Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Stories by American Authors, Volume 5 by Various

Part 3 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

"Neither have I."

"How shall we settle?"

"Aw, throw for it?"

"Yes. Isn't there a backgammon board forward, in that locker, Thomas?"

The board was found and the dice produced.

"The highest takes which?"

"Say Laura Thurston."

"Very good; throw."

"You first."

"No. Go on."

Charlie threw with about the same amount of excitement he might have
exhibited in a turkey raffle.

"Five-three," said he; "now for your luck."

"Six-four! Laura's mine. Satisfied?"

"Perfectly--if you are. If not, I don't mind exchanging."

"Oh, no. I'm satisfied."

Both reclined upon the deck once more with a sigh of relief, and a long
silence followed.

"I say," began Charlie, after a time, "it is a comfort to have these
little matters arranged without any trouble, eh?"


"Do you know, I think I'll marry mine?"

"I will, if you will."

"Done! It is a bargain."

This "little matter" being arranged, a change gradually took place in
the relations of the four. Ned Salsbury began to invite Laura Thurston
out driving and bathing somewhat oftener than before, and Hattie Chapman
somewhat less often; while Charlie Burnham followed suit with the
last-named young lady. As the line of demarcation became fixed, the
damsels recognized it, and accepted with gracious readiness the
cavaliers that Fate, through the agency of a chance-falling pair of
dice, had allotted to them.

The other guests of the house remarked the new position of affairs, and
passed whispers about it to the effect that the girls had at last
succeeded in getting their fish on hooks instead of in a net. No
suitors could have been more devoted than our friends. It seemed as if
each knight bestowed upon the chosen one all the attentions he had
hitherto given to both; and whether they went boating, sketching, or
strolling upon the sands, they were the very picture of a _partie
carree_ of lovers.

Naturally enough, as the young men became more in earnest, with the
reticence common to my sex they spoke less frequently and freely on the
subject. Once, however, after an unusually pleasant afternoon, Salsbury
ventured a few words.

"I say, we're a couple of lucky dogs! Who'd have thought now, aw, that
our summer was going to turn out so well? I'm sure I didn't. How do you
get along, Charley, boy?"

"Deliciously. Smooth sailing enough. Wasn't it a good idea, though, to
pair off? I'm just as happy as a bee in clover. You seem to prosper,
too, heh?"

"Couldn't ask anything different. Nothing but devotion, and all that.
I'm delighted. I say, when are you going to pop?"

"Oh, I don't know. It is only a matter of form. Sooner the better, I
suppose, and have it over."

"I was thinking of next week. What do you say to a quiet picnic down on
the rocks, and a walk afterwards? We can separate, you know, and do the
thing up systematically."

"All right. I will, if you will."

"That's another bargain. I notice there isn't much doubt about the


A close observer might have seen that the gentlemen increased their
attentions a little from time to time. The objects of their devotion
perceived it, and smiled more and more graciously upon them.

The day set for the picnic arrived duly, and was radiant. It pains me to
confess that my heroes were a trifle nervous. Their apparel was more
gorgeous and wonderful than ever, and Thomas, who was anxious to be off
courting Miss Chapman's lady's-maid, found his masters dreadfully
exacting in the matter of hair-dressing. At length, however, the toilet
was over, and "Solomon in all his glory" would have been vastly
astonished at finding himself "arrayed as one of these."

The boat lay at the pier, receiving large quantities of supplies for the
trip, stowed by Thomas, under the supervision of the grim and tarry
skipper. When all was ready the young men gingerly escorted their fair
companions aboard, the lines were cast off, and the boat glided gently
down the bay, leaving Thomas free to fly to the smart presence of Susan
Jane and to draw glowing pictures for her of a neat little porter-house
in the city, wherein they should hold supreme sway, be happy with each
other, and let rooms up-stairs for single gentlemen.

The brisk land breeze swelling the sail, the fluttering of the gay
little flag at the gaff, the musical rippling of water under the
counter, and the spirited motion of the boat combined, with the bland
air and pleasant sunshine, to inspire the party with much vivacity. They
had not been many minutes afloat before the guitar-case was opened, and
the girls' voices--Laura's soprano and Hattie's contralto--rang
melodiously over the waves, mingled with feeble attempt at bass
accompaniment from their gorgeous guardians.

Before these vocal exercises wearied, the skipper hauled down his jib,
let go his anchor, and brought the craft to just off the rocks; and
bringing the yawl alongside, unceremoniously plucked the girls down into
it, without giving their cavaliers a chance for the least display of
agile courtliness. Rowing ashore, this same tarry person left them
huddled upon the beach, with their hopes, their hampers, their emotions,
and their baskets, and returned to the vessel to do a little private
fishing on his own account till wanted.

