?"
"To preserve order."
Stephenson laughed. "There is no order, Wells!"
"Then what about the sanctity of human life or don't you believe in that, either?"
"I work in a surgery, Wells. People come and go. They are born, they become sick and they die." He leaned forward and lowered his voice so that it sounded even more melodious. "The most I everknow of my patients is what condition their organs are in. I'm like a damned mechanic who makes repairs on a carriage, only I have blood on my hands instead of grease! The ultimate question, Wells, is can you fix it or not? How long can you keep the wheels turning and the heart pumping?" He paused and leaned back again. "Now what is so bloody sacred about that?"
H.G. blushed. "Nothing. If you phrase it that way."
The others buzzed with excitement.
"I do believe that the most literate among us has just lost his first debate," Smythe said gleefully.
Wells glared at Smythe. "Not entirely, Ronald. I would agree that there is no consistency in justice or moral systems today, but we do have science and technology. Ultimately, they will replace belief in God and the Queen. They are the hope for the future of mankind. They will lead to mass enlightenment. And they will be the retribution we all seem to think is so elusive."
Stephenson frowned and drained his claret while H.G. continued. "In less than a hundred years, there will not be any more war or social ills or crime. Our world will be a progressive Utopia where everyone will be free to pursue the noble experiments of the mind and the delightful pleasures of the flesh." He paused to look at his guests and saw that they were all listening intently, even Stephenson and Smythe. He imagined that he was addressing the combined faculties of Oxford, Cambridge and the University of London, imagined they hung on every word.
He was in fact leading up to something momentous, and he saw that in the guests who thus far had stayed out of the dialogue. Harper, the psychologist, had his eyes closed and his fingers pressing into the bridge of his nose in order to concentrate more keenly. And Grinnell, the visionary science teacher, was continually nodding his head and stroking his manicured beard.
But then Stephenson interrupted again. "I find nothing nobleabout the human condition, H.G. And there certainly isn't a damn thing delightful about a human soul imprisoned in human flesh. Furthermore, there is no indication anywhere in medical science that the future will be any different."
Smythe nodded in furious agreement.
H.G. smiled thinly at his adversary. "I sympathize with you, John. Having to spend your days surrounded by the sick and the dying. Human beings that you wished you could help, but can't because medical science is still in its infancy. You were born before your time. We all were."
"What the devil are you getting at, Wells?" Stephenson involuntarily ate three more hors d'oeuvres. "More predictions? They won't help you win an argument."
"I'm not interested in debating with you, John," H.G. lied. "I'm merely saying that by the late twentieth century the human condition will be a happy and fulfilling experience for everyone on earth."
"Can you be more specific?" Stephenson asked sarcastically.
"Pick any year you like past 1950," H.G. replied with rancor and a magnanimous gesture.
Smythe could no longer contain himself. He rose unsteadily. "Excuse me for sounding utilitarian, Wells, but you could describe Armageddon in--in, say--1984, and it would still mean nothing to us."
"That you have limited yourself to the dreary confines of present-day London is no one's fault but your own, Ronald."
"Well, what do you suggest we do?" Smythe asked. "Petition the Pope for an encyclical on reincarnation?"
Much of the laughter was directed at Wells, and Smythe acknowledged it by turning and nodding.
"Come now, H.G.," said Preston, his face now flushed from three glasses of wine. "Why did you really invite us here this evening? Surely you had more on your mind than to have us witness arenewal of verbal broadsides between you, Smythe and Stephenson." He paused to light a cigarette. "If not, I must say quite candidly that my undergraduate days have been finished for quite some time--as have been yours--and that I must take my leave. I have a full day tomorrow." He half rose.
"Sit down, James," said H.G., appearing much calmer than he really was. Then he began.
"My dear friends, we have all learned that everything has length, breadth, thickness and duration. Duration--or time--is the fourth dimension, would you agree?"
There was general assent, although Stephenson and Smythe were guarded in their agreement.
"Our conscious lives take the form of a fall or a flight along the spatial dimension, time, but at any one moment we can perceive only three dimensions. Yet we all know that the totality of our being is from birth to death. Hence, we are four-dimensional creations. What we see from moment to moment is only a section of our reality."
"You still haven't given anyone a ticket to your so-called Utopia," said Stephenson.
Wells merely smiled and let the remark pass. "If time is a kind of space, then why can't we move about in the fourth dimension as we do in the other three?"
"We do," said Smythe. "At the pace that we call minutes, hours, days, weeks and so on."
"What if we could speed up or slow down the pace?"
"Impossible," said Stephenson. "Time dictates to us the speed of life and that is the way it is."
"Did we study science to be satisfied with the way things are or to investigate the unknown?"
Harper and Grinnell both agreed with Wells. Stephenson, Smythe and Preston made quips about the state of H.G.'s finances and sanity, although none of them made any moves to leave.
The argument continued for hours, with short breaks for more food and wine. Wells savored every minute of the discussion, for he was doing what he loved--using logic to convince the skeptical. To the cries of "Impossible," he smoothly cited the recent fruits of science's labors: Edison's talking machine, the practical electric bulb (he already had several installed in his laboratory), the Daimler-Benz internal combustion engine, Marconi's wireless transmissions and--praise the Queen--London's new electric underground railway.
"What isn't possible, gentlemen?" Wells spread his hands. He noticed the clock on his desk. In another half hour the sun would be rising. They had talked all night.
"What isn't possible?" said Stephenson tiredly. "Traveling into the past or future isn't possible."
H.G. swung around, eyes bright and piercing despite the late hour. "What were you doing eight years ago, John?"
"Studying medicine. What does that prove?"
"What was your first lecture class?"
"Can you picture the face, stature and mannerisms of your professor?"
"Can you close your eyes and see the drawings and charts of the human body?"
"Can you recall the first cadaver your class dissected?"
"What are you getting at, Wells? Of course I can! My memory's as good as anyone's!"
"Then your mind has just traveled through time. Fait accompli." H.G. smiled, then administered the coup de grace. "And if your mind can do that, why not the rest of you?"
The guests murmured to each other.
Stephenson was on his feet exclaiming, "It's against reason, Wells!"
"Perhaps. But so is defying gravity. You do know that more than one man has risen over five thousand feet above the earth's surface in a balloon, don't you?"
Stephenson started to speak, then sagged and thought furiously. Ten years ago, who would have thought of an electric light bulb? Or a talking machine? One hundred years ago, who would have thought of a camera? Or a gramophone? Technology did appear to be developing faster and faster. Maybe Wells was right about a Utopian future with a contented population. His theories seemed sound.
Smythe had the floor, and as he spoke he gestured triumphantly. "Doesn't this all sound suspiciously familiar? Much like a collection of absurdities Wells published in the Journal five years ago?" He turned and addressed H.G. "What did you title that piece?"
"'The Chronic Argonauts.'"
"Oh, yes." Smythe continued. "Wasn't it about a young man who traveled through time encountering great civilizations in the future? What a lot of simplistic rubbish that is! Give up this thinking about a time machine, Wells. It's a waste of time, and it doesn't suit you."
H.G. cleared his throat and smiled smugly. "I haven't just thought about a time machine, gentlemen, I have constructed one."
Copyright © 1979, 2010 by Karl Alexander