A Traveler in Time - Cover

A Traveler in Time

by August Derleth

Public Domain

Time Travel Story: He threw open the thick-walled door of his time-machine and pulled it shut behind him. He sat down before the controls and began to chart his course for 1650.

Tags: Science Fiction   Time Travel  



“Tell me what time is,” said Harrigan one late summer afternoon in a Madison Street bar. “I’d like to know.”

“A dimension,” I answered. “Everybody knows that.”

“All right, granted. I know space is a dimension and you can move forward or back in space. And, of course, you keep on aging all the time.”

“Elementary,” I said.

“But what happens if you can move backward or forward in time? Do you age or get younger, or do you keep the status quo?”

“I’m not an authority on time, Tex. Do you know anyone who traveled in time?”

Harrigan shrugged aside my question. “That was the thing I couldn’t get out of Vanderkamp, either. He presumed to know everything else.”


“He was another of those strange people a reporter always runs into. Lived in New York—downtown, near the Bowery. Man of about forty, I’d say, but a little on the old-fashioned side. Dutch background, and hipped on the subject of New Amsterdam, which, in case you don’t know, was the original name of New York City.”

“Don’t mind my interrupting,” I cut in. “But I’m not quite straight on what Vanderkamp has to do with time as dimension.”

“Oh, he was touched on the subject. He claimed to travel in it. The fact is, he invented a time-traveling machine.”

“You certainly meet the whacks, Tex!”

“Don’t I!” He grinned appreciatively and leaned reminiscently over the bar. “But Vanderkamp had the wildest dreams of the lot. And in the end he managed the neatest conjuring trick of them all. I was on the Brooklyn Enterprise at that time; I spent about a year there. Special features, though I was on a reporter’s salary. Vanderkamp was something of a local celebrity in a minor way; he wrote articles on the early Dutch in New York, the nomenclature of the Dutch, the history of Dutch place-names, and the like. He was handy with a pen, and even handier with tools. He was an amateur electrician, carpenter, house-painter, and claimed to be an expert in genealogy.”

“And he built a time-traveling machine?”

“So he said. He gave me a rather hard time of it. He was a glib talker and half the time I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. He kept me on my toes by taking for granted that I accepted his basic premises. I got next to him on a tip. He could be close-mouthed as a clam, but his sister let things slip from time to time, and on this occasion she passed the word to one of her friends in a grocery store that her brother had invented a machine that took him off on trips into the past. It seemed like routine whack stuff, but Blake, who decided what went into the Enterprise and what didn’t, sent me over to Manhattan to get something for the paper, on the theory that since Vanderkamp was well-known in Brooklyn, it was good neighborhood copy.

“Vanderkamp was a sharp-eyed little fellow, about five feet or so in height, and I hit him at a good time. His sister said he had just come back from a trip—she left me to draw my own conclusions about what kind of trip—and I found him in a mild fit of temper. He was too upset, in fact, to be truculent, which was more like his nature.

“Was it true, I wanted to know, that he’d invented a machine that traveled in time?

“He didn’t make any bones about it. ‘Certainly, ‘ he said. ‘I’ve been using it for the last month, and if my sister hadn’t decided to blab nobody would know about it yet. What about it?’

“‘You believe it can take you backwards or forwards into the past or the future?’

“‘Do I look crazy? I said so, didn’t I?’

“Now, as a matter of fact, he did look crazy. Unlike most of the candidates for my file of queer people, Vanderkamp actually looked like a nut. He had a wild eye and a constantly working mouth; he blinked a good deal and stammered when he was excited. In features he was as Dutch as his name implied. Well, we talked back and forth for some time, but I stuck with him and in the end he took me out into a shed adjoining his house and showed me the contraption he’d built.

“It looked like a top. The first thing I thought of was Brick Bradford, and before I could catch myself, I’d asked, ‘Is that pure Brick Bradford?’

“He didn’t turn a hair. ‘Not by a long shot, ‘ he answered. ‘H. G. Wells was there first. I owe it to Wells.’

“‘I see, ‘ I said.

“‘The hell you do!’ he shot back. ‘You think I’m as nutty as a fruit-cake.’

