We stood bunched in with the little crowd you can see on the balcony down there at the right -- see it? -- just over the pillared entrance to the Everett House: Julia and I, her hands in her muff; and our four-year-old son, chin on the balcony rail. When I leaned over him to see his face in the light of the marching torches below us, his expression was fixed in wonder. I was here on assignment, but this was also a part of nineteenth-century life, a great parade, that I liked a lot. We had no movies, radio, or television, but we did have parades, and often. Now every possible inch of standing room down there in Union Square was lost under the packed-together shoulders and the tops of derbies, tall hats, fur caps, shawled hair, and bonnets. Winding around the roadway through that thick crowd, hundreds of marching men, and floats, flags, bands, horses, all fitfully visible in the bobbing firelight from rank after rank of gimballed canisters of smoky flame.
The sound was a thrill: the splendid brass blare of marching bands and the yells of the crowd. What they yelled, I'd noticed again and again, was "Hurrah!" -- actually pronounced hurrah. We stood hearing fireworks whistle up, watched them burst gorgeously against the black sky with that muffled fireworks pop. Skyrockets shot through these bursts and curved off, dying. Where did they land? And paper balloons, their swinging baskets of orange fire shining through the sides. Every now and then flame crawled up a paper panel, and the balloon would drop, blazing. Where? Were there men waiting on the dark rooftops around the square with buckets of water? Must have been, must have been.
It was glorious, all black dark and flowering color, marching leather shuffling on cobbles, drums banging, cymbals smashing. Only a political parade, the election weeks ahead, but fun. Another band moving past now, this one in tall flat-topped shakos with plumes and tiny peaks, the snares rattling, lots of powerful horn and trumpet and that bell-like thing that tops it all off. Splendid blaring sound, very close, and once again that night I felt the actual chill right up the spine, and the slightly embarrassing eye sting, of easy emotion about nothing.
Now a turnverein band in funny costumes, and we stayed for that -- Willy insisted. Then we left to beat the crowd, coming down through the hotel. I liked the hotel because someone had told me that a couple of the old men sitting around the lobby were veterans of the War of 1812, but there were none there tonight. I didn't believe it anyway. Out the side entrance of the hotel, and across the street, around the square, the curbs were solid with waiting carriages, their lamps lighted, an occasional iron horseshoe stomping the stone. Just as we approached him a horse began urinating, fascinating Willy, who wanted to stop and watch, Julia's arm under mine tugging us past, me grinning. A few carriages further on we stopped to lift Willy to pat the soft nose of a more genteel horse, something he loved.
Then we walked home, the streets near to silent except for an occasional passerby or clip-clopping carriage. It was nice out, not too cold. There'd been a moon earlier, but I couldn't find it now. Plenty of stars though, the sky a great enclosing blackness over this low city; millions of stars, those near the horizon spiky and glittery.
Willy was asleep, head sweetly heavy on my shoulder when we reached the little square of greenery which was Gramercy Park, turning to walk partly around it. We rented a house here, a three-story brownstone with basement and attic, across the park from Julia's aunt. Julia liked being near her aunt, and so did I. I liked Aunt Ada, and it gave us a convenient and willing babysitter. We passed a carriage, horse tethered to the hitching post, carriage lamps shining orangely, and I wondered about it. Then, as we passed I heard a door, turned and saw light from the Bostwick entrance hall shining out on the steps, a man leaving, putting on his derby as he came down, and I saw the little satchel in his hand: a doctor. I said, "Old Mr. Bostwick must be sick," and Julia said that in the park with Willy yesterday, she'd been told by another mother that he was. Old Mr. Bostwick interested me because I knew he'd been born in 1799, the year Washington died -- were they contemporaries for a few months or weeks?
My name is Simon Morley, I'm "thirtyish," as we say, and although I was born well into the twentieth century, I live back here in the nineteenth, married to a young woman born long before I was or even my parents. Because -- according to Dr. E. E. Danziger, retired professor of physics from Harvard -- time is like a river. It carries us forward through its bends, into the future...but the past remains in the bends behind us. If so, said Dr. D, we ought to be able to reach it. And got himself a government grant to try.
We are tied to the present, Dr. Danziger said, by countless threads -- the countless things that make the present: automobiles, television, planes, the way Coca-Cola tastes. An endless list of tiny threads that tie us to now.
Well, study the past, he said, for the same kind of mundane details. Read its newspapers, magazines, and books. Dress and live in its style, think its thoughts -- all the things that make it then. Now find a place that exists in both times unchanged; "Gateways," he called them. And live in that place which also exists in the time you want to reach -- dressing, eating, and thinking the way they did -- and presently the ties holding you to the present will relax. Then blank out even the knowledge of these ties through self-hypnosis. And let your knowledge of the time you want to reach come flooding up in your mind. And there -- in a Gateway existing in both times -- you may, you just may make the transition.
Most people failed, at the Project where we were trained. They'd try and -- just couldn't. But I could, one of the very few. Made it back into the nineteenth century, returned to make my report, then went back to stay -- to marry Julia, and live out my life in the nineteenth century.
