A gust of wind rushed in through the open window, caressing his weather-beaten face. The candle-flame flickered for a moment, before steadying itself into a feeble yet persistent glow. Oblivious to the raging winds or the flickering candle, the old man sat bending over a fat, aged book – “The French Revolution”. Occasionally, his eyes would linger on a painting resting on the table. A closer look at it would reveal a queen- a tranquil expression on her face, amidst a raging crowd. A person as obsessed with the past, as our old friend could recognize Marie Antoinette, could fathom that the painting  itself dated back to the eighteenth century.

How old was he? He didn’t know, himself. The burden of age had overcome him till his face was no more than a wrinkled peanut under a fluffy white crown of hair – a relic of antiquity himself. He wasn’t  even supposed to be where he was. After the National library had locked itself up for the night , he’d find a way to sneak in. Many a night had he spent in the secluded library, accompanied by a solitary candle, for he dared not switch on the lights.

So oblivious was our old friend of his surroundings that he never noticed  a shadow creeping up to him till it had blocked the feeble glow of the candle. Stealthy fingers snatched the painting up from the table.

A well-known voice exclaimed, “An epic piece, indeed! Please, hand over the book, Sir.”

The old man’s  eyes flashed fire.  He shouted, “Never!”

The shadowy  figure let out a blood-curdling chuckle, more ominous than a thousand threats.

In the wink of an eye, the candle went out. He felt a strong arm dragging him away. He was forced to take a seat, a belt  was wrapped around him. Off went the seat, at a frightening speed. Where was he? Could it be a time-craft? Brave as our old friend was, his blood chilled at the very thought of running at the speed of light. The dangers were great. You could simply disappear in the alleyways of time.

A momentary flash of white dazzled him.  His senses fleeted away- our friend was , indeed, lost in time.

***

“Loretta, I’ll be away for a few days,” said her husband, Pierre, making his way to the washroom. Loretta nodded drowsily. Had she not been so drowsy today, she might have noticed her husband’s  restlessness and the mark of guilt on his face. No sooner had Pierre left the room, than her drowsiness seemed to disappear. Walking up to the door , she locked it. She needed time to ponder over the incident that had been   perturbing her since the previous night. What could those words mean?

Loretta had been resting on her bed by the window, trying to enjoy the rain-drenched gusts of wind, when Pierre returned last night. Overwhelmed by the burden of the strange despondence settling upon her heart,  Loretta had pretended to be asleep, so as to avoid conversation. Her husband had carefully opened his briefcase, maybe, to check on something, before dialing a number.

“Vivien, the job’s done. The old boy did  put up some resistance. Good Night!”

These words and the tone in which they were uttered, had sent a shiver down her spine. And Vivien – her brother- what did he have to do with all this? Sleep had chosen to elude Loretta last night. Her husband had been  snoring gently beside her even as she lay tossing and turning in bed through the long, weary hours.

What, after all, could his words mean ? Morning  brought no relief to her anxiety. The answer , Loretta was sure, lay in Pierre’s briefcase. Eyeing the briefcase with a furious curiosity, she felt her heart skip a beat. The lock dangled in its place- Pierre must have forgotten to lock it, in his hurry. She paused for a moment. All quiet. With bated breath, Loretta opened it. A musty smell –the smell of Past- filled the room. It contained a few books, almost relics, threatening to crumble into dust at her touch. Weren’t these the rare books , only single copies of which remained, preserved with care in the National Library? Borrowing them was not allowed; stealing them, a crime. Why were these books with Pierre? A particular book arrested her attention- “The French Revolution”. Wasn’t it the one her grandfather had been reading over the past few months? A roll of paper dropped out of the case- paintings- Pierre’s creations. However, one of the paintings – a lady amidst a crowd-  was not Pierre’s. Her husband was popular as the “Painter of History”- his portrayal of historical events had found a place in the Louvre. But, what could these hidden paintings mean?

Loretta heard footsteps outside her room. Shutting the briefcase tight, she unlocked the door. It was the housekeeper, Ms. Faustine.

“Ma’am, Mr. Vivien  wants to meet you.”

Slipping on her petticoat, she hurried down the stairs. A voice in her head kept whispering ominous forebodings.  A strange doubt kept nagging at her heart.

Vivien was in his Time-craft Police uniform, and his characteristic cheerfulness was missing.

“Loretta, Grandpa is missing.  We suspect, he’s lost in time.”