“‘The idea of time travel is a little hard to swallow, ‘ I said.

“‘Sure it is. But me, I’m doing it. So that’s all there is to it.’

“‘If you don’t mind, Mr. Vanderkamp, ‘ I said, ‘I’m a dummy in scientific matters. I have all I can do to tell a nut from a bolt.’

“‘That I believe, ‘ he said.

“‘So how do you time travel?’

“‘Look, ‘ he said, ‘time is a dimension like space. You can go up or down this ruler, ‘ he snatched a steel ruler and waved it in front of me, ‘from any given point. But you move. In the dimension of time, you only seem to move. You stand still; time moves. Do you get it?’

“I had to confess that I didn’t.

“He tried again, with obviously strained patience. Judging by what I could gather from what he said, it was possible for him—so he believed—to get into his machine, twirl a few knobs, push a few buttons, relax for any given period, and end up just where he liked—back in the past, or ahead in the future. But wherever he ended up, he was still in this same spot. In other words, whether he was back in 1492 or ahead in 2092, the place he got out of his time machine was still his present address.

“It was beyond me, frankly, but I figured that as long as he was a little touched, it wouldn’t do any harm to humor him. I intimated that I understood and asked him where he’d been last.

“His face fell, his brow clouded, and he said, ‘I’ve been ahead thirty years.’ He shook his head angrily. ‘What a time! I’ll be seventy, and you won’t even be that, Mr. Harrigan. But we’ll be in the middle of the worst atomic war you ever dreamed about.’

“Now this was before Hiroshima, quite a bit. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it gives me a queer feeling now and then when I think of what he said, especially since it’s still short of thirty years since that time.

“‘It’s no time to be living here, ‘ he went on. ‘Direct hits on the entire area. What would you do?’

“‘I’d get out, ‘ I said.

“‘That’s what I thought, ‘ he said. ‘But that kind of warfare carries a long way. A long way. And I’m a man who loves his comforts, reasonably. I don’t intend to set up housekeeping in equatorial Africa or the forests of Brazil.’

“‘What did you see thirty years from now, Mr. Vanderkamp?’ I asked him.

“‘Everything blown to hell, ‘ he answered. ‘Not a building in all Manhattan.’ He leered and added, ‘And everybody who’ll be living here at that time will be scattered into the atmosphere in fragments no bigger than an amoeba.’

“‘You fill me with anticipation, ‘ I said.

“So I went back to my desk and wrote the story. You could guess what kind it had to be. ‘Time Travel Is Possible, Says Amateur Scientist!’—that kind of thing. You can see it every week, in large doses, in the feature sections of some of the biggest chain papers. It went over like an average feature about life on the moon or prehistoric animals surviving in remote mountain valleys, or what have you. Just what Vanderkamp went back to after I left, I don’t know, but I have an idea that he gave his sister a devil of a time.”

Vanderkamp stalked into the house and confronted his sister.

“You see, Julie—a reporter. Can’t you learn to hold your tongue?”

She threw him a scornful glance. “What difference does it make?” she cried. “You’re gone all the time.”

“Maybe I’ll take you along sometime. Just wait.”

“Wait, wait! That’s all I’ve been doing. Since I was ten years old I’ve been waiting on you!”

“Oh, the hell with it!” He turned on his heel and left the house.

She followed him to the door and shouted after him, “Where are you going now?”

“To New Amsterdam for a little peace and quiet,” he said testily.

He threw open the thick-walled door of his time-machine and pulled it shut behind him. He sat down before the controls and began to chart his course for 1650. If his calculations were correct, he would shortly find himself in the vicinity of that sturdy if autocratic first citizen of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, as well as Governor Stuyvesant’s friend and neighbor, Heinrich Vanderkamp. He gave not even a figurative glance over his shoulder before he started out.

When he emerged at last from his machine, he was in what appeared to be the backyard of a modest residence on a street which, though he did not know it, he suspected might be the Bouwerie. At the moment of his emergence, a tall, angular woman stood viewing him, open-mouthed and aghast, from the wooden stoop at the back door of her home. He looked at her in astonishment himself. The resemblance to his sister Julie was uncanny.

