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Chapter 7


Now therefore be content, look upon me;

for it is evident unto you if I lie.

Job 6:28

MARGRETHE is both a warm comfort and a civilized adult. Never once did she gasp, or expostulate, or say, 'Oh, no or 'I can't believe it!' At my first statement she held very still, waited, then said quietly, 'I do not understand.'

'I don't understand it either,' I told her. 'Something happened when I walked through that fire pit. The world changed. This ship - 'I pounded the bulkhead beside us. '- is not the ship I was in before. And people call me "Graham"... when I know that my name is Alexander Hergensheimer. But it's not just me and this ship; it's the whole world. Different history. Different countries. No airships here.'

'Alec, what is an airship?'

'Uh, up in the air, like a balloon. It is a balloon, in a way. But it goes very fast, over a hundred knots.'

She considered it soberly. 'I think that I would find that frightening.'

I 'Not at all; it's the best way to travel. I flew down here in one, the Count von Zeppelin of North American Airlines. But this world doesn't have airships. That was the point that finally convinced me that this really is a different world - and not just some complicated hoax that someone had played on me. Air travel is so major a part of the economy of the world I knew that it changes everything else not to have it. Take - Look, do you believe me?

She answered slowly and carefully, 'I believe that you are telling the truth as you see it. But the truth I see is very different.'

'I know and that's what makes it so hard. I - See here, if you don't hurry, you're going to miss dinner, right?'

'It does not matter.'

'Yes, it does; you must not miss meals just because I made a stupid mistake and hurt your feelings. And if I don't show up, Inga will send somebody up to find out whether I'm ill or asleep or whatever; I've seen her do it with others at my table. Margrethe - my very dear! - I've wanted to tell you. I've waited to tell you. I've needed to tell you. And now I can and I must. But I can't do it in five minutes standing up. After you turn down beds tonight can you take time to listen to me?'

'Alec, I will always take all the time for you that you need.'

'All right. You go down and eat, and I'll go down and touch base at least - get Inga off my neck - and I'll meet you here after you turn down beds. All right?'

She looked thoughtful. 'All right. Alec - Will you kiss me again.'

That's how I knew she believed me. Or wanted to believe me. I quit worrying. I even ate a good dinner, although I hurried.

She was waiting for me when I returned, and stood up as I came in. I took her in my arms, pecked her on the nose, picked her up by her elbows and sat her on my bunk; then I sat down in the only chair. 'Dear one, do you think I'm crazy.

'Alec, I don't know what to tink.' (Yes, she said 'tink'. Once in a long while, under stress of emotion, Margrethe would lose the use of the theta sound. Otherwise her English accent was far better than my tall-corn accent, harsh as a rusty saw.)

'I know,' I agreed. 'I had the same problem. Only two ways to look at it. Either something incredible did happen when I walked through the fire, something that changed my whole world. Or I'm as crazy I as a pet 'coon. I've spent days checking the facts... and the world has changed. Not just airships. Kaiser Wilhelm the Fourth is missing and some silly president named "Schmidt is in his place. Things like that.'

'I would not call Herr Schmidt "silly". He is quite a good president as German presidents go.'

'That's my point, dear. To me, any German president looks silly, as Germany is - in my world - one of the last western monarchies effectively unlimited. Even the Tsar is not as powerful.'

'And that has to be my point, too, Alec. There is no Kaiser and there is no Tsar. The Grand Duke of Muscovy is a constitutional monarch and no longer claims to be suzerain over other Slavic states.'

'Margrethe, we're both saying the same thing. The world I grew up in is gone. I'm having to learn about a different world. Not a totally different world. Geography does not seem to have changed, and not all of history. The two worlds seem to be the same almost up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Call it eighteen-ninety. About a hundred years back something strange happened and the two worlds split apart... and about twelve days ago something equally strange happened to me and I got bounced into this world.' I smiled at her. 'But I'm not sorry. Do you know why? Because you are in this world.'.

