Worlds of If
Stanley Grauman Weinbaum
I stopped on the way to the
Staten Island Airport to call up, and that was a mistake, doubtless,
since I had a chance of making it otherwise. But the office
was affable. "We'll hold the ship five minutes for you," the clerk
said. "That's the best we can do."
So I rushed back to my taxi and we spun off to the third
level and sped across the Staten bridge like a comet treading a
steel rainbow. I had to be in Moscow by evening, by eight o'clock,
in fact, for the opening of bids on the Ural Tunnel. The Government
required the personal presence of an agent of each bidder,
but the firm should have known better than to send me,
Dixon Wells, even though the N. J. Wells Corporation is, so to
speak, my father. I have a—well, an undeserved reputation for
being late to everything; something always comes up to prevent
me from getting anywhere on time. It's never my fault; this time
it was a chance encounter with my old physics professor, old
Haskel van Manderpootz. I couldn't very well just say hello and
good-bye to him; I'd been a favorite of his back in the college
days of 2014.
I missed the airliner, of course. I was still on the Staten
Bridge when I heard the roar of the catapult and the Soviet rocket
Baikal hummed over us like a tracer bullet with a long tail of
We got the contract anyway; the firm wired our man in
Beirut and he flew up to Moscow, but it didn't help my reputation.
However, I felt a great deal better when I saw the evening
papers; the Baikal, flying at the north edge of the eastbound lane
to avoid a storm, had locked wings with a British fruitship and
all but a hundred of her five hundred passengers were lost. I had
almost become "the late Mr. Wells" in a grimmer sense.
I'd made an engagement for the following week with old van
Manderpootz. It seems he'd transferred to N.Y.U. as head of
the department of Newer Physics—that is, of Relativity. He deserved
it; the old chap was a genius if ever there was one, and
even now, eight years out of college, I remember more from his
course than from half a dozen calculus, steam and gas, mechanics,
and other hazards on the path to an engineer's education. So on
Tuesday night I dropped in an hour or so late, to tell the truth,
since I'd forgotten about the engagement until mid-evening.
He was reading in a room as disorderly as ever. "Humph!"
he grunted. "Time changes everything but habit, I see. You
were a good student, Dick, but I seem to recall that you always
arrived in class toward the middle of the lecture."
"I had a course in East Hall just before," I explained. "I
couldn't seem to make it in time."
"Well, it's time you learned to be on time," he growled.
Then his eyes twinkled. "Time!" he ejaculated. "The most fascinating
word in the language. Here we've used it five times
(there goes the sixth time—and the seventh!) in the first minute
of conversation; each of us understands the other, yet science is
just beginning to learn its meaning. Science? I mean that I am
beginning to learn."
I sat down. "You and science are synonymous," I grinned.
"Aren't you one of the world's outstanding physicists?"
"One of them!" he snorted. "One of them, eh! And who
are the others?"
"Oh, Corveille and Hastings and Shrimski—"
"Bah! Would you mention them in the same breath with
the name of van Manderpootz? A pack of jackals, eating the
crumbs of ideas that drop from my feast of thoughts! Had you
gone back into the last century, now—had you mentioned Einstein
and de Sitter—there, perhaps, are names worthy to rank with
(or just below) van Manderpootz!"
I grinned again in amusement. "Einstein was considered
pretty good, wasn't he?" I remarked. "After all, he was the first
to tie time and space to the laboratory. Before him they were
just philosophical concepts."
"He didn't!" rasped the professor. "Perhaps, in a dim, primitive
fashion, he showed the way, but I—I, van Manderpootz—am
the first to seize time, drag it into my laboratory, and perform
an experiment on it."
"Indeed? And what sort of experiment?"
"What experiment, other than simple measurement, is it
possible to perform?" he snapped.
"Why—I don't know. To travel in it?"
"Like these time-machines that are so popular in the current
magazines? To go into the future or the past?"
"Bah! Many bahs! The future or the past—pfui! It needs no
van Manderpootz to see the fallacy in that. Einstein showed
us that much."
"How? It's conceivable, isn't it?"
"Conceivable? And you, Dixon Wells, studied under van
Manderpootz!" He grew red with emotion, then grimly calm.
