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Vintage Season Part 3

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She biinked at him, tears bright on her lashes. "Why...

what year do you think?"

"I know," Oliver told her grimly. "I know the year that song was popular. I know you just came from Canterbury HoUia's husband said so. It's May now, but it was autumn in Canterbury, and you just came from there, so lately the song you heard is still running through your head. Chaucer'sPardoner sang that song some time around the end of the fourteenth century. Did you see Chaucer, Kleph? What was it like in England that long ago?"

Kleph's eye fixed his for a silent moment. Then her shoul- ders drooped and her whole body went limp with resignation beneath the soft blue robe. "I am a fool," she said gently.

"It must have been easy to trap me. You really believe what you say?"



Oliver nodded.

She said in a low voice. "Few people do believe it. That is one of our maxims, when we travel. We are safe from much suspicion because people before The Travel began will not believe."

The emptiness in Oliver's stomach suddenly doubled in vol- ume. For an instant the bottom dropped out of time itself and the universe was unsteady about him. He felt sick. He felt naked and helpless. There was a buzzing in his ears and the room dimmed before him.

He had not really believednot until this instant. He had expected some rational explanation from her that would tidy all his wild half-thoughts and suspicions into something a man could accept as believable. Not this.

Kleph dabbed at her eyes with the pale-blue handkerchief and smiled tremulously.

"I know," she said. "It must be a terrible thing to accept.

To have all your concepts turned upside downWe know it from childhood, of course, but for you. . . here, Oliv- er. The euphoriac will make it easier."

He took the cup, the faint stain of her lip rouge still on the crescent opening. He drank, feeling the dizzy sweetness spiral through his head, and his brain turned a little in his skull as the volatile fragrance took effect. With that turning, focus shifted and all his values with it.

He began to feel better. The flesh settled on his bones again, and the warm clothing of temporal assurance settled upon his flesh, and he was no longer naked and in the vortex of unstable time.

"The story is very simple, really," Kleph said. "Weta-av- el. Our own time is not terribly far ahead of yours. No. I must not say how far. But we still remember your songs and poets and some of your great actors. We are a people of much leisure, and we cultivate the art of enjoying ourselves.

"This is a tour we are makinga tour of a year's seasons.

Vintage seasons. That autumn in Canterbury was the most magnificent autumn our researchers could discover anywhere.

We rode in a pilgrimage to the shrineit was a wonderful experience, though the clothing was a little hard to manage.

"Now this month of May is almost overthe loveliest May in recorded times. A perfect May in a wonderful period.

You have no way of knowing what a good, gay period you live in, Oliver. The very feeling in the air of the cities that wonderful national confidence and happinesseverything going as smoothly as a dream. There were other Mays with fine weather, but each of them had a war or a famine, or something else wrong." She hesitated, grimaced and went on rapidly. "In a few days we are to meet at a coronation inRome," she said. "I think the year will be 800Christmas- time. We"

"But why," Oliver interrupted, "did you insist on this house? Why do the others want to get it away from you?"

Kleph stared at him. He saw the tears rising again in small bright crescents that gathered above her lower lids. He saw the look of obstinacy that came upon her soft, tanned face. She shook her head.

"You must not ask me that." She held out the steaming cup. "Here, drink and forget what I have said. I can tell you no more. No more at all."

When he woke, for a little while he had no idea where he was. He did not remember leaving Kleph or coming to his own room. He didn't care, just then. For he woke to a sense of overwhelming terror.

The dark was full of it. His brain rocked on waves of fear and pain. He lay motionless, too frightened to stir, some ata- vistic memory warning him to lie quiet until he knew from which direction the danger threatened. Reasonless panic broke over him in a tidal flow; his head ached with its vio- lence and the dark throbbed to the same rhythms.

A knock sounded at the door. Omerie's deep voice said, "Wilson! Wilson, are you awake?"

Oliver tried twice before he had breath to answer. "Y-yes what is it?"

The knob rattled. Omerie's dim figure groped for the light switch and the room sprang into visibility. Omerie's face was drawn with strain, and he held one hand to his head as if it ached in rhythm with Oliver's.

It was in that moment, before Omerie spoke again, that Oliver remembered Hollia's warning. "Move out, young man move out before tonight." Wildly he wondered what threat- ened them all in this dark house that throbbed with the rhythms of pure terror.

Omerie in an angry voice answered the unspoken question.

"Someone has planted a subsonic in the house, Wilson.