Loretta stared at him, dumbfounded. So, the voice in her head had been right all along. In a sudden flash, the story seemed to  unfold before her eyes. Could truth ever be this bitter?

***

15th November,1793.

Paris has bathed in the blood of her king-Louis-XVI. Marie Antoinette’s severed head is being trampled by Liberty-Equality-Fraternity. The “privileged classes” are being coerced into the privilege of the guillotine. A mob, lusting for blue blood, is making its way to the residence of Duchess Dupont, the Queen’s closest confidante. Amidst the emaciated beings, only one beams of health…Pierre. With a sigh, Pierre wonders how the world has changed. War or revolution,  in today’s world , is a thing of the past. On long holidays, many a bored man may exclaim, “Let’s visit the Battle of Waterloo!” Man lives today in a peaceful world- the utopia his ancestors dreamt of . He dreams today of bloodshed, of his scarred past where to err was human. Is, Pierre, then , a human anymore? He has erred….committed a crime. The Time-Travel-Act clearly states, “Altering the past is punishable by death.” Yet Pierre has done it, time and again, to earn recognition as a painter. He  tracks down lesser known paintings from the past, repaints them in his own hands and returns to the past to erase their existence, before revealing them to the world as his own creations. The old books that remember those paintings from the past, also come into his “custody”. In his brother-in-law, Vivien, he has found a sympathiser – one who appreciates his need for money to work for children deprived of parental affection. The smiling faces of his adopted children float about in his mind- what will happen to them, if he’s taken away? Will they have to return to the state-run orphanages? An orphanage, today, is a prison. One who enters it, can leave only through death, for  he’s duty-bound to serve the orphans of future generations, all his life . Society, today, has this innovative way of generating slaves. It pains him to think of those young minds , nipped in the bud, under the burden of carrying forward the banner of untainted goodness and peace. Today’s utopia comes at a heavy price- the childhood of these orphans. But, Vivien is in the police-he’ll help him elude the law.

Pierre sighs again. His heart is heavy today. He loves his wife, Loretta , dearly. But, will she forgive him for what he has done to her grandfather? Yet, the old man couldn’t be bribed like the others. What was he to do, then? “At least, her grandfather is  safe where he is,” Pierre assures himself.

“This,” Pierre decides, “is the last time,” forgetting how often he has made the same promise before.

The tumult reaches a climax- the mob has found its prey. Before him, stands the palace of Duchess Dupont…his next “victim”. The seething crowd glares at a window where the lady has made her appearance. Pierre looks up- his blood seems to  freeze. The lady at the window isn’t Duchess Dupont- it’s his beloved Loretta!

***

Last-minute flights cost a fortune , but Loretta has no other option. A piece of paper had slipped out of Pierre’s briefcase, with the words “Duchess Dupont, Rue de la Chateau, 15th Nov,1793”  written on it. This could well be Pierre’s destination, this time. Loretta feels overwhelmed by an incredible urge to know the truth, of which she has hitherto deduced  only a part. Truth , no matter how vile, would be better than his nagging doubt. Yet, the farther the spacecraft moves from home, the greater is her urge to turn back. How she wishes she was back home, waiting for Pierre to return- a smug smile on his handsome face! Only if she had been asleep last night! Still debating on her decision, Loretta reaches her destination.

***

It’s a shadowy room, in which Loretta finds herself. A small fire burns on steadily in the hearth, lending a dreamy glow to the painting- that painting- on the mantelpiece.  Heavy curtains drape over the window, by which rests a young lady. Her blonde curls cascade down onto her shoulders, caressing her pale face and her tightly-shut eyes.

The silence in the room is unnerving. Loretta  wonders whether she should turn back, when the eyes open and rest on her.

“Duchess Dupont ?” asks Loretta.

A silent nod.

“I’m Loretta, from the future.”

Loretta almost bites her tongue to keep herself from offering  such a peculiar introduction, but, it’s already too late. The words are out of her mouth. Yet, no trace of surprise appears in the lady’s eyes. They  remain just as numb, frozen to death – no words can ever break that layer of ice.

“Ma’am, that painting may be in danger and , perhaps, your life, too.”

The lady’s lips part into a faint smile.

“Today’s my last day here. They’ll be taking me to the guillotine,” she mutters in an almost inaudible voice.

“But, no one’s here. It’s silent.”

“This is the silence of death, ” the lady replies with a resigned sigh.