"Listen to me. You know how time varies with the speed of a
"Very well. Now suppose then that the great engineer Dixon
Wells invents a machine capable of traveling very fast, enormously
fast, nine-tenths as fast as light. Do you follow? Good. You
then fuel this miracle ship for a little jaunt of a half million miles,
which, since mass (and with it inertia) increases according to the
Einstein formula with increasing speed, takes all the fuel in the
world. But you solve that. You use atomic energy. Then, since
at nine-tenths light-speed, your ship weighs about as much as the
sun, you disintegrate North America to give you sufficient motive
power. You start off at that speed, a hundred and sixty-eight
thousand miles per second, and you travel for two hundred and
four thousand miles. The acceleration has now crushed you to
death, but you have penetrated the future." He paused, grinning
sardonically. "Haven't you?"
"And how far?"
"Use your Einstein formula!" he screeched. "How far? I'll
tell you. One second!" He grinned triumphantly. "That's how
possible it is to travel into the future. And as for the past—in the
first place, you'd have to exceed light-speed, which immediately
entails the use of more than an infinite number of horsepowers.
We'll assume that the great engineer Dixon Wells solves that
little problem too, even though the energy out-put of the whole
universe is not an infinite number of horsepowers. Then he applies
this more than infinite power to travel at two hundred and
four thousand miles per second for ten seconds. He has then
penetrated the past. How far?"
Again I hesitated.
"I'll tell you. One second!" He glared at me. "Now all you
have to do is to design such a machine, and then van Manderpootz
will admit the possibility of traveling into the future—for a
limited number of seconds. As for the past, I have just explained
that all the energy in the universe is insufficient for that."
"But," I stammered, "you just said that you—"
"I did not say anything about traveling into either future or
past, which I have just demonstrated to you to be impossible—a
practical impossibility in the one case and an absolute one in the
"Then how do you travel in time?"
"Not even van Manderpootz can perform the impossible,"
said the professor, now faintly jovial. He tapped a thick pad of
typewriter paper on the table beside him. "See, Dick, this is the
world, the universe." He swept a finger down it. "It is long in
time, and"—sweeping his hand across it—"it is broad in space,
but"—now jabbing his finger against its center—"it is very thin
in the fourth dimension. Van Manderpootz takes always the
shortest, the most logical course. I do not travel along time, into
past or future. No. Me, I travel across time, sideways!"
I gulped. "Sideways into time! What's there?"
"What would naturally be there?" he snorted. "Ahead is the
future; behind is the past. Those are real, the worlds of past and
future. What worlds are neither past nor future, but contemporary
and yet—extemporal—existing, as it were, in time parallel
to our time?"
I shook my head.
"Idiot!" he snapped. "The conditional worlds, of course! The
worlds of 'if.' Ahead are the worlds to be; behind are the worlds
that were; to either side are the worlds that might have been—the
worlds of 'if!'"
"Eh?" I was puzzled. "Do you mean that you can see what
will happen if I do such and such?"
"No!" he snorted. "My machine does not reveal the past
nor predict the future. It will show, as I told you, the conditional
worlds. You might express it, by 'if I had done such and such, so
and so would have happened.' The worlds of the subjunctive
"Now how the devil does it do that?"
"Simple, for van Manderpootz! I use polarized light, polarized
not in the horizontal or vertical planes, but in the direction
of the fourth dimension—an easy matter. One uses Iceland spar
under colossal pressures, that is all. And since the worlds are very
thin in the direction of the fourth dimension, the thickness of a
single light wave, though it be but millionths of an inch, is sufficient.
A considerable improvement over time-traveling in past
or future, with its impossible velocities and ridiculous distances!"
"But—are those—worlds of 'if'—real?"
"Real? What is real? They are real, perhaps, in the sense that
two is a real number as opposed to √-2, which is imaginary. They
are the worlds that would have been if— Do you see?"
I nodded. "Dimly. You could see, for instance, what New
York would have been like if England had won the Revolution
instead of the Colonies."
"That's the principle, true enough, but you couldn't see that
on the machine. Part of it, you see, is a Horsten psychomat
(stolen from one of my ideas, by the way) and you, the user, become
part of the device. Your own mind is necessary to furnish
the background. For instance, if George Washington could have
used the mechanism after the signing of peace, he could have seen
what you suggest. We can't. You can't even see what would
have happened if I hadn't invented the thing, but I can. Do you
"Of course. You mean the background has to rest in the past
experiences of the user."