Kleph thinks you may know where it is."

"S-subsonic?"

"Call it a gadget," Omerie interpreted impatiently. "Prob- ably a small metal box that"

Oliver said, "Oh," in a tone that must have told Omerie everything.

"Where is it?" he demanded. "Quick. Let's get this over."

"I don't know." With an effort Oliver controlled the chat- tering of his teeth. "Y-you mean all thisall this is just from the little box?"

"Of course. Now tell me how to find it before we all go crazy."

Oliver got shakily out of bed, groping for his robe with nerveless hands. "I s-suppose she hid it somewhere down- stairs," he said. "S-she wasn't gone long."

Omerie got the story out of him in a few brief questions.

He clicked his teeth in exasperation when .Oliver had fin- ished it.

"That stupid Hollia"

"Omerie!" Kleph's plaintive voice wailed from the hall."Please hurry, Omerie! This is too much to stand! Oh, Omerie, please!"

Oliver stood up abruptly. Then a redoubled wave of the in- explicable pain seemed to explode in his skull at the motion, and he clutched the bedpost and reeled.

"Go find the thing yourself," he heard himself saying diz- zily. "I can't even walk"

Omerie's own temper was drawn wire-tight by the pres- sure in the room. He seized Oliver's shoulder and shook him, saying in a tight voice, "You let it innow help us get it out, or"

"It's a gadget out of your world, not mine!" Oliver said furiously.

And then it seemed to him there was a sudden coldness and silence in the room. Even the pain and the senseless ter- ror paused for a moment. Omerie's pale, cold eyes fixed upon Oliver a stare so chill he could almost feel the ice in it.

"What do you know about ourworld?" Omerie demand- ed.

Oliver did not speak a word. He did not need to; his face must have betrayed what he knew. He was beyond conceal- ment in the stress of night-time terror he still could not un- derstand.

Omerie bared his white teeth and said three perfectly un- intelligible words. Then he stepped to the door and snapped, "Kleph!"

Oliver could see the two women huddled together in the hall, shaking violently with involuntary waves of that strange, synthetic terror. Klia, in a luminous green gown, was rigid with control, but Kleph made no effort whatever at repres- sion. Her downy robe had turned soft gold tonight; she shiv- ered in it and the tears ran down her face unchecked.

"Kleph," Omerie said in a dangerous voice, "you were eu- phoric again yesterday?"

Kleph darted a scared glance at Oliver and nodded guilt- ily.

"You talked too much." It was a complete indictment in one sentence. "You know the rules, Kleph. You will not be allowed to travel again if anyone reports this to the au- thorities."

Kleph's lovely creamy face creased suddenly into impeni- tent dimples.

"I know it was wrong. I am very sorrybut you will not stop me if Cenbe says no."

Klia flung out her arms in a gesture of helpless anger.

Omerie shrugged. "In this case, as it happens, no great harm is done," he said, giving Oliver an unfathomable glance.

"But it might have been serious. Next time perhaps it will be. I must have a talk with Cenbe."

"We must find the subsonic first of all," Klia reminded them, shivering. "If Kleph is afraid to help, she can go out for a while. I confess I am very sick of Kleph's company just now."

"We could give up the house!" Kleph cried wildly. "Let HoUia have it! How can you stand this long enough tobunt"

"Give up the house?" Klia echoed. "You must he mad!

With all our invitations out?"

"There will be no need for that," Omerie said. "We can find it if we all hunt. You feel able to help?" He looked at Oliver.

With an effort Oliver controlled his own senseless panic as the waves of it swept through the room. "Yes," he said. "But what about me? What are you going to do?"

"That should be obvious," Omerie said, bis pale eyes in the dark face regarding Oliver impassively. "Keep you in the house until we go. We can certainly do no less. You under- stand that. And there is no reason for us to do more, as it happens. Silence is all we promised when we signed our trav- el papers."

"But" Oliver groped for the fallacy in that reasoning.

It was no use. He could not think clearly. Panic surged in- sanely through his mind from the very air around him. "All right," he said. "Let's hunt."

It was dawn before they found the box, tucked inside the ripped seam of a sofa cushion. Omerie took it upstairs without a word. Five minutes later the pressure in the air abruptly dropped and peace fell blissfully upon the house.

