Time Enough at Last, p.1Lyn Venable
Produced by Greg Weeks and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced from IF Worlds of Science Fiction January 1953.Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyrighton this publication was renewed.
_The atomic bomb meant, to most people, the end. To Henry Bemis it meant something far different--a thing to appreciate and enjoy._
Time Enough At Last
By Lynn Venable
For a long time, Henry Bemis had had an ambition. To read a book. Notjust the title or the preface, or a page somewhere in the middle. Hewanted to read the whole thing, all the way through from beginning toend. A simple ambition perhaps, but in the cluttered life of HenryBemis, an impossibility.
Henry had no time of his own. There was his wife, Agnes who owned thatpart of it that his employer, Mr. Carsville, did not buy. Henry wasallowed enough to get to and from work--that in itself being quite aconcession on Agnes' part.
Also, nature had conspired against Henry by handing him with a pair ofhopelessly myopic eyes. Poor Henry literally couldn't see his hand infront of his face. For a while, when he was very young, his parentshad thought him an idiot. When they realized it was his eyes, they gotglasses for him. He was never quite able to catch up. There was neverenough time. It looked as though Henry's ambition would never berealized. Then something happened which changed all that.
Henry was down in the vault of the Eastside Bank & Trust when ithappened. He had stolen a few moments from the duties of his teller'scage to try to read a few pages of the magazine he had bought thatmorning. He'd made an excuse to Mr. Carsville about needing bills inlarge denominations for a certain customer, and then, safe inside thedim recesses of the vault he had pulled from inside his coat thepocket size magazine.
He had just started a picture article cheerfully entitled "The NewWeapons and What They'll Do To YOU", when all the noise in the worldcrashed in upon his ear-drums. It seemed to be inside of him andoutside of him all at once. Then the concrete floor was rising up athim and the ceiling came slanting down toward him, and for a fleetingsecond Henry thought of a story he had started to read once called"The Pit and The Pendulum". He regretted in that insane moment that hehad never had time to finish that story to see how it came out. Thenall was darkness and quiet and unconsciousness.
* * * * *
When Henry came to, he knew that something was desperately wrong withthe Eastside Bank & Trust. The heavy steel door of the vault wasbuckled and twisted and the floor tilted up at a dizzy angle, whilethe ceiling dipped crazily toward it. Henry gingerly got to his feet,moving arms and legs experimentally. Assured that nothing was broken,he tenderly raised a hand to his eyes. His precious glasses wereintact, thank God! He would never have been able to find his way outof the shattered vault without them.
He made a mental note to write Dr. Torrance to have a spare pair madeand mailed to him. Blasted nuisance not having his prescription onfile locally, but Henry trusted no-one but Dr. Torrance to grind thosethick lenses into his own complicated prescription. Henry removed theheavy glasses from his face. Instantly the room dissolved into aneutral blur. Henry saw a pink splash that he knew was his hand, and awhite blob come up to meet the pink as he withdrew his pockethandkerchief and carefully dusted the lenses. As he replaced theglasses, they slipped down on the bridge of his nose a little. He hadbeen meaning to have them tightened for some time.
He suddenly realized, without the realization actually entering hisconscious thoughts, that something momentous had happened, somethingworse than the boiler blowing up, something worse than a gas mainexploding, something worse than anything that had ever happenedbefore. He felt that way because it was so quiet. There was no whineof sirens, no shouting, no running, just an ominous and all pervadingsilence.
* * * * *
Henry walked across the slanting floor. Slipping and stumbling on theuneven surface, he made his way to the elevator. The car lay crumpledat the foot of the shaft like a discarded accordian. There wassomething inside of it that Henry could not look at, something thathad once been a person, or perhaps several people, it was impossibleto tell now.
Feeling sick, Henry staggered toward the stairway. The steps werestill there, but so jumbled and piled back upon one another that itwas more like climbing the side of a mountain than mounting astairway. It was quiet in the huge chamber that had been the lobby ofthe bank. It looked strangely cheerful with the sunlight shiningthrough the girders where the ceiling had fallen. The dappled sunlightglinted across the silent lobby, and everywhere there were huddledlumps of unpleasantness that made Henry sick as he tried not to lookat them.
"Mr. Carsville," he called. It was very quiet. Something had to bedone, of course. This was terrible, right in the middle of a Monday,too. Mr. Carsville would know what to do. He called again, moreloudly, and his voice cracked hoarsely, "Mr. Carrrrsville!" And thenhe saw an arm and shoulder extending out from under a huge fallenblock of marble ceiling. In the buttonhole was the white carnation Mr.Carsville had worn to work that morning, and on the third finger ofthat hand was a massive signet ring, also belonging to Mr. Carsville.Numbly, Henry realized that the rest of Mr. Carsville was under thatblock of marble.
Henry felt a pang of real sorrow. Mr. Carsville was gone, and so wasthe rest of the staff--Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Emory and Mr. Prithard,and the same with Pete and Ralph and Jenkins and Hunter and Pat theguard and Willie the doorman. There was no one to say what was to bedone about the Eastside Bank & Trust except Henry Bemis, and Henrywasn't worried about the bank, there was something he wanted to do.