"You're growing brilliant," he scoffed. "Yes. The device will
show ten hours of what would have happened if—condensed, of
course, as in a movie, to half an hour's actual time."
"Say, that sounds interesting!"
"You'd like to see it? Is there anything you'd like to find out?
Any choice you'd alter?"
"I'll say—a thousand of 'em. I'd like to know what would
have happened if I'd sold out my stocks in 2009 instead of '10. I
was a millionaire in my own right then, but I was a little—well,
a little late in liquidating."
"As usual," remarked van Manderpootz. "Let's go over to
the laboratory then."
The professor's quarters were but a block from the campus.
He ushered me into the Physics Building, and thence into his
own research laboratory, much like the one I had visited during
my courses under him. The device—he called it his "subjunctivisor,"
since it operated in hypothetical worlds—occupied the
entire center table. Most of it was merely a Horsten psychomat,
but glittering crystalline and glassy was the prism of Iceland spar,
the polarizing agent that was the heart of the instrument.
Van Manderpootz pointed to the headpiece. "Put it on,"
he said, and I sat staring at the screen of the psychomat. I suppose
everyone is familiar with the Horsten psychomat; it was as
much a fad a few years ago as the ouija board a century back. Yet
it isn't just a toy; sometimes, much as the ouija board, it's a real
aid to memory. A maze of vague and colored shadows is caused
to drift slowly across the screen, and one watches them, meanwhile
visualizing whatever scene or circumstances he is trying to
remember. He turns a knob that alters the arrangement of lights
and shadows, and when, by chance, the design corresponds to his
mental picture—presto! There is his scene re-created under his
eyes. Of course his own mind adds the details. All the screen
actually shows are these tinted blobs of light and shadow, but the
thing can be amazingly real. I've seen occasions when I could have
sworn the psychomat showed pictures almost as sharp and detailed
as reality itself; the illusion is sometimes as startling as
Van Manderpootz switched on the light, and the play of
shadows began. "Now recall the circumstances of, say, a half-year
after the market crash. Turn the knob until the picture
clears, then stop. At that point I direct the light of the subjunctivisor
upon the screen, and you have nothing to do but watch."
I did as directed. Momentary pictures formed and vanished.
The inchoate sounds of the device hummed like distant voices,
but without the added suggestion of the picture, they meant
nothing. My own face flashed and dissolved and then, finally, I
had it. There was a picture of myself sitting in an ill-defined
room; that was all. I released the knob and gestured.
A click followed. The light dimmed, then brightened. The
picture cleared, and amazingly, another figure emerged, a woman.
I recognized her; it was Whimsy White, erstwhile star of television
and premiere of the "Vision Varieties of '09." She was
changed on that picture, but I recognized her.
I'll say I did! I'd been trailing her all through the boom years
of '07 to '10, trying to marry her, while old N. J. raved and ranted
and threatened to leave everything to the Society for Rehabilitation
of the Gobi Desert. I think those threats were what kept
her from accepting me, but after I took my own money and ran
it up to a couple of million in that crazy market of '08 and '09,
Temporarily, that is. When the crash of the spring of '10
came and bounced me back on my father and into the firm of
N. J. Wells, her favor dropped a dozen points to the market's
one. In February we were engaged, in April we were hardly
speaking. In May they sold me out. I'd been late again.
And now, there she was on the psychomat screen, obviously
plumping out, and not nearly so pretty as memory had pictured
her. She was staring at me with an expression of enmity, and I
was glaring back. The buzzes became voices.
"You nit-wit!" she snapped. "You can't bury me out here.
I want to go back to New York, where there's a little life. I'm
bored with you and your golf."
"And I'm bored with you and your whole dizzy crowd."
"At least they're alive. You're a walking corpse. Just because
you were lucky enough to gamble yourself into the money,
you think you're a tin god."
"Well, I don't think you're Cleopatra! Those friends of
yours—they trail after you because you give parties and spend
"Better than spending it to knock a white walnut along a
"Indeed? You ought to try it, Marie." (That was her real
name.) "It might help your figure—though I doubt if anything
She glared in rage and—well, that was a painful half hour. I
won't give all the details, but I was glad when the screen dissolved
into meaningless colored clouds.
"Whew!" I said, staring at Van Manderpootz, who had been
"You liked it?"