The duchess’s voice, her melancholy sighs seem to come from the other world. Loretta realizes, the lady has resigned  herself to her approaching end.

Yet, Loretta’s arrival has given birth to a faint glimmer of hope in those expressionless eyes.

“Who’s the lady  in the painting?”

“Our dear queen…bless her soul.”  Is that a drop of tear lingering on her eyelashes?

“Oh, I see,” replies Loretta.

“Please take a seat. Have a bit of this wonderful French sherry. As it is, you’re the last guest I may ever entertain,” the duchess says, with a forced smile.

Duchess Dupont pours her a glass of  crystal-clear red sherry. Accepting her warm invitation  , Loretta takes a sip. It’s heavenly. They don’t make the likes of these anymore. The cool touch of the wine, the solemn silence  and peaceful shadows of the room lull her off into a deep stupor. A wall of darkness descends slowly upon her eyes. It’s a silence – a deep, peaceful silence stretching unto eternity.

The silence is shattered by a sudden uproar. She feels the light returning. The Duchess… where is she? The streets down below are overflowing with millions of pale creatures, resembling  her own kind. Can those wild creatures, making their way to the palace, indeed , be human beings – her ancestors? With a shock, Loretta realizes that she’s dressed in the lady’s regal attire. The duchess must have sedated her. Her own clothes, her ticket are gone….here she is, stranded in time, minutes away from a violent death!

***

The palace gate has been shattered. The mob nears the palace. Angry shouts of “Death to the Duchess!”  resonate in the air. All of a sudden, out of the tumultuous crowd, rises a solemn voice, “Citizens, halt!”

The wild mob pauses for a moment to cast a glance at the speaker- an old “gentleman”.

“Citizens, Duchess Dupont is fleeing. That’s my grand-daughter up there- her maid, whom she has  tricked into taking her place. Look there, that’s the lady’s carriage!”

Sure enough, a carriage can be seen making its way out of the rear-gate. A moment is all it takes for the mob to change its course as they pounce- a pack of hungry wolves- upon the carriage and its feeble occupant.

Loretta recognizes the old  man – her grandfather , as the light trickles out of her senses once again. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the sudden changes rapidly attacking her life , she drops , unconscious, onto the couch.

***

Not all stories have happy endings-  darkness is, sometimes, more welcome than the day.  As light trickles back into Loretta’s eyes, she meets the concerned gaze of her brother, Vivien.  She realizes that she’s in a time-craft. Pierre is sitting a distance away, handcuffed. Loretta’s heart sinks.

“Grandpa has reached home safely. Here’s some water for you, Sister. You need to be strong,” says Vivien.

Loretta nods feebly.

“We’ve been keeping  an eye on Pierre for quite some time now. He’s accused of fraud and of altering the past. None of his victims have been harmed, so he hasn’t been charged with manslaughter.”

Vivien stops for a moment to let his sister recover, for  her face has turned ashen.

“Oh , Vivien! Can’t he serve a prison term? Will it have to be a death sentence?”

Vivien looks sadly at his sister.

“If there’s one thing that has regressed over the years, it’s the prison. To err is no longer human, Loretta.”

“So, he’ll leave! What about the poor children?” she mutters , almost to herself.

“Considering his service to society, we can help him avoid the prison. The injection is the most painless way to end it. You may now spend five minutes with each other.”

Loretta knows what Vivien’s stern words  mean. He’s first a policeman; second , a brother.

Loretta walks up to her husband.  How can all the unsaid words be crammed into five short moments?

He smiles his old cheerful smile, whispering, “In spite of all, I love you! Take care of the children.”

She enfolds him in a warm embrace.

“Love you, too! Don’t you worry about the little ones.”

The moments trickle by. The death knell finally rings loud and clear in her brother’s trembling voice, “Five minutes over.”

The needle is pricked into Pierre’s arm. She feels a shudder run through him, as the murmurs of his heart cease.

Vivien looks away. This is all it takes for a rigid man of the law to let down his guards, to shed the veil of duty and turn into a loving brother, once more.

Loretta keeps on gazing at the soft smile lingering on the dead man’s face. Can  all this be a nightmare? She’ll never know. The sunny world of today- the utopia of her ancestors – will forever be shrouded by the pall of her husband’s death, as she’ll wonder, “Did he deserve to die, after all?”

Her brother’s words resound throughout her world, “To err is no longer human.”

Thanks for reading.

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