The maidens gave vent to their high spirits by chasing each other among
the rocks, gathering shells and seaweed for the construction of those
ephemeral little ornaments--fair, but frail--in which the sex delights,
singing, laughing, quoting poetry, attitudinizing upon the peaks and
ledges of the fine old boulders--mossy and weedy and green with the wash
of a thousand storms, worn into strange shapes, and stained with the
multitudinous dyes of mineral oxidization--and, in brief, behaved
themselves with all the charming _abandon_ that so well becomes young
girls set free, by the _entourage_ of a holiday ramble, from the buckram
and clear-starch of social etiquette.

Meanwhile Ned and Charley smoked the pensive cigar of preparation in a
sheltered corner, and gazed out seaward, dreaming and seeing nothing.

Erelong the breeze and the romp gave the young ladies not only a
splendid color and sparkling eyes, but excellent appetites also. The
baskets and hampers were speedily unpacked, the table-cloth laid on a
broad, flat stone, so used by generations of Brant House picnickers, and
the party fell to. Laura's beautiful hair, a little disordered, swept
her blooming cheek, and cast a pearly shadow upon her neck. Her bright
eyes glanced archly out from under her half-raised veil, and there was
something inexpressibly _naive_ in the freedom with which she ate,
taking a bird's wing in her fingers, and boldly attacking it with teeth
as white and even as can be imagined. Notwithstanding all the mawkish
nonsense that has been put forth by sentimentalists concerning feminine
eating, I hold that it is one of the nicest things in the world to see a
pretty woman enjoying the creature comforts; and Byron himself, had he
been one of this picnic party, would have been unable to resist the
admiration that filled the souls of Burnham and Salsbury. Hattie Chapman
stormed the fortress of boned turkey with a gusto equal to that of
Laura, and made highly successful raids upon certain outlying salads
and jellies. The young men were not in a very ravenous condition; they
were, as I have said, a little nervous, and bent their energies
principally to admiring the ladies and coquetting with pickled oysters.

When the repast was over, with much accompanying chat and laughter, Ned
glanced significantly at Charley, and proposed to Laura that they should
walk up the beach to a place where, he said, there were "some pretty
rocks and things, you know." She consented, and they marched off. Hattie
also arose, and took her parasol, as if to follow, but Charley remained
seated, tracing mysterious diagrams upon the table-cloth with his fork,
and looked sublimely unconscious.

"Sha'n't we walk, too?" Hattie asked.

"Oh, why, the fact is," said he, hesitatingly, "I--I sprained my ankle
getting out of that confounded boat, so I don't feel much like
exercising just now."

The young girl's face expressed concern.

"That is too bad! Why didn't you tell us of it before? Is it painful?
I'm so sorry!"

"N-no--it doesn't hurt much. I dare say it will be all right in a
minute. And then--I'd just as soon stay here--with you--as to walk

This very tenderly, with a little sigh.

Hattie sat down again, and began to talk to this factitious cripple in
the pleasant, purring way some damsels have, about the joys of the
sea-shore, the happy summer that was, alas! drawing to a close, her own
enjoyment of life, and kindred topics, till Charley saw an excellent
opportunity to interrupt with some aspirations of his own, which, he
averred, must be realized before his life would be considered a
satisfactory success.

If you had ever been placed in analogous circumstances, you know, of
course, just about the sort of thing that was being said by the two
gentlemen at nearly the same moment: Ned, loitering slowly along the
sands with Laura on his arm, and Charley, stretched in indolent
picturesqueness upon the rocks, with Hattie sitting beside him. If you
do not know from experience, ask any candid friend who has been through
the form and ceremony of an orthodox proposal.

When the pedestrians returned the two couples looked very hard at each
other. All were smiling and complacent, but devoid of any strange or
unusual expression. Indeed, the countenance is subject to such severe
education, in good society, that one almost always looks smiling and
complacent. Demonstration is not fashionable, and a man must preserve
the same demeanor over the loss of a wife or a glove-button, over the
gift of a heart's whole devotion or a bundle of cigars. Under all these
visitations the complacent smile is in favor as the neatest, most
serviceable, and convenient form of non-committalism.

The sun was approaching the blue range of misty hills that bounded the
mainland swamps by this time; so the skipper was signalled, the dinner
paraphernalia gathered up, and the party were soon _en route_ for home
once more. When the young ladies were safely in, Ned and Charley met in
their room, and each caught the other looking at him stealthily. Both

"Did I give you time, Charley?" asked Ned; "we came back rather soon."

"Oh, yes; plenty of time."

"Did you--aw, did you pop?

"Y-yes. Did you?"


"And you were--"

"Rejected, by Jove!"

"So was I!"

The day following this disastrous picnic the baggage of Mr. Edwin
Salsbury and Mr. Charles Burnham was sent to the depot at Wikhasset
Station, and they presented themselves at the hotel-office with a
request for their bill. As Jerry Swayne deposited their key upon its
hook, he drew forth a small tri-cornered billet from the pigeon-hole
beneath, and presented it.

"Left for you this morning, gentlemen."

It was directed to both, and Charley read it over Ned's shoulder. It ran

"DEAR BOYS: The next time you divert yourselves by throwing dice
for two young ladies, we pray you not to do so in the presence of a
valet who is upon terms of intimacy with the maid of one of them.