With only the slightest hesitation, he addressed her in fluent Dutch. “Pray do not be disturbed, young lady.”

“A fine way for a gentleman to call!” she exclaimed in a voice considerably more forceful than her appearance. “I suppose my father sent you. And where did you get that outlandish costume?”

“I bought it,” he answered, truthfully enough.

“A likely tale,” she said. “And if my father sent you, just go back and tell him I’m satisfied the way I am. No woman needs a man to manage her.”

“I don’t have the honor of your father’s acquaintance,” he answered.

She gazed at him suspiciously from narrowed eyes. “Everyone in New Amsterdam knows Henrik Van Tromp. He’s as unloved as yonder bumblebee. Stand where you are and say whence you came.”

“I am a visitor in New Amsterdam,” he said, standing obediently still. “I confess I don’t know my way about very well, and I chose to stop at this attractive home.”

“I know it’s attractive,” she said tartly. “And it’s plain to see you’re a stranger here, or you’d never be wearing such clothes. Or is it the fashion where you come from?” She gave him no opportunity to answer, but added, after a moment of indecision, “Well, you look respectable enough, though much like my rascally cousin Pieter Vanderkamp. Do you know him?”


“Well, no matter. He’s much older than you—near forty blessed years. You’re no more than twenty, I don’t doubt.”

Involuntarily Vanderkamp put his hand to his cheek, and smiled as he felt its smooth roundness. “You may be right, at that,” he said cryptically.

“You might as well come in,” she said grudgingly. “What with the traffic on the road outside, the Indians, and people who come in such flighty vehicles as yours, I might as well live in the heart of the colony.”

He looked around. “And still,” he said, “it is a pleasant spot—peaceful, comfortable. I’m sure a man could live out his days here in contentment.”

“Oh, could he?” she said belligerently. “And where would I be while this went on?”

He gazed at her beetling nose, her jutting chin. “A good question,” he muttered thoughtfully.

He followed her into the house. It was a treasury of antiquities, filling him with delight. Miss Anna Van Tromp offered him a cup of milk, which he accepted, thanking her profusely. She talked volubly, eyeing him all the while with the utmost curiosity, and he gathered presently that her father had made several attempts to marry her off, disapproving of her solitary residence so far from the center of the city; but she had frowned upon one and all of the suitors he had encouraged to call on her. She was undeniably impressive, almost formidable, he conceded privately, with a touch of the shrew and harridan. Life with Miss Anna Van Tromp would not be easy, he reflected. But then, life with his sister Julie was not easy, either. Miss Anna, however, had not to face atomic warfare; all she had to look forward to in fourteen years was surrender to the besieging British, which she would have no trouble in surviving.

He settled down to his ingratiating best and succeeded in making a most favorable impression on Miss Anna Van Tromp before at last he took his leave, carrying with him a fine, hand-wrought bowl with which the lady had presented him. He had a hunch he might come back. Of all the times he had visited since finishing the machine, he knew that old New Amsterdam in the 1650s was the one period most likely to keep him contented—provided Miss Van Tromp didn’t turn out to be a nuisance. So he took careful note of the set of his controls, jotting them down so that he would not be likely to forget them.

It was late when he found himself back in his own time.

His sister was waiting up for him. “Two o’clock in the morning!” she screamed at him. “What are you doing to me? Oh, God, why didn’t I marry when I had the chance, instead of throwing away my life on a worthless brother!”

“Why don’t you? It’s not too late,” he sighed wearily.

“How can you say that?” she snapped bitterly. “Here I am thirty nearly, and worn out from working for you. Who would marry me now? Oh, if only I could have another chance! If I could be young again, and do it all over, I’d know how to have a better life!”

In spite of his boredom with her, Vanderkamp felt the effect of this cry from a lonely heart. He looked at her pityingly; it was true, after all, that she had worked faithfully for him, without pay, since their parents died. “Take a look at this,” he said gently, offering her the bowl.

“Hah! Can we eat bowls?”

He raised his eyes heavenward and went wearily to bed.

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