'Thank you. It is important to me that you are in it, too.'

'Then you do believe me. Just as I have been forced to believe it. So much so that I've quit worrying about it. Just one thing really bothers me - What became of Alec Graham? Is he filling my place in my world? Or what?'

She did not answer at once, and when she did, the answer did not seem responsive. 'Alec, will you please take down your trousers?'

'What did you say, Margrethe?'

'Please. I am not making a joke and I am not trying to entice you. I must see something. Please lower your trousers.'

I don't see - All right.' I shut up and did as she asked not easy in evening dress. I had to take off my mess jacket, then my cummerbund, before I was peeled enough to let me slide the braces off my shoulders.

Then, reluctantly, I started unbuttoning my fly. (Another shortcoming of this retarded world - no zippers. I did not appreciate zippers until I no longer had them.)

I took a deep breath, then lowered my trousers a few inches. 'Is that enough?'

'A little more, please - and will you please turn your back to me?'

I did as she asked. Then I felt her hands, gentle and not invasive, at my right rear. She lifted a shirttail and pulled down the top of my underwear pants on the right.

A moment later she restored both garments. 'That's enough. Thank you.'

I tucked in my shirttails and buttoned up my fly, reshouldered, the braces and reached for the cummerbund. She said, 'Just a moment, Alec.'

'EM I thought you were through.'

'I am. But there is no need to get back into those formal clothes; let me get out casual trousers for you. And shirt. Unless you are going back to the lounge?'

'No. Not if you will stay.'

'I will stay; we must talk.' Quickly she took out casual trousers and a sports shirt for me, laid them on the bed. 'Excuse me, please.' She went into the bath.

I don't know whether she needed to use it or not, but she knew that I could change more comfortably in the stateroom than in that cramped shipboard bathroom.

I changed and felt better. A cummerbund and a boiled shirt are better than a straitjacket but not much. She came out, at once hung up the clothes I had taken off, all but the shirt and collar. She removed studs and collar buttons from these, put them away, and put shirt and collar into my laundry bag. I wondered what Abigail would think if she - could see these wifely attentions. Abigail did not believe in spoiling me - and did not.

'What waz that all about Margrethe?'

'I had to see something. Alec, you were wondering what had become of Alec Graham. I now know the answer.'

'Yes?'

'He's right here. You are he.'

At last I said, 'That, just from looking at a few square inches on my behind? What did you find, Margrethe? The strawberry mark that identifies the missing heir?'

'No, Alec. Your "Southern Cross".'

'My what?'

'Please, Alec. I had hoped that it would restore your, memory. I saw it the first night we -' She hesitated, then looked me square in the eye.'- made love. You turned on the light, then turned over on your belly to see what time it was. That was when I noticed the moles on your right buttock cheek. I commented on the pattern. they made, and we joked about it. You said that it was your Southern Cross and it let you know which end was up. '

Margrethe turned slightly pink but continued to look me firmly in the eye. 'And I showed you some moles on my body. Alec, I am sorry that you do not remember it but please believe me: By then we were well enough acquainted that we could be playful about such things without my being forward or rude.'

'Margrethe, I don't think you could ever be forward or rude. But you're putting too much importance on a chance arrangement of moles. I've got moles all over me; it doesn't surprise me that some of them, back where I can't see easily, are arranged in a cross shape. Or that Graham` had some that were somewhat similar.'

'Not "similar". Exactly the same.'

'Well - There is a much better way to check. In the desk there is my wallet. Graham's wallet, actually. Driver's license. His. His thumbprint on it. I haven't checked it because I have never had the slightest doubt that he was Graham and that I am Hergensheimer and that we are not the same man. But we can check. Get it out, dear. Check it yourself. I'll put a thumbprint on the mirror in the bath. Compare them. Then you will know.'

'Alec, I do know. You are the one who doesn't believe it; you check it.'

'Well -' Margrethe's counterproposal was reasonable; I agreed to it.