"With many sincere thanks for the amusement
you have given us--often when you least suspected
it--we bid you a lasting adieu, and remain, with
the best wishes,


"_Brant House_,

"It is all the fault of that, aw--that confounded Thomas!" said Ned.

So Thomas was discharged.

[4] _Atlantic Monthly, June_, 1863.




There was nothing mysterious about Professor Surd's dislike for me. I
was the only poor mathematician in an exceptionally mathematical class.
The old gentleman sought the lecture-room every morning with eagerness,
and left it reluctantly. For was it not a thing of joy to find seventy
young men who, individually and collectively, preferred _x_ to XX; who
had rather differentiate than dissipate; and for whom the limbs of the
heavenly bodies had more attractions than those of earthly stars upon
the spectacular stage?

So affairs went on swimmingly between the Professor of Mathematics and
the Junior Class at Polyp University. In every man of the seventy the
sage saw the logarithm of a possible La Place, of a Sturm, or of a
Newton. It was a delightful task for him to lead them through the
pleasant valleys of conic sections, and beside the still waters of the
integral calculus. Figuratively speaking, his problem was not a hard
one. He had only to manipulate, and eliminate, and to raise to a higher
power, and the triumphant result of examination day was assured.

But I was a disturbing element, a perplexing unknown quantity, which had
somehow crept into the work, and which seriously threatened to impair
the accuracy of his calculations. It was a touching sight to behold the
venerable mathematician as he pleaded with me not so utterly to
disregard precedent in the use of cotangents; or as he urged, with eyes
almost tearful, that ordinates were dangerous things to trifle with. All
in vain. More theorems went on to my cuff than into my head. Never did
chalk do so much work to so little purpose. And, therefore, it came that
Furnace Second was reduced to zero in Professor Surd's estimation. He
looked upon me with all the horror which an unalgebraic nature could
inspire. I have seen the Professor walk around an entire square rather
than meet the man who had no mathematics in his soul.

For Furnace Second were no invitations to Professor Surd's house.
Seventy of the class supped in delegations around the periphery of the
Professor's tea-table. The seventy-first knew nothing of the charms of
that perfect ellipse, with its twin bunches of fuchsias and geraniums
in gorgeous precision at the two foci.

This, unfortunately enough, was no trifling deprivation. Not that I
longed especially for segments of Mrs. Surd's justly celebrated lemon
pies; not that the spheroidal damsons of her excellent preserving had
any marked allurements; not even that I yearned to hear the Professor's
jocose table-talk about binomials, and chatty illustrations of abstruse
paradoxes. The explanation is far different. Professor Surd had a
daughter. Twenty years before, he made a proposition of marriage to the
present Mrs. S. He added a little Corollary to his proposition not long
after. The Corollary was a girl.

Abscissa Surd was as perfectly symmetrical as Giotto's circle, and as
pure, withal, as the mathematics her father taught. It was just when
spring was coming to extract the roots of frozen-up vegetation that I
fell in love with the Corollary. That she herself was not indifferent I
soon had reason to regard as a self-evident truth.

The sagacious reader will already recognize nearly all the elements
necessary to a well-ordered plot. We have introduced a heroine, inferred
a hero, and constructed a hostile parent after the most approved model.
A movement for the story, a _Deus ex machina_, is alone lacking. With
considerable satisfaction I can promise a perfect novelty in this line,
a _Deus ex machina_ never before offered to the public.

It would be discounting ordinary intelligence to say that I sought with
unwearying assiduity to figure my way into the stern father's good-will;
that never did dullard apply himself to mathematics more patiently than
I; that never did faithfulness achieve such meagre reward. Then I
engaged a private tutor. His instructions met with no better success.

My tutor's name was Jean Marie Rivarol. He was a unique Alsatian--though
Gallic in name, thoroughly Teuton in nature; by birth a Frenchman, by
education a German. His age was thirty; his profession, omniscience; the
wolf at his door, poverty; the skeleton in his closet, a consuming but
unrequited passion. The most recondite principles of practical science
were his toys; the deepest intricacies of abstract science his
diversions. Problems which were foreordained mysteries to me were to him
as clear as Tahoe water. Perhaps this very fact will explain our lack of
success in the relation of tutor and pupil; perhaps the failure is alone
due to my own unmitigated stupidity. Rivarol had hung about the skirts
of the University for several years; supplying his few wants by writing
for scientific journals, or by giving assistance to students who, like
myself, were characterized by a plethora of purse and a paucity of
ideas; cooking, studying and sleeping in his attic lodgings; and
prosecuting queer experiments all by himself.

We were not long discovering that even this eccentric genius could not
transplant brains into my deficient skull. I gave over the struggle in
despair. An unhappy year dragged its slow length around. A gloomy year
it was, brightened only by occasional interviews with Abscissa, the
Abbie of my thoughts and dreams.

