Classic tales by famous authors (Volume 18) online

. (page 8 of 20)
Online LibraryUnknownClassic tales by famous authors (Volume 18) → online text (page 8 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

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 lack-
ing. With considerable satisfaction I can promise a per-
fect 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 meager
reward. Then I engaged a private tutor. His instruc-
tions 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 lodg-
ings ; and prosecuting queer experiments all by him-

We were not long discovering that even this eccentric


fsxvjjnx&awHM ifww


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 specter that even Miss Jocasta, the harsh-
favored maiden sister of the Surd, admitted me with
commiserate regard, and suggested pennyroyal tea.

Professor Surd was at a faculty meeting. Would I

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, abruptly :

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

I stammered some inanity about making up in affec-
tion what I lacked in merit ; about my expectations, fam-
ily and the like. He quickly interrupted me.

"You misapprehended me, sir. Your nature is desti-
tute of those mathematical perceptions and acquirements
which are the only sure foundations of character. You
have no mathematics in you. You are fit for treasons,
stratagems, and spoils. — Shakespeare. Your narrow in-
tellect 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 in-
finitesimal 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 de-
cided 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 mathe-
matical 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 acknowl-
edge, you are at present sadly deficient. I will place
Abscissa's hand in yours whenever you shall come be-
fore 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 in-
genious 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 dis-
covery (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

I could stand his mocking no longer. I stumbled me-
chanically out of the room, and out of the house. 1
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 mathe-
matics. Had I understood the real meaning of what he
asked, I should have been utterly despondent.

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 Ad-
juster 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 T
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 terrify-
ing 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 respect-
ively 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 instru-
ments, 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. Sclilafcn
Sie wohl."

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

"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 H. ; 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 ac-



complish a manikin which shall preach as original dis-
courses as the Rev. Dr. Allchin, or talk poetry as me-
chanically as Paul Anapest? My Android can already
work problems in vulgar fractions and compose sonnets.
I hope to teach it the Positive Philosophy."

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

"And here," he said, "I live and am tolerably comfort-
able. 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 for lis. 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 al-
low 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. Grimler'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 delib-
eration 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 abyssmal 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 Grimier. Just think a minute. The coal-
hod went down, faster and faster, till it reached the
center of the earth. There it would stop, were it not
for acquired momentum. Beyond the center 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
center of the sphere. I am not slow to give a practical
application to any such grand discovery. My Dun Sup-
pressor was born of it. A trap, just outside my cham-
ber 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 warn-

"I gave 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 center 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 Liehchen 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 some-
what 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

"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 re-
sumed :

"My only hope lies in this discovery of perpetual mo-
tion. 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, theoret-
ically. 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. Vorwdrtsl"

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 wed-
ding-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 prospects.

"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

i j Vol. 18—9



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 prin-
ciple which extorts an increment of speed from each in-
crement 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 cigar."

"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 en-
gine, 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 reason-
er, 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 wahr?"

I saw it perfectly ; much plainer, perhaps, for his put-
ting 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 sup-
pose 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 plat-
form 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 at-
tain the same speed. When the engine reaches B in one
minute, the dummy, having gone a mile a-top of the plat-
form 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 exer-
cise 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 under-
neath the platform car, all along its length."

"I don't understand those magnetic engines."

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryUnknownClassic tales by famous authors (Volume 18) → online text (page 8 of 20)