"Liked it! Say, I guess I was lucky to be cleaned out. I won't
regret it from now on."
"That," said the professor grandly, "is van Manderpootz's
great contribution to human happiness. 'Of all sad words of
tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!' True
no longer, my friend Dick. Van Manderpootz has shown that
the proper reading is, 'It might have been—worse!'"
It was very late when I returned home, and as a result, very
late when I rose, and equally late when I got to the office. My
father was unnecessarily worked up about it, but he exaggerated
when he said I'd never been on time. He forgets the occasions
when he's awakened me and dragged me down with him. Nor
was it necessary to refer so sarcastically to my missing the Baikal;
I reminded him of the wrecking of the liner, and he responded
very heartlessly that if I'd been aboard, the rocket would have
been late, and so would have missed colliding with the British
fruitship. It was likewise superfluous for him to mention that
when he and I had tried to snatch a few weeks of golfing in the
mountains, even the spring had been late. I had nothing to do
"Dixon," he concluded, "you have no conception whatever
of time. None whatever."
The conversation with van Manderpootz recurred to me. I
was impelled to ask, "And have you, sir?"
"I have," he said grimly. "I most assuredly have. Time,"
he said oracularly, "is money."
You can't argue with a viewpoint like that.
But those aspersions of his rankled, especially that about the
Baikal. Tardy I might be, but it was hardly conceivable that my
presence aboard the rocket could have averted the catastrophe.
It irritated me; in a way, it made me responsible for the deaths
of those unrescued hundreds among the passengers and crew, and
I didn't like the thought.
Of course, if they'd waited an extra five minutes for me, or
if I'd been on time and they'd left on schedule instead of five
minutes late, or if—if!
If! The word called up van Manderpootz and his subjunctivisor—the
worlds of "if," the weird, unreal worlds that existed
beside reality, neither past nor future, but contemporary, yet extemporal.
Somewhere among their ghostly infinities existed one
that represented the world that would have been had I made the
liner. I had only to call up Haskel van Manderpootz, make an
appointment, and then—find out.
Yet it wasn't an easy decision. Suppose—just suppose that I
found myself responsible—not legally responsible, certainly;
there'd be no question of criminal negligence, or anything of that
sort—not even morally responsible, because I couldn't possibly
have anticipated that my presence or absence could weigh so
heavily in the scales of life and death, nor could I have known in
which direction the scales would tip. Just—responsible; that was
all. Yet I hated to find out.
I hated equally not finding out. Uncertainty has its pangs
too, quite as painful as those of remorse. It might be less nerve-racking
to know myself responsible than to wonder, to waste
thoughts in vain doubts and futile reproaches. So I seized the visiphone,
dialed the number of the University, and at length gazed
on the broad, humorous, intelligent features of van Manderpootz,
dragged from a morning lecture by my call.
I was all but prompt for the appointment the following evening,
and might actually have been on time but for an unreasonable
traffic officer who insisted on booking me for speeding. At
any rate, van Manderpootz was impressed.
"Well!" he rumbled. "I almost missed you, Dixon. I was
just going over to the club, since I didn't expect you for an hour.
You're only ten minutes late."
I ignored this. "Professor, I want to use your—uh—your
"Eh? Oh, yes. You're lucky, then. I was just about to dismantle
"Dismantle it! Why?"
"It has served its purpose. It has given birth to an idea far
more important than itself. I shall need the space it occupies."
"But what is the idea, if it's not too presumptuous of me
"It is not too presumptuous. You and the world which
awaits it so eagerly may both know, but you hear it from the lips
of the author. It is nothing less than the autobiography of van
Manderpootz!" He paused impressively.
I gaped. "Your autobiography?"
"Yes. The world, though perhaps unaware, is crying for
it. I shall detail my life, my work. I shall reveal myself as the
man responsible for the three years' duration of the Pacific War
"None other. Had I not been a loyal Netherlands subject
at that time, and therefore neutral, the forces of Asia would
have been crushed in three months instead of three years. The
subjunctivisor tells me so; I would have invented a calculator
to forecast the chances of every engagement; van Manderpootz
would have removed the hit or miss element in the conduct
of war." He frowned solemnly. "There is my idea. The autobiography
of van Manderpootz. What do you think of it?"