Now at our house, in familiar routine, Julia stepped on ahead up the stairs to unlock and open the front door for me; and in the hall she turned up the light. Then I passed Willy over to her because our dog -- a fairly big woolly black dog with dabs of white here and there -- was doing his little dance around my feet, trying to trip me for laughs. I let him out, and sat waiting on the front stoop while he wandered around, sniffing, checking to see that nothing had been changed out here. He's a fine fellow, called Rover, a fairly common name that hadn't yet become funny. Big black dogs, I'm afraid, are often Nig.
Rover came back to sit down beside me, and I gave him his ear rub, which he accepted graciously, tongue lolling to show appreciation. I had various little routines with Rover, adding to and improving them from time to time, but it was best, I'd learned, to keep them out here. Julia is bright, quick-minded, and as subtle and perceptive as anyone. Yet one evening when old Rove came wandering in to join us in the sitting room, with a long thread of drool hanging from his black lips, I suggested to Julia that he might be an enchanted prince and that she ought to give him a big wet kiss to release him from his spell. But all I got for that was trouble, because her sense of humor, naturally, is pure nineteenth-century. One evening fairly early in our marriage we sat reading in bed, and she laughed aloud and pointed to what she'd just read in her newspaper. I leaned over and read it; it was a joke, a filler at the bottom of a column. The little onmibuses on Broadway and on Fifth Avenue are called stages by some, others call them buses, and the joke was: "'Don't you think I have a good face for the stage?' asked a lady with histrionic aspirations. 'I don't know about the stage,' replied her gallant companion, 'but you have a lovely face for a buss.' " I imitated a chuckle, nodding my head very rapidly to suggest appreciation. As I once did at a Harrigan and Hart performance which was truly terrible, dreadful "faith and begorra" Irishman jokes. But Julia actually cried from laughter, along with everyone else but me. I faked it.
"I understand you're Man's Best Friend," I said to Rover now, there on the front stoop, and he agreed. ("Man's Best Friend" was serious business here, a subject for sentimental newspaper poetry, which Julia no longer read aloud to me.) "But it seems to me," I told Rover, who sat listening politely as though he'd never heard this before, "that it's kind of a one-sided friendship. We do all the work. We get your dinners" -- his ears lifted at the magic word -- "get your water, provide beds, fireplaces, baths" -- the ears flattened -- "all the necessities, nay, luxuries of the carefree dog's life." I began leaning close to him. "But what do you do in return, Best Friend?" I leaned still closer. "Where are my slippers?" He didn't know, but now he could, and did, as I'd expected, give me a wet tongue up the side of my face. "That's the deal?" I said. "Dog spit all over the face? Listen" -- I grabbed him around the shoulders, hugging him close while he tried to pull his head loose, but I had him. "Where did you guys ever get this idea that a face lacquered with dog spit is some kind of favor? Thousands of years, but you never learn." I let him go, and he sat paying attention to whatever I might want to say. Dogs try to understand, they want to; cats never do. I gave Rove a friendly tail yank; then he followed me in, and out to his back-porch bed.
Up in our big bedroom Julia and I moved around, getting ready for bed, not saying much, still under the spell of a good evening. I liked this room, liked them all, but this especially: carpeted; gaslit; furnished with what I was aware were almost ridiculously massive, overornamented tables, chiffoniers, two big wardrobes, a leather chair, our big bed. But a place I loved: peaceful, a refuge.
Above my right shoulder -- we were in bed now, sitting up to talk for a few moments the way we usually did -- an open-flame light burned steady behind an etched and frosted shade. On the small marble-topped table beside me lay a copy of the new January 11, 1887, issue of Leslie's Weekly. I had two drawings in it this week, and I liked looking at them; so did Julia, who saved them all. My watch and chain, the watch tick-ticking pleasantly -- I had just wound it -- lay on the Leslie's. From below, outside at street level and approaching our slightly opened window, footsteps -- made not by shoes but by boots, striking not concrete but cut stone, to make a sound not twentieth-century but nineteenth -- footsteps approached, then moved on by, the sound distancing. As so often, I felt the thrill and mystery of simply being here, hearing those unseen late-at-night footsteps deep in the nineteenth century. Whose? Going where? For what never-to-be-known purpose? And to continue how far on into the future?
We sat against the dark carved wood of the great bedstead, snug under a thick quilt, in our nightgowns; I'd long since and absolutely refused to wear a nightcap, cold as it could get when the coals in the fireplace across the room burned out. Once in a while you're momentarily conscious of being happy. But I'm superstitious, and I picture Fate -- best be respectful, and use a capital F -- as a misty presence somewhere up in the sky but not too far away. Always listening, alert and ready to punish forbidden optimism. But I couldn't help it, feeling as purely content as it is possible to be, I would think, and in that moment as sometimes happens, Julia said, "Are you happy, Si?"
"Not at all. Why should I be?"
"Because of me maybe?"
"Well, okay. Right now...here in this house...Willy safely asleep across the hall, Rover snug in his bed, two drawings in the paper this week, and here in this cozy bed with you --"
"Stop that. It's much too late."