Commencement day was coming on apace. I was soon to go forth, with the
rest of my class, to astonish and delight a waiting world. The Professor
seemed to avoid me more than ever. Nothing but the conventionalities, I
think kept him from shaping his treatment of me on the basis of
unconcealed disgust.

At last, in the very recklessness of despair, I resolved to see him,
plead with him, threaten him if need be, and risk all my fortunes on one
desperate chance. I wrote him a somewhat defiant letter, stating my
aspirations, and, as I flattered myself, shrewdly giving him a week to
get over the first shock of horrified surprise. Then I was to call and
learn my fate.

During the week of suspense I nearly worried myself into a fever. It was
first crazy hope, and then saner despair. On Friday evening, when I
presented myself at the Professor's door, I was such a haggard, sleepy,
dragged-out spectre, that even Miss Jocasta, the harsh-favored maiden
sister of the Surd's, admitted me with commiserate regard, and suggested
pennyroyal tea.

Professor Surd was at a faculty meeting. Would I wait?

Yes, till all was blue, if need be. Miss Abbie?

Abscissa had gone to Wheelborough to visit a school-friend. The aged
maiden hoped I would make myself comfortable, and departed to the
unknown haunts which knew Jocasta's daily walk.

Comfortable! But I settled myself in a great uneasy chair and waited,
with the contradictory spirit common to such junctures, dreading every
step lest it should herald the man whom, of all men, I wished to see.

I had been there at least an hour, and was growing right drowsy.

At length Professor Surd came in. He sat down in the dusk opposite me,
and I thought his eyes glinted with malignant pleasure as he said,

"So, young man, you think you are a fit husband for my girl?"

I stammered some inanity about making up in affection what I lacked in
merit; about my expectations, family and the like. He quickly
interrupted me.

"You misapprehend me, sir. Your nature is destitute of those
mathematical perceptions and acquirements which are the only sure
foundations of character. You have no mathematics in you. You are fit
for treason, stratagems, and spoils.--Shakespeare. Your narrow intellect
cannot understand and appreciate a generous mind. There is all the
difference between you and a Surd, if I may say it, which intervenes
between an infinitesimal and an infinite. Why, I will even venture to
say that you do not comprehend the Problem of the Couriers!"

I admitted that the Problem of the Couriers should be classed rather
without my list of accomplishments than within it. I regretted this
fault very deeply, and suggested amendment. I faintly hoped that my
fortune would be such--

"Money!" he impatiently exclaimed. "Do you seek to bribe a Roman Senator
with a penny whistle? Why, boy, do you parade your paltry wealth, which,
expressed in mills, will not cover ten decimal places, before the eyes
of a man who measures the planets in their orbits, and close crowds
infinity itself?"

I hastily disclaimed any intention of obtruding my foolish dollars, and
he went on:

"Your letter surprised me not a little. I thought _you_ would be the
last person in the world to presume to an alliance here. But having a
regard for you personally"--and again I saw malice twinkle in his small
eyes--"and still more regard for Abscissa's happiness, I have decided
that you shall have her--upon conditions. Upon conditions," he repeated,
with a half-smothered sneer.

"What are they?" cried I, eagerly enough. "Only name them."

"Well, sir," he continued, and the deliberation of his speech seemed the
very refinement of cruelty, "you have only to prove yourself worthy an
alliance with a mathematical family. You have only to accomplish a task
which I shall presently give you. Your eyes ask me what it is. I will
tell you. Distinguish yourself in that noble branch of abstract science
in which, you cannot but acknowledge, you are at present sadly
deficient. I will place Abscissa's hand in yours whenever you shall come
before me and square the circle to my satisfaction. No! That is too easy
a condition. I should cheat myself. Say perpetual motion. How do you
like that? Do you think it lies within the range of your mental
capabilities? You don't smile. Perhaps your talents don't run in the way
of perpetual motion. Several people have found that theirs didn't. I'll
give you another chance. We were speaking of the Problem of the
Couriers, and I think you expressed a desire to know more of that
ingenious question. You shall have the opportunity. Sit down some day,
when you have nothing else to do, and discover the principle of infinite
speed. I mean the law of motion which shall accomplish an infinitely
great distance in an infinitely short time. You may mix in a little
practical mechanics, if you choose. Invent some method of taking the
tardy Courier over his road at the rate of sixty miles a minute.
Demonstrate me this discovery (when you have made it!) mathematically,
and approximate it practically, and Abscissa is yours. Until you can, I
will thank you to trouble neither myself nor her."

I could stand his mocking no longer. I stumbled mechanically out of the
room, and out of the house. I even forgot my hat and gloves. For an
hour I walked in the moonlight. Gradually I succeeded to a more hopeful
frame of mind. This was due to my ignorance of mathematics. Had I
understood the real meaning of what he asked, I should have been utterly

Perhaps this problem of sixty miles a minute was not so impossible after
all. At any rate I could attempt, though I might not succeed. And
Rivarol came to my mind. I would ask him. I would enlist his knowledge
to accompany my own devoted perseverance. I sought his lodgings at once.