I recovered my thoughts. "It's—uh—it's colossal!" I said
vehemently. "I'll buy a copy myself. Several copies. I'll send
'em to my friends."
"I," said van Manderpootz expansively, "shall autograph
your copy for you. It will be priceless. I shall write in some
fitting phrase, perhaps something like Magnificus sed non superbus.
'Great but not proud!' That well described van Manderpootz,
who despite his greatness is simple, modest, and unassuming.
Don't you agree?"
"Perfectly! A very apt description of you. But—couldn't
I see your subjunctivisor before it's dismantled to make way
for the greater work?"
"Ah! You wish to find out something?"
"Yes, professor. Do you remember the Baikal disaster of a
week or two ago? I was to have taken that liner to Moscow.
I just missed it." I related the circumstances.
"Humph!" he grunted. "You wish to discover what would
have happened had you caught it, eh? Well, I see several possibilities.
Among the world of 'if' is the one that would have
been real if you had been on time, the one that depended on
the vessel waiting for your actual arrival, and the one that hung
on your arriving within the five minutes they actually waited.
In which are you interested?"
"Oh—the last one." That seemed the likeliest. After all,
it was too much to expect that Dixon Wells could ever be on
time, and as to the second possibility—well, they hadn't waited
for me, and that in a way removed the weight of responsibility.
"Come on," rumbled van Manderpootz. I followed him
across to the Physics Building and into his littered laboratory.
The device still stood on the table and I took my place before
it, staring at the screen of the Horsten psychomat. The clouds
wavered and shifted as I sought to impress my memories on
their suggestive shapes, to read into them some picture of that
Then I had it. I made out the vista from the Staten
Bridge, and was speeding across the giant span toward the airport.
I waved a signal to van Manderpootz, the thing clicked,
and the subjunctivisor was on.
The grassless clay of the field appeared. It is a curious thing
about the psychomat that you see only through the eyes of
your image on the screen. It lends a strange reality to the working
of the toy; I suppose a sort of self-hypnosis is partly responsible.
I was rushing over the ground toward the glittering, silver-winged
projectile that was the Baikal. A glowering officer waved
me on, and I dashed up the slant of the gangplank and into
the ship; the port dropped and I heard a long "Whew!" of
"Sit down!" barked the officer, gesturing toward an unoccupied
seat. I fell into it; the ship quivered under the thrust
of the catapult, grated harshly into motion, and then was flung
bodily into the air. The blasts roared instantly, then settled to
a more muffled throbbing, and I watched Staten Island drop
down and slide back beneath me. The giant rocket was under
"Whew!" I breathed again. "Made it!" I caught an amused
glance from my right. I was in an aisle seat; there was no one
to my left, so I turned to the eyes that had flashed, glanced,
and froze staring.
It was a girl. Perhaps she wasn't actually as lovely as she
looked to me; after all, I was seeing her through the half-visionary
screen of a psychomat. I've told myself since that she
couldn't have been as pretty as she seemed, that it was due to
my own imagination filling in the details. I don't know; I remember
only that I stared at curiously lovely silver-blue eyes
and velvety brown hair, and a small amused mouth, and an
impudent nose. I kept staring until she flushed.
"I'm sorry," I said quickly. "I—was startled."
There's a friendly atmosphere aboard a trans-oceanic
rocket. The passengers are forced into a crowded intimacy for
anywhere from seven to twelve hours, and there isn't much
room for moving about. Generally, one strikes up an acquaintance
with his neighbors; introductions aren't at all necessary,
and the custom is simply to speak to anybody you choose—something
like an all-day trip on the railroad trains of the last
century, I suppose. You make friends for the duration of the
journey, and then, nine times out of ten, you never hear of
your traveling companions again.
The girl smiled. "Are you the individual responsible for
the delay in starting?"
I admitted it. "I seem to be chronically late. Even watches
lose time as soon as I wear them."
She laughed. "Your responsibilities can't be very heavy."
Well, they weren't of course, though it's surprising how
many clubs, caddies, and chorus girls have depended on me at
various times for appreciable portions of their incomes. But
somehow I didn't feel like mentioning those things to the
We talked. Her name, it developed, was Joanna Caldwell,
and she was going as far as Paris. She was an artist, or hoped
to be one day, and of course there is no place in the world that
can supply both training and inspiration like Paris. So it was
there she was bound for a year of study, and despite her demurely
humorous lips and laughing eyes, I could see that the
business was of vast importance to her. I gathered that she had
worked hard for the year in Paris, had scraped and saved for
three years as fashion illustrator for some woman's magazine,
though she couldn't have been many months over twenty-one.