He climbed carefully over piles of fallen masonry. Once he steppeddown into something that crunched and squashed beneath his feet and heset his teeth on edge to keep from retching. The street was not muchdifferent from the inside, bright sunlight and so much concrete tocrawl over, but the unpleasantness was much, much worse. Everywherethere were strange, motionless lumps that Henry could not look at.
Suddenly, he remembered Agnes. He should be trying to get to Agnes,shouldn't he? He remembered a poster he had seen that said, "In eventof emergency do not use the telephone, your loved ones are as safe asyou." He wondered about Agnes. He looked at the smashed automobiles,some with their four wheels pointing skyward like the stiffened legsof dead animals. He couldn't get to Agnes now anyway, if she was safe,then, she was safe, otherwise ... of course, Henry knew Agnes wasn'tsafe. He had a feeling that there wasn't anyone safe for a long, longway, maybe not in the whole state or the whole country, or the wholeworld. No, that was a thought Henry didn't want to think, he forced itfrom his mind and turned his thoughts back to Agnes.
* * * * *
She had been a pretty good wife, now that it was all said and done. Itwasn't exactly her fault if people didn't have time to read nowadays.It was just that there was the house, and the bank, and the yard.There were the Jones' for bridge and the Graysons' for canasta andcharades with the Bryants. And the television, the television Agnesloved to watch, but would never watch alone. He never had time to readeven a newspaper. He started thinking about last night, that businessabout the newspaper.
Henry had settled into his chair, quietly, afraid that a creakingspring might call to Agnes' attention the fact that he was momentarilyunoccupied. He had unfolded the newspaper slowly and carefully, thesharp crackle of the paper would have been a clarion call to Agnes. Hehad glanced at the headlines of the first page. "Collapse OfConference Imminent." He didn't have time to read the article. Heturned to the second page. "Solon Predicts War Only Days Away." Heflipped through the pages faster
Henry was hurrying now, but hurrying too much. He cut his leg on atwisted piece of metal that had once been an automobile fender. Hethought about things like lock-jaw and gangrene and his hand trembledas he tied his pocket-handkerchief around the wound. In his mind, hesaw the fire again, licking across the face of last night's newspaper.He thought that now he would have time to read all the newspapers hewanted to, only now there wouldn't be any more. That heap of rubbleacross the street had been the Gazette Building. It was terrible tothink there would never be another up to date newspaper. Agnes wouldhave been very upset, no television schedule. But then, of course, notelevision. He wanted to laugh but he didn't. That wouldn't have beenfitting, not at all.
He could see the building he was looking for now, but the silhouettewas strangely changed. The great circular dome was now a raggedsemi-circle, half of it gone, and one of the great wings of thebuilding had fallen in upon itself. A sudden panic gripped HenryBemis. What if they were all ruined, destroyed, every one of them?What if there wasn't a single one left? Tears of helplessness welledin his eyes as he painfully fought his way over and through thetwisted fragments of the city.
* * * * *
He thought of the building when it had been whole. He remembered themany nights he had paused outside its wide and welcoming doors. Hethought of the warm nights when the doors had been thrown open and hecould see the people inside, see them sitting at the plain woodentables with the stacks of books beside them. He used to think then,what a wonderful thing a public library was, a place where anybody,anybody at all could go in and read.
He had been tempted to enter many times. He had watched the peoplethrough the open doors, the man in greasy work clothes who sat nearthe door, night after night, laboriously studying, a technical journalperhaps, difficult for him, but promising a brighter future. There hadbeen an aged, scholarly gentleman who sat on the other side of thedoor, leisurely paging, moving his lips a little as he did so, a manhaving little time left, but rich in time because he could do with itas he chose.
Henry had never gone in. He had started up the steps once, got almostto the door, but then he remembered Agnes, her questions and shouting,and he had turned away.
He was going in now though, almost crawling, his breath coming instabbing gasps, his hands torn and bleeding. His trouser leg wassticky red where the wound in his leg had soaked through thehandkerchief. It was throbbing badly but Henry didn't care. He hadreached his destination.
Part of the inscription was still there, over the now doorlessentrance. P-U-B--C L-I-B-R---. The rest had been torn away. The placewas in shambles. The shelves were overturned, broken, smashed, tilted,their precious contents spilled in disorder upon the floor. A lot ofthe books, Henry noted gleefully, were still intact, still whole,still readable. He was literally knee deep in them, he wallowed inbooks. He picked one up. The title was "Collected Works of WilliamShakespeare." Yes, he must read that, sometime. He laid it asidecarefully. He picked up another. Spinoza. He tossed it away, seizedanother, and another, and still another. Which to read first ... therewere so many.
He had been conducting himself a little like a starving man in adelicatessen--grabbing a little of this and a little of that in afrenzy of enjoyment.
But now he steadied away. From the pile about him, he selected onevolume, sat comfortably down on an overturned shelf, and opened thebook.
Henry Bemis smiled.
There was the rumble of complaining stone. Minute in comparison whichthe epic complaints following the fall of the bomb. This one occurredunder one corner of the shelf upon which Henry sat. The shelf moved;threw him off balance. The glasses slipped from his nose and fell witha tinkle.
He bent down, clawing blindly and found, finally, their smashedremains. A minor, indirect destruction stemming from the sudden,wholesale smashing of a city. But the only one that greatly interestedHenry Bemis.
He stared down at the blurred page before him.
He began to cry.
Time Enough at Last by Lyn Venable / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on20 votes