John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Memory! Memory! He had never foreseen that that intangible, binding the fluid nature of eternity into the sequential tidiness of Time, would also hamper the will like age itself! Almost, he began to envy those who could die….

No matter. In Wocrahin a man sat gobbling lamprey-pie in a splendid banquet-hall: gross in a purple doublet smeared with gravy-stains. Words chomped around a full mouth of the fish and crust, he forced out, ” ‘Fonly w’were freah y’muzzhr!”

“Ah, yes!” sighed his wife, accustomed to interpreting such talk: she fat as a prize breeding-sow, though childless, her vast bosom exposed almost to the bulging nipples over a gown crusted with seed-pearls, her head seeming to be depressed into her neck by the weight of the gem-crusted tiara she had put on, though they had no company to dinner apart from the thirty scrag-lean servants ranged around the hall.

“Would we were free of my mother!” she echoed when she had swilled her gullet with a swig of wine. “Ah, how finely we would live were we rid of her! She eats us out of house and home, the old bag!”

“Sh’yeats zazouter ‘ousernome!” concurred the man.

The tall windows of the banquet-hall stood open to the warm summer night. Beyond them, watching the line of beggars who daily came-more from habit than optimism-to beg the cook for scraps, the traveler in black both heard the exchange and also saw the lady’s mother, in draggled rags, pleading at the barred grille of the cellar where she was pent for a share of the beggars’ crumbs.

He tapped his staff on the wall.

“As you wish, so be it,” he said, and went away. The ceiling of the banquet-hall creaked behind him; it freed the greedy pair within a minute from all burdens, life itself not excluded.

Likewise in Medham, a city noted for its lovely girls, a man sat in a tavern who had tried scores of them and recounted how expert he was at seduction.

“Ah, if I had a quart of ale for every one, I’d hardly be sober again in this life!” he hinted to his listeners, turning over his purse and finding it void of coin. “Why, did not the lady Fretcha come to me on hands and knees, saying I’d ruined her for life? Haw-haw! Begged me, on my oath-literally begged me-to make an ‘honest woman’ of her! Haw-haw-haw! And then there was the lady Brismalet; she did the same-what impudence! And the lady Thespie, and then Padovine… Ho! As I say, did I but have a quart of ale for each-”

“As you wish, so be it,” said his neighbor, a person in black with an unusual staff, and rose. No one noticed him depart. All were too taken aback at the spectacle of the boastful philanderer, belly distended like a hogshead, vomiting disgustingly because he could not hold ale amounting to twenty-six quarts.

“You stupid brute!” cried a carter in a hamlet hard by Acromel, and lashed his horse across the hindquarters with a steel-barbed whip. Violent though was the blow, it barely drew blood-he’d employed the whip so often, the horse’s back and legs were cicatrized with impermeable scars. Nonetheless the poor beast whinnied and cringed. Therefore he beat it again, and harder still.

“Ho, that you were blessed with more sense!” he roared. “Would you could learn how not to spill my load crossing a rut!”

Still grumbling about the horse’s lack of wit, he went to the back of the cart to retrieve the ill-stowed sack of grain which had tumbled off.

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and the horse reared up, tipping the whole ton-weight of bags on the stooping carter. Then it chewed intelligently through the traces and took its leave, to enjoy lush upland grass and roam free.

“By your favor, sir,” said a boy of ten or twelve years, hunting a hedgerow near the village Wyve, “are such plants poisonous or wholesome?”

Offering for inspection a glabrous brownish fungus.

“Wholesome,” said the traveler. “They may be fried.”

With a moue, the boy tossed the toadstool aside.

“Are you not glad to have found that it’s edible?” asked the traveler. “I took it you were gathering food.”

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