Her painting meant a great deal to her, and I could understand
it. I'd felt that way about polo once.
So you see, we were sympathetic spirits from the beginning.
I knew that she liked me, and it was obvious that she didn't
connect Dixon Wells with the N. J. Wells Corporation. And
as for me—well, after that first glance into her cool silver eyes,
I simply didn't care to look anywhere else. The hours seemed
to drip away like minutes while I watched her.
You know how those things go. Suddenly I was calling her
Joanna and she was calling me Dick, and it seemed as if we'd
been doing just that all our lives. I'd decided to stop over in
Paris on my way back from Moscow, and I'd secured her promise
to let me see her. She was different, I tell you; she was
nothing like the calculating Whimsy White, and still less like
the dancing, simpering, giddy youngsters one meets around at
social affairs. She was just Joanna, cool and humorous, yet sympathetic
and serious, and as pretty as a Majolica figurine.
We could scarcely realize it when the steward passed along
to take orders for luncheon. Four hours out? It seemed like
forty minutes. And we had a pleasant feeling of intimacy in
the discovery that both of us liked lobster salad and detested
oysters. It was another bond; I told her whimsically that it was
an omen, nor did she object to considering it so.
Afterwards we walked along the narrow aisle to the glassed-in
observation room up forward. It was almost too crowded for
entry, but we didn't mind that at all, as it forced us to sit very
close together. We stayed long after both of us had begun to
notice the stuffiness of the air.
It was just after we had returned to our seats that the catastrophe
occurred. There was no warning save a sudden lurch,
the result, I suppose, of the pilot's futile last-minute attempt
to swerve—just that and then a grinding crash and a terrible
sensation of spinning, and after that a chorus of shrieks that
were like the sounds of battle.
It was battle. Five hundred people were picking themselves
up from the floor, were trampling each other, milling around,
being cast helplessly down as the great rocket-plane, its left
wing but a broken stub, circled downward toward the Atlantic.
The shouts of officers sounded and a loudspeaker blared.
"Be calm," it kept repeating, and then, "There has been a collision.
We have contacted a surface ship. There is no danger— There
is no danger—"
I struggled up from the debris of shattered seats. Joanna
was gone; just as I found her crumpled between the rows, the
ship struck the water with a jar that set everything crashing
again. The speaker blared, "Put on the cork belts under the
seats. The life-belts are under the seats."
I dragged a belt loose and snapped it around Joanna, then
donned one myself. The crowd was surging forward now, and
the tail end of the ship began to drop. There was water behind
us, sloshing in the darkness as the lights went out. An officer
came sliding by, stooped, and fastened a belt about an unconscious
woman ahead of us. "You all right?" he yelled, and
passed on without waiting for an answer.
The speaker must have been cut on to a battery circuit.
"And get as far away as possible," it ordered suddenly. "Jump
from the forward port and get as far away as possible. A ship
is standing by. You will be picked up. Jump from the—". It
went dead again.
I got Joanna untangled from the wreckage. She was pale;
her silvery eyes were closed. I started dragging her slowly and
painfully toward the forward port, and the slant of the floor
increased until it was like the slide of a ski-jump. The officer
passed again. "Can you handle her?" he asked, and again dashed
I was getting there. The crowd around the port looked
smaller, or was it simply huddling closer? Then suddenly, a wail
of fear and despair went up, and there was a roar of water. The
observation room walls had given. I saw the green surge of
waves, and a billowing deluge rushed down upon us. I had been
That was all. I raised shocked and frightened eyes from
the subjunctivisor to face van Manderpootz, who was scribbling
on the edge of the table.
"Well?" he asked.
I shuddered. "Horrible!" I murmured. "We—I guess we
wouldn't have been among the survivors."
"We, eh? We?" His eyes twinkled.
I did not enlighten him. I thanked him, bade him good-night,
and went dolorously home.
Even my father noticed something queer about me. The day
I got to the office only five minutes late, he called me in for some
anxious questioning as to my health. I couldn't tell him anything,
of course. How could I explain that I'd been late once too often,
and had fallen in love with a girl two weeks after she was dead?