"They will try again," Omerie said to Oliver at the door of the back bedroom. "We must watch for that. As for you, I must see that you remain in the house until Friday. For your own comfort, I advise you to let me know if Hollia offers any further tricks. I confess I am not quite sure how to enforce your staying indoors. I could use methods that would make you very uncomfortable. I would prefer to accept your word on it."

Oliver hesitated. The relaxing of pressure upon his brain had left him exhausted and .'.stupid, and he was' not at all sure what to say. sai Omerie went on after a moment. "It was partly our fault for not ensuring that we had the house to ourselves," he said. "Living here with us, you could scarcely help suspect- ing. Shall we say that in return for your promise, I reimburse you in part for losing the sale price on this house?"

Oliver thought that over. It would pacify Sue a little. And it meant only two days indoors. Besides, what good would escaping do? What could he say to outsiders that would not lead him straight to a padded cell?

"All right." he said wearily. "I promise."

By Friday morning there was still no sign from Hollia. Sue telephoned at noon. Oliver knew the crackle of her voice over the wire when Kleph took the call. Even the crackle sounded hysterical; Sue saw her bargain slipping hopelessly through her grasping little fingers.

Kleph's voice was soothing. "I am sorry," she said many times, in the intervals when the voice paused. "I am truly sorry. Believe me, you will find it does not matter. I know.

I am sorry" .

She turned from the phone at last. "The girl says Hollia has given up," she told the others.

"Not Hollia," Klia said firmly.Omerie shrugged. "We have very little time left. If she intends anything more, it will be tonight. We must watch for it."

"Oh, not tonight!" Kleph's voice was horrified. "Not even Hollia would do that."

"Hollia, my dear, in her own way is quite as unscrupulous as you are," Omerie told her with a smile.

"Butwould she spoil things for us just because she can't be here?"

"What do you think?" Klia demanded.

Oliver ceased to listen. There was no making sense out of their talk, but he knew that by tonight whatever the secret was must surely come into the open at last. He was willing to wait and see.

For two days excitement had been building up in the house and the three who shared it with him. Even the servants felt it and were nervous and unsure of themselves.

Oliver had given up asking questionsit only embarrassed his tenantsand watched.

.~aaa -lairs in the house werb--collected in the three front b~c~fhtbe tq'he furniture was Aarranged to make room for them, and dozens of covered cups had been set out on trays.

Oliver recognized Kleph's rose-quartz set among the rest. No steam rose from the thin crescent-openings, but the cups were full. Oliver lifted one and felt a heavy liquid move within it, like something half-solid, sluggishly.

Guests were obviously expected, but the regular dinner hour of nine came and went, and no one had yet arrived.

Dinner was finished; the servants went home. The Sanciscos went to their rooms to dress, amid a feeling of mounting tension.

Oliver stepped out on the porch after dinner, trying in vain to guess what it was that had wrought such a pitch of ex- pectancy in the house. There was a quarter moon swimming in haze on the horizon, but the stars which had made every night of May thus far a dazzling translucency were very dim tonight. Clouds had begun to gather at sundown, and the undimmed weather of the whole month seemed ready to break at last.

Behind Oliver the door opened a little, and closed. He caught Kleph's fragrance before he turned, and a faint whifl of the fragrance of the euphoriac she was much too fond of drinking. She came to his side and slipped a hand into his, looking up into his face in the darkness.

"Oliver," she said very softly. "Promise me one thing.

Promise me not to leave the house tonight."

"I've already promised that," he said a little irritably.

"I know. But tonight1 have a very particular reason for wanting you indoors tonight." She leaned her head against his shoulder for a moment, and despite himself his irritation softened. He had not seen Kleph alone since that last night of her revelations; he supposed he never would be alone with her again for more than a few minutes at a time. But he knew he would not forget those two bewildering evenings.

He knew too, now, that she was very weak and foolish but she was still Kleph and he had held her in his arms,and was not likely ever to forget it.

"You might behurtif you went out tonight," she was saying in a muffled voice. "I know it will not matter, in the end, butremember you promised, Oliver."

She was gone again, and the door had closed behind her, before he could voice the futile questions in his mind.

The guests began to arrive just before midnight. From the head of the stairs Oliver saw them coming in by twos and threes, and was astonished at how many of these people from the future must have gathered here in the past weeks. He could see quite clearly now how they differed from the norm in his own period. Their physical elegance was what one noticed firstperfect grooming, meticulous manners, me- ticulously controlled voices. But because they were all idle, all, in a way, sensatioa-hunters, there was a certain shrillness underlying their voices, especially when heard all together.

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