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Literature / He Walked Around the Horses

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"He Walked Around the Horses" is an Alternate History Novelette written by H. Beam Piper which was published in the April 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

It was inspired by the true story of Benjamin Bathurst, a 25-year-old British diplomat who disappeared in the Prussian town of Perleburg during the Napoleonic Wars on November 25, 1809. Later descriptions of the incident suggested that Bathurst's disappearance was very sudden and perhaps caused by supernatural forces, the most common such story being that Bathurst vanished into thin air after he walked around the horses which were harnessed to his carriage. More recent research indicates that these reports were greatly exaggerated and that Bathurst was most likely murdered. When a house was being demolished only 300 paces from Bathurst's last known location in Perleburg in 1852, a skeleton was found. A skull fracture indicated that the deceased had been struck from behind with a blunt object. Bathurst's sister Mrs Thistlethwaite travelled to Perleburg but was unable to confirm whether the skull was that of her brother.


In this short story, Piper asserts that Bathurst slipped into an Alternate Universe after he walked around the horses, one with a significantly different recent history (relative to its 1809 setting) than ours. His "unrealistic beliefs about the state of affairs in Europe" lead the inhabitants of the other universe to conclude that he is either a spy or insane and he is imprisoned. Only three days after his arrival in the parallel universe, he is fatally shot whilst trying to escape from the prison.


He Troped Around the Horses:

  • Alternate History: The Alternate Universe and ours diverged at the Battle of Quebec on January 1, 1776 when Benedict Arnold is killed instead of wounded. Consequently, the British General John Burgoyne triumphs over Horatio Gates at the Battles of Saratoga on September 19 and October 7, 1777. In reality, the first battle was a Pyrrhic Victory for the British and the second was a decisive American victory. Following the British victory at Saratoga, George Washington was killed at the Battle of Doylestown and The American Revolution was eventually defeated. The remaining leaders of the Revolution are either dead or in exile in 1809. The consequences of the failure of the American Revolution were felt in Europe. During the March on Versailles on October 5, 1789, Louis XVI ordered his troops to fire on the crowd instead of capitulating to their demands and the French Republican movement was crushed. As such, Louis XVI is still the reigning monarch in 1809. Without The French Revolution, the circumstances which lead to Napoleon's rise to power did not exist, meaning that there are no Napoleonic Wars.
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  • America Is Still a Colony: Due to the failure of the American Revolution, the colonies never gained their independence from Britain.
  • Artistic License – History: In reality, Bathurst was 25 years old when he disappeared. However, the story describes him as "a rather stout gentleman, of past middle age." Given the meticulous historical research on display in every other aspect of the story, this significant age increase was presumably a deliberate choice on Piper's part so that Bathurst's counterpart could hold a senior position which a man of 25 would be unlikely to attain even if nepotism or the old boys' network were in play.
  • The Conspiracy:
    • After his sudden arrival in the parallel universe, Bathurst believes that he has been the victim of an elaborate French conspiracy and that his servants have been kidnapped, with his secretary Bertram Jardine having been mistaken for himself. He becomes increasingly convinced of this, as well as all the more agitated, when several "madhouse doctors" furnish him with recent Prussian, Austrian, French and British newspapers, none of which feature any reference to Napoleon, the Austrian surrender or any other details of the Napoleonic Wars. This leads him to make the escape attempt in which he is killed.
    • On the other hand, the Prussian Chancellor Count von Berchtenwald believes that Bathurst's unexplained appearance and his seemingly authentic state papers which nevertheless refer to "impossible" events are part of a "gigantic hoax" which is designed to damage the relations between the Kingdom of Prussia and the British Empire.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: Explored at great length and very realistically.
  • Historical Domain Character: Benjamin Bathurst and the Duke of Wellington.
  • Napoleon Delusion: Captain Ernst Hartenstein tells Baron Eugen von Krutz that he has heard of mad men who believed themselves to be the Archangel Gabriel and Muhammad.
  • Never Learned to Read: Franz Bauer, Wilhelm Beick and Fritz Herzer don't know how to read or write so they all sign their witness statements using an "X" mark.
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman:
    • Sir Benjamin Bathurst is the Lieutenant Governor of the Crown Colony of Georgia who had his portrait painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence several years earlier. At one point, the Bathurst of our universe is theorised to be his counterpart's half-brother.
    • Napoléon Bonaparte is a Colonel of Artillery in the French Army and a "most brilliant military theoretician" whose loyalty to the French monarchy has never been questioned.
    • Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Philadelphia (i.e. the Declaration of Independence), escaped to Havana, Cuba after the American rebels were defeated and eventually settled in the Principality of Lichtenstein, where he died several years prior to 1809. In reality, Jefferson lived until 1826.
    • James Madison, who was the US President in Bathurst's universe in 1809, is in exile in Switzerland.
    • In a partial subversion, Lord Castlereagh has been the British Foreign Secretary since 1804 in the parallel universe. In reality, Castlereagh held that position from 1812 to 1822 so he lagged behind his counterpart slightly.
    • In Bathurst's universe, Baron Stein was the Chancellor of Prussia in 1809. In the parallel universe, Stein is the Minister of Agriculture while (the fictional) Count von Berchtenwald is the Chancellor.
    • Talleyrand, who was defrocked and excommunicated from the Catholic Church in reality, remained in ecclesiastical orders and eventually became a cardinal. In 1809, Cardinal Talleyrand is the Prime Minister of France under Louis XVI and is considered to be "the greatest King's Minister since Richelieu." One character mentions that he was quite amused that Bathurst's papers described Talleyrand as Napoleon's chief adviser and observes, "His Eminence, I have always thought, is the sort of fellow who would land on his feet on top of any heap, and who would as little scruple to be Prime Minister to His Satanic Majesty as to His Most Christian Majesty."
    • At the end of the story, the same character notes that he has been completely unable to ascertain the identity of "Wellington," an English general frequently mentioned in Bathurst's papers, and comments that he hasn't "the least idea who this person might be." The letter is signed by Sir Arthur Wellesley, who was granted the title of Viscount Wellington in Bathurst's universe for his victory over the French at the Battle of Talavera on July 28, 1809. He was subsequently granted a dukedom in 1814.
  • Scrapbook Story: The story is told through a series of letters, government, police and military reports and witness statements.
  • Shared Universe: Or perhaps a Shared Multiverse would be more accurate. Although the story is not an official part of Piper's Paratime series, the first official Paratime story "Police Operation" (published only three months later) features an implicit reference to the events of "He Walked Around the Horses", describing the situation but not mentioning Bathurst by name. In that story, Tortha Karf says, "I picked up a fellow on the Fourth Level, just about where you're operating, and dragged him a couple of hundred parayears. I went back to find him and return him to his own time-line, but before I could locate him, he'd been arrested by the local authorities as a suspicious character, and got himself shot trying to escape. I felt badly about that."
  • Shown Their Work: Very much so.
  • Stock Unsolved Mysteries: The disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst.
  • This Page Will Self-Destruct: A realistic version, with the final letter beginning with advice to burn the Bathurst-related papers and forget the whole thing.
  • Time-Travelers Are Spies: In this case, a traveller from a parallel universe since Bathurst is believed to be a spy.
  • Trapped in Another World: Bathurst's fate. Unlike most other applications of this trope, however, he never becomes aware of the fact that he has left his normal reality nor do the inhabitants of the parallel universe come to that conclusion.