The thought drove me nearly crazy. Joanna! Joanna with her
silvery eyes now lay somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic. I
went around half dazed, scarcely speaking. One night I actually
lacked the energy to go home and sat smoking in my father's big
overstuffed chair in his private office until I finally dozed off. The
next morning, when old N. J. entered and found me there before
him, he turned pale as paper, staggered, and gasped, "My heart!"
It took a lot of explaining to convince him that I wasn't early at
the office but just very late going home.
At last I felt that I couldn't stand it. I had to do something—anything
at all. I thought finally of the subjunctivisor. I could see—yes,
I could see what would have transpired if the ship hadn't
been wrecked! I could trace out that weird, unreal romance hidden
somewhere in the worlds of "if". I could, perhaps, wring a
somber, vicarious joy from the things that might have been. I
could see Joanna once more!
It was late afternoon when I rushed over to van Manderpootz's
quarters. He wasn't there; I encountered him finally in the
hall of the Physics Building.
"Dick!" he exclaimed. "Are you sick?"
"Sick? No. Not physically. Professor. I've got to use your
subjunctivisor again. I've got to!"
"Eh? Oh—that toy. You're too late, Dick. I've dismantled
it. I have a better use for the space."
I gave a miserable groan and was tempted to damn the autobiography
of the great van Manderpootz. A gleam of sympathy
showed in his eyes, and he took my arm, dragging me into the
little office adjoining his laboratory.
"Tell me," he commanded.
I did. I guess I made the tragedy plain enough, for his heavy
brows knit in a frown of pity. "Not even van Manderpootz can
bring back the dead," he murmured. "I'm sorry, Dick. Take your
mind from the affair. Even were my subjunctivisor available, I
wouldn't permit you to use it. That would be but to turn the
knife in the wound." He paused. "Find something else to occupy
your mind. Do as van Manderpootz does. Find forgetfulness
"Yes," I responded dully. "But who'd want to read my
autobiography? That's all right for you."
"Autobiography? Oh! I remember. No, I have abandoned
that. History itself will record the life and works of van Manderpootz.
Now I am engaged in a far grander project."
"Indeed?" I was utterly, gloomily disinterested.
"Yes. Gogli has been here, Gogli the sculptor. He is to make
a bust of me. What better legacy can I leave to the world than
a bust of van Manderpootz, sculptured from life? Perhaps I shall
present it to the city, perhaps to the university. I would have
given it to the Royal Society if they had been a little more receptive,
if they—if—if!" The last in a shout.
"If!" cried van Manderpootz. "What you saw in the subjunctivisor
was what would have happened if you had caught the
"I know that."
"But something quite different might really have happened!
Don't you see? She—she— Where are those old newspapers?"
He was pawing through a pile of them. He flourished one
finally. "Here! Here are the survivors!"
Like letters of flame, Joanna Caldwell's name leaped out
at me. There was even a little paragraph about it, as I saw once
my reeling brain permitted me to read:
"At least a score of survivors owe their lives to the
bravery of twenty-eight-year-old Navigator Orris Hope,
who patrolled both aisles during the panic, lacing life-belts
on the injured and helpless, and carrying many to
the port. He remained on the sinking liner until the
last, finally fighting his way to the surface through the
broken walls of the observation room. Among those
who owe their lives to the young officer are: Patrick
Owensby, New York City; Mrs. Campbell Warren,
Boston; Miss Joanna Caldwell, New York City—"
I suppose my shout of joy was heard over in the Administration
Building, blocks away. I didn't care; if van Manderpootz
hadn't been armored in stubby whiskers, I'd have kissed him.
Perhaps I did anyway; I can't be sure of my actions during those
chaotic minutes in the professor's tiny office.
At last I calmed. "I can look her up!" I gloated. "She must
have landed with the other survivors, and they were all on that
British tramp freighter the Osgood, that docked here last week.
She must be in New York—and if she's gone over to Paris,
I'll find out and follow her!"
Well, it's a queer ending. She was in New York, but—you
see, Dixon Wells had, so to speak, known Joanna Caldwell
by means of the professor's subjunctivisor, but Joanna had never
known Dixon Wells. What the ending might have been if—if— But
it wasn't; she had married Orris Hope, the young officer
who had rescued her. I was late again.