"I'm about as happy" -- I glanced at the ceiling to say, "Only fooling!" -- "as any human being could be without throwing up. That suit you?"
"Just barely better than nothing at all."
"Best I can do. Why'd you ask -- something bothering you?"
"Oh, no. It's just that you've been singing again."
"Those strange songs."
"Oh Lord, I didn't realize."
"Yes. After you gave Willy his bath on Sunday, I was getting him into bed, and he was trying to sing something about 'Raindrop fai my head.' "
"Damn it, I've got to cut that out! I don't want to burden that boy with any twentieth-century knowledge, not a scrap! Not for a long time anyway. If ever. This is his time, the one he'll grow up and live in. And I want it to be for him just like any other -- "
"Yes, yes, don't worry, he's forgotten, it won't hurt him. It's you I worry about" -- she put a hand on my forearm -- "when I hear you staging those songs. You don't even know you're doing it. Sometimes you just hum, but I know it's from your own time because the tune is so odd."
That made me smile. Julia's idea of a good song -- everybody's idea -- was one her aunt had just bought, the sheet music, called "Baby's Gone to Heaven." All about a dead baby, and the cover -- a truly bad black-and-white drawing I'd have secretly buried late at night -- showed a woman, tears streaming, arms lifted toward a floating baby drifting up into a heavenly glow. Aunt Ada's boarders and friends, and some of our friends, too, would sing that kind of song standing around the organ. Some would smile, demonstrating sophisticated amusement, but most sniffled, eyes moist. And my songs were odd?
But I was smiling at more than songs. Here in the deep of the nineteenth century, I'd become a part of it, certainly. I knew how this time lived, thought, felt, and believed, and their ways were mine now. But like a man living permanently in another country, knowing its language and customs, becoming indistinguishably a part of it, I nevertheless carried hidden things that remained forever foreign. Things like my idea of humor and of what a song should be come from earliest childhood, and can't be changed.
"And when I hear you humming your songs," Julia said, "I know you're thinking of your time." The late twentieth century scared Julia; she hated everything she knew about it. She wanted me to be happy, but happy here.
"Well, of course I think about my own time occasionally."
"Could you go back, Si? Can you still do it?"
"Well...I'm not sure; it's been five years. At the Project we learned that if you can move into another time, you can usually do it again. But I really don't know. Don't want to anyway."
"Do you think others have done it?"
"Martin Lastvogel thought so; he was the teacher at the Project. He showed me an ad once, a personals ad in an 1891 New York Times. Said something like, 'Alice, Alice, I'm here but I can't get back! Say hello for me to the city, MOMA, the library, and Eddie and Mom. Oh, pray for me!' And he said there's a tombstone in Trinity Church cemetery that reads, 'Everett Brownlee, Born 1910, Died 1895.' Martin said people assume it was a mistake, but that people don't make that kind of mistake on a tombstone. He thinks the dates are correct. Yeah, of course there've been others; always. The concept isn't hard; Dr. D couldn't have been the first to think of it. Not many can manage to do it though," I added, and detected a hint of smugness in my voice.
"Do you ever want to go back? Just as...a kind of visit to your own time?"
"Because of what you did."
We'd had this conversation half a dozen times in the past five years, but I knew she needed reassurance, and nodded. "On February 6, 1882, her eighteenth birthday: I can see her standing in the theater lobby in her new green dress. Just eighteen, and about to meet the man she'd eventually marry."
"You mustn't blame yourself, Si."
"Oh, I don't, really. But I think about it. Me standing there, knowing what was coming, knowing what I had to do. And watching him outside walking toward the lobby doors. Young Otto Danziger, about to step into the lobby where he'd be introduced to her: he even looked like Dr. D! Then I see myself treacherously stepping out, unlighted cigar in hand, asking him for a light. Deliberately delaying him. Till I saw her leave the lobby to go inside. So they never met, it was that simple. Never met, never married, so Dr. D was never born. And without him, of course -- so strange to think about it -- there was never a Project." Julia lay beside me, listening like a child to a familiar story, and I smiled and said, "But what I do like to think about is Rube Prien. And Esterhazy. Living entirely different lives now, far ahead in the future. Never knowing about a -- a what? -- a different sequence of time in which there had been a Project. But I liked Dr. D, Julia. And he trusted me. What I did was like murder. So I don't want to visit my own time, because you know the first thing I'd do? I'd pick up a New York phone book and look up E. E. Danziger. Knowing it wouldn't be there. Couldn't be. Because I came back to the past...and changed the future."
One of the pleasures of nineteenth-century life had been giving up some of the relentless self-examination of the twentieth. And now -- enough! I smiled at Julia lying wide-eyed beside me, and said, "So I'm staying right here. With the girl who led the intruder from the twentieth century up the back stairs of her Aunt Ada's boarding house. While I followed, watching her marvelous legs in those truly lovely, thick, blue-and-white-striped wool stockings."
"You should have looked elsewhere."
"I did. Here."
"Si, we are talking seriously. And it's very late. This is not the time for that." But it was.
Copyright © 1995 by Jack Finney