The man of science lived in the fourth story, back. I had never been in
his room before. When I entered, he was in the act of filling a beer mug
from a carboy labelled _Aqua fortis_.

"Seat you," he said. "No, not in that chair. That is my Petty Cash
Adjuster." But he was a second too late. I had carelessly thrown myself
into a chair of seductive appearance. To my utter amazement it reached
out two skeleton arms and clutched me with a grasp against which I
struggled in vain. Then a skull stretched itself over my shoulder and
grinned with ghastly familiarity close to my face.

Rivarol came to my aid with many apologies. He touched a spring
somewhere and the Petty Cash Adjuster relaxed its horrid hold. I placed
myself gingerly in a plain cane-bottomed rocking-chair, which Rivarol
assured me was a safe location.

"That seat," he said, "is an arrangement upon which I much felicitate
myself. I made it at Heidelberg. It has saved me a vast deal of small
annoyance. I consign to its embraces the friends who bore, and the
visitors who exasperate, me. But it is never so useful as when
terrifying some tradesman with an insignificant account. Hence the pet
name which I have facetiously given it. They are invariably too glad to
purchase release at the price of a bill receipted. Do you well apprehend
the idea?"

While the Alsatian diluted his glass of _Aqua fortis_, shook into it an
infusion of bitters, and tossed off the bumper with apparent relish, I
had time to look around the strange apartment.

The four corners of the room were occupied respectively by a
turning-lathe, a Rhumkorff Coil, a small steam-engine and an orrery in
stately motion. Tables, shelves, chairs and floor supported an odd
aggregation of tools, retorts, chemicals, gas-receivers, philosophical
instruments, boots, flasks, paper-collar boxes, books diminutive and
books of preposterous size. There were plaster busts of Aristotle,
Archimedes, and Comte, while a great drowsy owl was blinking away,
perched on the benign brow of Martin Farquhar Tupper. "He always roosts
there when he proposes to slumber," explained my tutor. "You are a bird
of no ordinary mind. _Schlafen Sie wohl_."

Through a closet door, half open, I could see a human-like form covered
with a sheet. Rivarol caught my glance.

"That," said he, "will be my masterpiece. It is a Microcosm, an
Android, as yet only partially complete. And why not? Albertus Magnus
constructed an image perfect to talk metaphysics and confute the
schools. So did Sylvester II.; so did Robertus Greathead. Roger Bacon
made a brazen head that held discourses. But the first named of these
came to destruction. Thomas Aquinas got wrathful at some of its
syllogisms and smashed its head. The idea is reasonable enough. Mental
action will yet be reduced to laws as definite as those which govern the
physical. Why should not I accomplish a manikin which shall preach as
original discourses as the Rev. Dr. Allchin, or talk poetry as
mechanically as Paul Anapest? My Android can already work problems in
vulgar fractions and compose sonnets. I hope to teach it the Positive

Out of the bewildering confusion of his effects Rivarol produced two
pipes and filled them. He handed one to me.

"And here," he said, "I live and am tolerably comfortable. When my coat
wears out at the elbows I seek the tailor and am measured for another.
When I am hungry I promenade myself to the butcher's and bring home a
pound or so of steak, which I cook very nicely in three seconds by this
oxy-hydrogen flame. Thirsty, perhaps, I send for a carboy of _Aqua
fortis_. But I have it charged, all charged. My spirit is above any
small pecuniary transaction. I loathe your dirty greenbacks, and never
handle what they call scrip."

"But are you never pestered with bills?" I asked. "Don't the creditors
worry your life out?"

"Creditors!" gasped Rivarol. "I have learned no such word in your very
admirable language. He who will allow his soul to be vexed by creditors
is a relic of an imperfect civilization. Of what use is science if it
cannot avail a man who has accounts current? Listen. The moment you or
any one else enters the outside door this little electric bell sounds me
warning. Every successive step on Mrs. Grimier's staircase is a spy and
informer vigilant for my benefit. The first step is trod upon. That
trusty first step immediately telegraphs your weight. Nothing could be
simpler. It is exactly like any platform scale. The weight is registered
up here upon this dial. The second step records the size of my visitor's
feet. The third his height, the fourth his complexion, and so on. By the
time he reaches the top of the first flight I have a pretty accurate
description of him right here at my elbow, and quite a margin of time
for deliberation and action. Do you follow me? It is plain enough. Only
the A B C of my science."

"I see all that," I said, "but I don't see how it helps you any. The
knowledge that a creditor is coming won't pay his bill. You can't escape
unless you jump out of the window."