I got out Graham's driver's license, then placed a print on the bath mirror by first rubbing my thumb over my nose for the nose's natural oil, so much greater than that of the pad of the thumb. I found that I could not see the pattern on the glass too well, so I shook a little talcum onto my palm, blew it toward the mirror.

Worse. The powder that detectives use must be much finer than shaving talcum. Or perhaps I don't know how to use it. I placed another print without powder, looked at both prints, at my right thumb, at the print on the driver's license, then checked to see that the license did indeed designate print of right thumb. It did. 'Margrethe! Will you come look, please?'

She joined me in the bath. 'Look at this,' I said. 'Look at all four - my thumb and three prints. The pattern in all four is basically an arch - but that simply trims it down to half the thumbprints in the world. I'll bet you even money that your own thumbprints have an arch pattern. Honest, can you tell whether or not the thumbprint on the card--was made by this thumb? Or by my left thumb; they might have made a mistake.'

'I cannot tell, Alec. I have no skill in this.'

'Well - I don't think even an expert could tell in this light. We'll have to put it off till morning; we need bright sunlight out on deck. We also need glossy white paper, stamp-pad ink, and a magnifying glass ... and I'll bet Mr Henderson will have all three. Will tomorrow do?'

'Certainly. This test is not for me, Alec; I already know in my heart. And by seeing your "Southern Cross". Something has happened to your memory but you are still you... and someday we will find your memory again.'

'It's not that easy, dear. I know that I am not Graham.

Margrethe, do you have any idea what business he was in? Or why he was on this trip?'

'Must I say "him"? I did not ask your business, Alec. And you never, offered to tell me.'

'Yes, I think you must say "him", at least until we check that thumbprint. Was he married?'

'Again, he did not say and I did not ask.'

'But you implied - No, you flatly stated that you had "made love" with this man whom you believe to be me, and that you have been in bed with him.'

'Alec, are you reproaching me?'

'Oh, no, no, no!' (But I was, and she knew it.) 'Whom you go to bed with is your business. But I must tell you that I am married.'

She shut her face against me. 'Alec, I did not try to seduce you into marriage.'

'Graham, you mean. I was not there.'

'Very well. Graham. I did not entrap Alec Graham. For our mutual happiness we made love. Matrimony was not mentioned by either of us.'

'Look, I'm sorry I mentioned the matter! It seemed to have some bearing on the mystery; that's all. Margrethe, will you believe that, I would rather strike off my arm - or pluck out my eye and cast it from me - than hurt you, ever, in any way?'

'Thank you, Alec. I believe you.'

'All that Jesus ever said was: "Go, and sin no more.' Surely you do not think I would ever set myself up as more severely judgmental than was Jesus? But I was not judging you; I was seeking information about Graham. His business, in particular. Uh, did you ever suspect that he might be engaged in something illegal?'

She gave a ghost of a smile. 'Had I ever suspected anything of the sort, my loyalty to him is such that I would never express such suspicion. Since you insist that you are not he, then there it must stand.'

'Touch~!' I grinned sheepishly. Could I tell her about the lockbox? Yes, I must. I had to be frank with her and had to persuade her that she was not being disloyal to Graham/me were she to be equally frank. 'Margrethe, I was not asking idly and I was not prying where I had no business to pry. I have still more, trouble and I need your advice.'

Her turn to be startled. 'Alec... I do not often give advice. I do not like to.'

'May I tell you my trouble? You need not advise me... but perhaps you may be able to analyze it for me.' I told her quickly about that truly damning million dollars. 'Margrethe, can you think of any legitimate reason why an honest man would be carrying a million dollars in cash? Travelers checks, letters of credit, drafts for transferring monies, even bearer bonds - But cash? In that amount? I say that it is psychologically as unbelievable as what happened to me in the fire pit is physically unbelievable. Can you see any other way to look at it? For what honest reason would a man carry that much cash on a trip like this?'

'I will not pass judgment.'

'I do not ask you to judge; I ask you to stretch your imagination and tell me why a man would carry with him a million dollars in cash. Can you think of a reason? One as farfetched as you like... but a reason.'