Rivarol laughed softly. "I will tell you. You shall see what becomes of
any poor devil who goes to demand money of me--of a man of science. Ha!
ha! It pleases me. I was seven weeks perfecting my Dun Suppressor. Did
you know"--he whispered exultingly--"did you know that there is a hole
through the earth's centre? Physicists have long suspected it; I was the
first to find it. You have read how Rhuyghens, the Dutch navigator,
discovered in Kerguellen's Land an abysmal pit which fourteen hundred
fathoms of plumb-line failed to sound. Herr Tom, that hole has no
bottom! It runs from one surface of the earth to the antipodal surface.
It is diametric. But where is the antipodal spot? You stand upon it. I
learned this by the merest chance. I was deep-digging in Mrs. Grimler's
cellar, to bury a poor cat I had sacrificed in a galvanic experiment,
when the earth under my spade crumbled, caved in, and wonder-stricken I
stood upon the brink of a yawning shaft. I dropped a coal-hod in. It
went down, down down, bounding and rebounding. In two hours and a
quarter that coal-hod came up again. I caught it and restored it to the
angry Grimler. Just think a minute. The coal-hod went down, faster and
faster, till it reached the centre of the earth. There it would stop,
were it not for acquired momentum. Beyond the centre its journey was
relatively upward, toward the opposite surface of the globe. So, losing
velocity, it went slower and slower till it reached that surface. Here
it came to rest for a second and then fell back again, eight thousand
odd miles, into my hands. Had I not interfered with it, it would have
repeated its journey, time after time, each trip of shorter extent,
like the diminishing oscillations of a pendulum, till it finally came
to eternal rest at the centre of the sphere. I am not slow to give a
practical application to any such grand discovery. My Dun Suppressor was
born of it. A trap, just outside my chamber door: a spring in here: a
creditor on the trap:--need I say more?"

"But isn't it a trifle inhuman?" I mildly suggested. "Plunging an
unhappy being into a perpetual journey to and from Kerguellen's Land,
without a moment's warning."

"I give them a chance. When they come up the first time I wait at the
mouth of the shaft with a rope in hand. If they are reasonable and will
come to terms, I fling them the line. If they perish, 'tis their own
fault. Only," he added, with a melancholy smile, "the centre is getting
so plugged up with creditors that I am afraid there soon will be no
choice whatever for 'em."

By this time I had conceived a high opinion of my tutor's ability. If
anybody could send me waltzing through space at an infinite speed,
Rivarol could do it. I filled my pipe and told him the story. He heard
with grave and patient attention. Then, for full half an hour, he
whiffed away in silence. Finally he spoke.

"The ancient cipher has overreached himself. He has given you a choice
of two problems, both of which he deems insoluble. Neither of them is
insoluble. The only gleam of intelligence Old Cotangent showed was when
he said that squaring the circle was too easy. He was right. It would
have given you your _Liebchen_ in five minutes. I squared the circle
before I discarded pantalets. I will show you the work--but it would be
a digression, and you are in no mood for digressions. Our first chance,
therefore, lies in perpetual motion. Now, my good friend, I will frankly
tell you that, although I have compassed this interesting problem, I do
not choose to use it in your behalf. I too, Herr Tom, have a heart. The
loveliest of her sex frowns upon me. Her somewhat mature charms are not
for Jean Marie Rivarol. She has cruelly said that her years demand of me
filial rather than connubial regard. Is love a matter of years or of
eternity? This question did I put to the cold, yet lovely Jocasta."

"Jocasta Surd!" I remarked in surprise, "Abscissa's aunt!"

"The same," he said, sadly. "I will not attempt to conceal that upon the
maiden Jocasta my maiden heart has been bestowed. Give me your hand, my
nephew in affliction as in affection!"

Rivarol dashed away a not discreditable tear, and resumed:

"My only hope lies in this discovery of perpetual motion. It will give
me the fame, the wealth. Can Jocasta refuse these? If she can, there is
only the trap-door and--Kerguellen's Land!"

I bashfully asked to see the perpetual-motion machine. My uncle in
affliction shook his head.

"At another time," he said. "Suffice it at present to say, that it is
something upon the principle of a woman's tongue. But you see now why we
must turn in your case to the alternative condition--infinite speed.
There are several ways in which this may be accomplished, theoretically.
By the lever, for instance. Imagine a lever with a very long and a very
short arm. Apply power to the shorter arm which will move it with great
velocity. The end of the long arm will move much faster. Now keep
shortening the short arm and lengthening the long one, and as you
approach infinity in their difference of length, you approach infinity
in the speed of the long arm. It would be difficult to demonstrate this
practically to the Professor. We must seek another solution. Jean Marie
will meditate. Come to me in a fortnight. Good-night. But stop! Have you
the money--_das Geld?_"

"Much more than I need."

"Good! Let us strike hands. Gold and Knowledge; Science and Love. What
may not such a partnership achieve? We go to conquer thee, Abscissa.

When, at the end of a fortnight, I sought Rivarol's chamber, I passed
with some little trepidation over the terminus of the Air Line to
Kerguellen's Land, and evaded the extended arms of the Petty Cash
Adjuster. Rivarol drew a mug of ale for me, and filled himself a retort
of his own peculiar beverage.

"Come," he said at length. "Let us drink success to the TACHYPOMP."


"Yes. Why not? _Tachu_, quickly, and _pempo, pepompa_ to send. May it
send you quickly to your wedding-day. Abscissa is yours. It is done.
When shall we start for the prairies?"

"Where is it?" I asked, looking in vain around the room for any
contrivance which might seem calculated to advance matrimonial

"It is here," and he gave his forehead a significant tap. Then he held
forth didactically.

"There is force enough in existence to yield us a speed of sixty miles a
minute, or even more. All we need is the knowledge how to combine and
apply it. The wise man will not attempt to make some great force yield
some great speed. He will keep adding the little force to the little
force, making each little force yield its little speed, until an
aggregate of little forces shall be a great force, yielding an aggregate
of little speeds, a great speed. The difficulty is not in aggregating
the forces; it lies in the corresponding aggregation of the speeds. One
musket-ball will go, say a mile. It is not hard to increase the force of
muskets to a thousand, yet the thousand musket-balls will go no farther,
and no faster, than the one. You see, then, where our trouble lies. We
cannot readily add speed to speed, as we add force to force. My
discovery is simply the utilization of a principle which extorts an
increment of speed from each increment of power. But this is the
metaphysics of physics. Let us be practical or nothing.

"When you have walked forward, on a moving train, from the rear car,
toward the engine, did you ever think what you were really doing?"

"Why, yes, I have generally been going to the smoking-car to have a

"Tut, tut--not that! I mean, did it ever occur to you on such an
occasion, that absolutely you were moving faster than the train? The
train passes the telegraph poles at the rate of thirty miles an hour,
say. You walk toward the smoking-car at the rate of four miles an hour.
Then _you_ pass the telegraph poles at the rate of thirty-four miles.
Your absolute speed is the speed of the engine, plus the speed of your
own locomotion. Do you follow me?"

I began to get an inkling of his meaning, and told him so.

"Very well. Let us advance a step. Your addition to the speed of the
engine is trivial, and the space in which you can exercise it, limited.
Now suppose two stations, A and B, two miles distant by the track.
Imagine a train of platform cars, the last car resting at station A. The
train is a mile long, say. The engine is therefore within a mile of
station B. Say the train can move a mile in ten minutes. The last car,
having two miles to go, would reach B in twenty minutes, but the engine,
a mile ahead, would get there in ten. You jump on the last car, at A, in
a prodigious hurry to reach Abscissa, who is at B. If you stay on the
last car it will be twenty long minutes before you see her. But the
engine reaches B and the fair lady in ten. You will be a stupid
reasoner, and an indifferent lover, if you don't put for the engine over
those platform cars, as fast as your legs will carry you. You can run a
mile, the length of the train, in ten minutes. Therefore, you reach
Abscissa when the engine does, or in ten minutes--ten minutes sooner
than if you had lazily sat down upon the rear car and talked politics
with the brakeman. You have diminished the time by one half. You have
added your speed to that of the locomotive to some purpose. _Nicht

I saw it perfectly; much plainer, perhaps, for his putting in the clause
about Abscissa.

He continued:

"This illustration, though a slow one, leads up to a principle which may
be carried to any extent. Our first anxiety will be to spare your legs
and wind. Let us suppose that the two miles of track are perfectly
straight, and make our train one platform car, a mile long, with
parallel rails laid upon its top. Put a little dummy engine on these
rails, and let it run to and fro along the platform car, while the
platform car is pulled along the ground track. Catch the idea? The dummy
takes your place. But it can run its mile much faster. Fancy that our
locomotive is strong enough to pull the platform car over the two miles
in two minutes. The dummy can attain the same speed. When the engine
reaches B in one minute, the dummy, having gone a mile a-top the
platform car, reaches B also. We have so combined the speeds of those
two engines as to accomplish two miles in one minute. Is this all we can
do? Prepare to exercise your imagination."

I lit my pipe.

"Still two miles of straight track, between A and B. On the track a long
platform car, reaching from A to within a quarter of a mile of B. We
will now discard ordinary locomotives and adopt as our motive power a
series of compact magnetic engines, distributed underneath the platform
car, all along its length."

"I don't understand those magnetic engines."

"Well, each of them consists of a great iron horseshoe, rendered
alternately a magnet and not a magnet by an intermittent current of
electricity from a battery, this current in its turn regulated by
clock-work. When the horseshoe is in the circuit, it is a magnet, and it
pulls its clapper toward it with enormous power. When it is out of the
circuit, the next second, it is not a magnet, and it lets the clapper
go. The clapper, oscillating to and fro, imparts a rotatory motion to a
fly-wheel, which transmits it to the drivers on the rails. Such are our
motors. They are no novelty, for trial has proved them practicable.

"With a magnetic engine for every truck of wheels, we can reasonably
expect to move our immense car, and to drive it along at a speed, say,
of a mile a minute.

"The forward end, having but a quarter of a mile to go, will reach B in
fifteen seconds. We will call this platform car number 1. On top of
number 1 are laid rails on which another platform car, number 2, a
quarter of a mile shorter than number 1, is moved in precisely the same
way. Number 2, in its turn, is surmounted by number 3, moving
independently of the tiers beneath, and a quarter of a mile shorter than
number 2. Number 2 is a mile and a half long; number 3 a mile and a
quarter. Above, on successive levels, are number 4, a mile long; number
5, three quarters of a mile; number 6, half a mile; number 7, a quarter
of a mile, and number 8, a short passenger car, on top of all.