'There could be many reasons.'

'Can you think of one?'

I waited; she remained silent. I sighed and said, 'I can't think of one, either. Plenty of criminal reasons, of course, as so-called "hot money" almost always moves as cash. This is so common that most governments - all governments, I believe - assume that any large amount of cash being moved other than by a bank or by a government is indeed crime money until proved otherwise. Or counterfeit money, a still more depressing idea. The advice I need is this: Margrethe, what should I do with it? It's not mine; I can't take it off the ship. For the same reason I can't abandon it. I can't even throw it overboard. What can I do with it?'

My question was not rhetorical; I had to find an answer that would not cause me to wind up in jail for something Graham had done. So far, the only answer I could think of was to go to the only authority in the ship, the Captain, tell him all my troubles and ask him to take custody of that awkward million dollars.

Ridiculous. That would just give me a fresh set of bad answers, depending on whether or not the Captain believed me and on whether or not the Captain himself .was honest - and possibly on other variables. But I could not see any outcome from telling the Captain that would not end in my being locked up, either in jail or in a mental hospital.

The simplest way to resolve the situation would be to throw the pesky stuff overboard!

I had moral objections to that. I've broken some of the Commandments and bent some others, but being financially honest has never been a problem to me. Granted, lately my moral fiber did not seem to be as strong as I had thought, but nevertheless I was not tempted to

steal that million even to jettison it.

But there was a stronger objection: Do you know anyone who, having a million dollars in his hands, could bring himself to destroy it?

Maybe you do. I don't. In a pinch I might turn it over to the Captain but I would not destroy it.

Smuggle it ashore? Alex, if you ever take it out of that lockbox, you have stolen it. Will you destroy your self-respect for a million dollars? For ten million? For five dollars?

'Well, Margrethe?'

'Alec, it seems to me that the solution is evident.'

'Eh?'

'But you have been trying to solve your problems in the wrong order. First you must regain your memory. Then you will know why you are carrying that money. It will turn out to be for some innocent and logical purpose.' She smiled. 'I know you better than you know yourself. You are a good man, Alec; you are not a criminal.'

I felt a mixture of exasperation at her and of pride in what she thought of me - but more exasperation than pride. 'Confound it, dear, I have not lost my memory. I am not Alec Graham; I am. Alexander Hergensheimer, and that's been my name all my life and my memory is sharp. Want to know the name of my second-grade teacher? Miss Andrews. Or how I happened to have my first airship ride when I was twelve? For I do indeed come from a world in which airships ply every ocean and even over the North Pole, and Germany is a monarchy and the North American Union has enjoyed a century of peace and prosperity and this ship we are in tonight would be considered so out of date and so miserably equipped and slow that no one would sail in it. I asked for help; I did not ask for a psychiatric opinion. If you think I'm crazy, say so... and we'll drop the subject.'

'I did not mean to anger you.'

'My dear! You did not anger me; I simply unloaded on you some of my worry and frustration - and I should not have done so. I'm sorry. But I do have real problems and they are not solved by telling me that my memory is at fault. If it were my memory, saying so would solve nothing., my problems would still be there. But I should not have snapped at you. - Margrethe, you are all I have ... in a strange and sometimes frightening world. I'm sorry.'

She slid down off my bunk. 'Nothing to be sorry about, dear Alec. But there is no point in further discussion tonight. Tomorrow - Tomorrow we will test that thumbprint carefully, in bright sunlight. Then you will see, and it could have an immediate effect on your memory.

'Or it could have an immediate effect on your stubbornness, best of girls.'

She smiled. 'We will see. Tomorrow. Now I think I must go to bed. We have reached the point where we are each repeating the same arguments... and upsetting each other. I don't want that, Alec. That is not good.'

She turned and headed for the door, not even offering herself for a goodnight kiss.

Margrethe!'

'Yes, Alec?'

'Come back and kiss me.'

'Should I, Alec? You, a married man.'

'Uh - Well, for heaven's sake, a kiss isn't the same as adultery.'

She shook her head sadly. 'There are kisses and kisses, Alec. I would not kiss the way we have kissed unless I was happily willing to go on from there and make love. To me that would be a happy and innocent thing....ut to you it would be adultery. You pointed out what the Christ said to the woman taken in adultery. I have not sinned... and I will not cause you to sin.' Again she turned to leave.

'Margrethe!'

'Yes, Alec?.

'You asked me if I intended ever again to ask you to come back later. I ask you now. Tonight. Will you come back later?'

'Sin, Alec. For you it. would be sin... and that would make it sin for me, knowing how you feel about it.'

'"Sin." I'm not sure what sin is... I do know I need you... and I think you need me.'

'Goodnight, Alec.' She left quickly.

After a long while I brushed my teeth and washed my face, then decided that another shower might help. I took it lukewarm and it seemed to calm me a little. But when I went to bed, I lay awake, doing something I call thinking but probably is not.

I reviewed in my mind all the many major mistakes I have made in my life, one after another, dusting them off and bringing them up sharp in my head, right to the silly, awkward, inept, self-righteous, asinine fool I had made of myself tonight, and, in so doing, how I had wounded and humiliated the best and sweetest woman I have ever known.

I 'can keep myself uselessly occupied with selfflagellation for an entire night when my latest attack of foot-in-mouth disease is severe. This current one bid fair to keep me staring at the ceiling for days.

Some long time later, after midnight and more, I was awakened by the sound of a key in the door. I fumbled for the bunk light switch, found it just as she dropped her robe and got into bed with me. I switched off the light.

She was warm and smooth and trembling and crying. I held her gently and tried to soothe her. She did not speak and neither did I. There had been too many words earlier and most of them had been mine. Now was a time simply to cuddle and hold and speak without words.

At last her trembling slowed, then stopped. Her breathing became even. Then she sighed and said very softly, 'I could not stay away.'

'Margrethe. I love you.'

'Oh! I love you so much it hurts in my heart.'

I think we were both asleep when the collision happened. I had not intended to sleep but for the first time since the fire walk I was relaxed and untroubled; I dropped off.

First came this incredible jar that almost knocked us out of my bunk, then a grinding, crunching noise at earsplitting level. I got the bunk light on - and the skin of the ship at the foot of the bunk was bending inward.

The general alarm sounded, adding to the already deafening noise. The steel side of the ship buckled, then ruptured as something dirty white and cold pushed into the hole. As the light went out.

I got out of that bunk any which way, dragging Margrethe with me. The ship rolled heavily to port, causing us to slide down into the angle of the deck and the inboard bulkhead. I slammed against the door-handle, grabbed at it, and hung on with my right hand while I held Margrethe to me with my left arm. The ship rolled back to starboard, and wind and water poured in through the hole - we heard it and felt it, could not see it. The ship recovered, then rolled again to starboard - and I lost my grip on the door handle.

I have to reconstruct what happened next - pitch dark, mind you, and a bedlam of sound. We were falling - I never let go of her - and then we were in water.

Apparently when the ship rolled back to starboard, we were tossed out through the hole. But that is, just reconstruction; all I actually know is that we fell, together, into water, went down rather deep.

We came up and I had Margrethe under my left arm, almost in a proper lifesaver carry. j grabbed a look as I gulped air, then we went under again. The ship was right alongside us and moving. There was cold wind and rumbling noise; something high and dark was on the side away from the ship. But it was the ship that scared me - or rather its propeller, its screw. Stateroom CI09 was far forward - but if I didn't get us well away from the ship almost at once, Margrethe and I were going to be chewed into hamburger by the screw. I hung onto her and stroked hard away from the ship, kicking strongly - and exulted as I felt us getting away from the hazard of the ship... and banged my head something brutal against blackness.




Chapter 6 | JOB: A Comedy of Justice | Chapter 8



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