"Each car moves upon the car beneath it, independently of all the
others, at the rate of a mile a minute. Each car has its own magnetic
engines. Well, the train being drawn up with the latter end of each car
resting against a lofty bumping-post at A, Tom Furnace, the gentlemanly
conductor, and Jean Marie Rivarol, engineer, mount by a long ladder to
the exalted number 8. The complicated mechanism is set in motion. What

"Number 8 runs a quarter of a mile in fifteen seconds and reaches the
end of number 7. Meanwhile number 7 has run a quarter of a mile in the
same time and reached the end of number 6; number 6, a quarter of a mile
in fifteen seconds, and reached the end of number 5; number 5, the end
of number 4; number 4, of number 3; number 3, of number 2; number 2, of
number 1. And number 1, in fifteen seconds, has gone its quarter of a
mile along the ground track, and has reached station B. All this has
been done in fifteen seconds. Wherefore, numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,
and 8 come to rest against the bumping-post at B, at precisely the same
second. We, in number 8, reach B just when number 1 reaches it. In other
words, we accomplish two miles in fifteen seconds. Each of the eight
cars, moving at the rate of a mile a minute, has contributed a quarter
of a mile to our journey, and has done its work in fifteen seconds. All
the eight did their work at once, during the same fifteen seconds.
Consequently we have been whizzed through the air at the somewhat
startling speed of seven and a half seconds to the mile. This is the
Tachypomp. Does it justify the name?"

Although a little bewildered by the complexity of cars, I apprehended
the general principle of the machine. I made a diagram, and understood
it much better. "You have merely improved on the idea of my moving
faster than the train when I was going to the smoking car?"

"Precisely. So far we have kept within the bounds of the practicable. To
satisfy the Professor, you can theorize in something after this fashion:
If we double the number of cars, thus decreasing by one half the
distance which each has to go, we shall attain twice the speed. Each of
the sixteen cars will have but one eighth of a mile to go. At the
uniform rate we have adopted, the two miles can be done in seven and a
half instead of fifteen seconds. With thirty-two cars, and a sixteenth
of a mile, or twenty rods difference in their length, we arrive at the
speed of a mile in less than two seconds; with sixty-four cars, each
travelling but ten rods, a mile under the second. More than sixty miles
a minute! If this isn't rapid enough for the Professor, tell him to go
on, increasing the number of his cars and diminishing the distance each
one has to run. If sixty-four cars yield a speed of a mile inside the
second, let him fancy a Tachypomp of six hundred and forty cars, and
amuse himself calculating the rate of car number 640. Just whisper to
him that when he has an infinite number of cars with an infinitesimal
difference in their lengths, he will have obtained that infinite speed
for which he seems to yearn. Then demand Abscissa."

I wrung my friend's hand in silent and grateful admiration. I could say

"You have listened to the man of theory," he said proudly. "You shall
now behold the practical engineer. We will go to the west of the
Mississippi and find some suitably level locality. We will erect thereon
a model Tachypomp. We will summon thereunto the professor, his daughter,
and why not his fair sister Jocasta, as well? We will take them a
journey which shall much astonish the venerable Surd. He shall place
Abscissa's digits in yours and bless you both with an algebraic formula.
Jocasta shall contemplate with wonder the genius of Rivarol. But we have
much to do. We must ship to St. Joseph the vast amount of material to
be employed in the construction of the Tachypomp. We must engage a small
army of workmen to effect that construction, for we are to annihilate
time and space. Perhaps you had better see your bankers."

I rushed impetuously to the door. There should be no delay.

"Stop! stop! _Um Gottes Willen_, stop!" shrieked Rivarol. "I launched my
butcher this morning and I haven't bolted the----"

But it was too late. I was upon the trap. It swung open with a crash,
and I was plunged down, down, down! I felt as if I were falling through
illimitable space. I remember wondering, as I rushed through the
darkness, whether I should reach Kerguellen's Land or stop at the
centre. It seemed an eternity. Then my course was suddenly and painfully

I opened my eyes. Around me were the walls of Professor Surd's study.
Under me was a hard, unyielding plane which I knew too well was
Professor Surd's study floor. Behind me was the black, slippery,
hair-cloth chair which had belched me forth, much as the whale served
Jonah. In front of me stood Professor Surd himself, looking down with a
not unpleasant smile.

"Good-evening, Mr. Furnace. Let me help you up. You look tired, sir. No
wonder you fell asleep when I kept you so long waiting. Shall I get you
a glass of wine? No? By the way, since receiving your letter I find
that you are a son of my old friend, Judge Furnace. I have made
inquiries, and see no reason why you should not make Abscissa a good

Still I can see no reason why the Tachypomp should not have succeeded.
Can you?

[5] _Scribner's Monthly, March, 1874._

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest