“At a Pace of Six Miles in the Hour.” Frontispiece.
Beloved pupil! Tamed by thee,
Addish-, Subtrac-, Multiplica-tion,
Division, Fractions, Rule of Three,
Attest thy deft manipulation!
Then onward! Let the voice of Fame
From Age to Age repeat thy story,
Till thou hast won thyself a name
Exceeding even Euclid’s glory!
This Tale originally appeared as a serial in The Monthly Packet, beginning in April, 1880. The writer’s intention was to embody in each Knot (like the medicine so dexterously, but ineffectually, concealed in the jam of our early childhood) one or more mathematical questions — in Arithmetic, Algebra, or Geometry, as the case might be — for the amusement, and possible edification, of the fair readers of that Magazine.
“Goblin, lead them up and down.”
The ruddy glow of sunset was already fading into the sombre shadows of night, when two travellers might have been observed swiftly — at a pace of six miles in the hour — descending the rugged side of a mountain; the younger bounding from crag to crag with the agility of a fawn, while his companion, whose aged limbs seemed ill at ease in the heavy chain armour habitually worn by tourists in that district, toiled on painfully at his side.
As is always the case under such circumstances, the younger knight was the first to break the silence.
“A goodly pace, I trow!” he exclaimed. “We sped not thus in the ascent!”
“Goodly, indeed!” the other echoed with a groan. “We clomb it but at three miles in the hour.”
“And on the dead level our pace is — ?” the younger suggested; for he was weak in statistics, and left all such details to his aged companion.
“Four miles in the hour,” the other wearily replied. “Not an ounce more,” he added, with that love of metaphor so common in old age, “and not a farthing less!”
“‘Twas three hours past high noon when we left our hostelry,” the young man said, musingly. “We shall scarce be back by supper-time. Perchance mine host will roundly deny us all food!”
“He will chide our tardy return,” was the grave reply, “and such a rebuke will be meet.”
“A brave conceit!” cried the other, with a merry laugh. “And should we bid him bring us yet another course, I trow his answer will be tart!”
“We shall but get our deserts,” sighed the elder knight, who had never seen a joke in his life, and was somewhat displeased at his companion’s untimely levity. “‘Twill be nine of the clock,” he added in an undertone, “by the time we regain our hostelry. Full many a mile shall we have plodded this day!”
“How many? How many?” cried the eager youth, ever athirst for knowledge.
The old man was silent.
“Tell me,” he answered, after a moment’s thought, “what time it was when we stood together on yonder peak. Not exact to the minute!” he added hastily, reading a protest in the young man’s face. “An’ thy guess be within one poor half-hour of the mark, ‘tis all I ask of thy mother’s son! Then will I tell thee, true to the last inch, how far we shall have trudged betwixt three and nine of the clock.”
A groan was the young man’s only reply; while his convulsed features and the deep wrinkles that chased each other across his manly brow, revealed the abyss of arithmetical agony into which one chance question had plunged him.
“Straight down the crooked lane,
And all round the square.”
“Let’s ask Balbus about it,” said Hugh.
“All right,” said Lambert.
“He can guess it,” said Hugh.
“Rather,” said Lambert.
No more words were needed: the two brothers understood each other perfectly.
“Balbus was assisting his mother-in-law to convince the dragon.”
Balbus was waiting for them at the hotel: the journey down had tired him, he said: so his two pupils had been the round of the place, in search of lodgings, without the old tutor who had been their inseparable companion from their childhood. They had named him after the hero of their Latin exercise-book, which overflowed with anecdotes of that versatile genius — anecdotes whose vagueness in detail was more than compensated by their sensational brilliance. “Balbus has overcome all his enemies” had been marked by their tutor, in the margin of the book, “Successful Bravery.” In this way he had tried to extract a moral from every anecdote about Balbus — sometimes one of warning, as in “Balbus had borrowed a healthy dragon,” against which he had written “Rashness in Speculation” — sometimes of encouragement, as in the words “Influence of Sympathy in United Action,” which stood opposite to the anecdote “Balbus was assisting his mother-in-law to convince the dragon” — and sometimes it dwindled down to a single word, such as “Prudence,” which was all he could extract from the touching record that “Balbus, having scorched the tail of the dragon, went away.” His pupils liked the short morals best, as it left them more room for marginal illustrations, and in this instance they required all the space they could get to exhibit the rapidity of the hero’s departure.
Their report of the state of things was discouraging. That most fashionable of watering-places, Little Mendip, was “chockfull” (as the boys expressed it) from end to end. But in one Square they had seen no less than four cards, in different houses, all announcing in flaming capitals “ELIGIBLE APARTMENTS.” “So there’s plenty of choice, after all, you see,” said spokesman Hugh in conclusion.
“That doesn’t follow from the data,” said Balbus, as he rose from the easy chair, where he had been dozing over The Little Mendip Gazette. “They may be all single rooms. However, we may as well see them. I shall be glad to stretch my legs a bit.”
An unprejudiced bystander might have objected that the operation was needless, and that this long, lank creature would have been all the better with even shorter legs: but no such thought occurred to his loving pupils. One on each side, they did their best to keep up with his gigantic strides, while Hugh repeated the sentence in their father’s letter, just received from abroad, over which he and Lambert had been puzzling. “He says a friend of his, the Governor of — what was that name again, Lambert?” (“Kgovjni,” said Lambert.) “Well, yes. The Governor of — what-you-may-call-it — wants to give a very small dinner-party, and he means to ask his father’s brother-in-law, his brother’s father-in-law, his father-in-law’s brother, and his brother-in-law’s father: and we’re to guess how many guests there will be.”
There was an anxious pause. “How large did he say the pudding was to be?” Balbus said at last. “Take its cubical contents, divide by the cubical contents of what each man can eat, and the quotient — ”
“He didn’t say anything about pudding,” said Hugh, “ — and here’s the Square,” as they turned a corner and came into sight of the “eligible apartments.”
“It is a Square!” was Balbus’ first cry of delight, as he gazed around him. “Beautiful! Beau-ti-ful! Equilateral! And rectangular!”
The boys looked round with less enthusiasm. “Number nine is the first with a card,” said prosaic Lambert; but Balbus would not so soon awake from his dream of beauty.
“See, boys!” he cried. “Twenty doors on a side! What symmetry! Each side divided into twenty-one equal parts! It’s delicious!”
“Shall I knock, or ring?” said Hugh, looking in some perplexity at a square brass plate which bore the simple inscription “RING ALSO.”
“Both,” said Balbus. “That’s an Ellipsis, my boy. Did you never see an Ellipsis before?”
“I couldn’t hardly read it,” said Hugh, evasively. “It’s no good having an Ellipsis, if they don’t keep it clean.”
“Which there is one room, gentlemen,” said the smiling landlady. “And a sweet room too! As snug a little back-room — ”
“We will see it,” said Balbus gloomily, as they followed her in. “I knew how it would be! One room in each house! No view, I suppose?”
“Which indeed there is, gentlemen!” the landlady indignantly protested, as she drew up the blind, and indicated the back garden.
“Cabbages, I perceive,” said Balbus. “Well, they’re green, at any rate.”
“Which the greens at the shops,” their hostess explained, “are by no means dependable upon. Here you has them on the premises, and of the best.”
“Does the window open?” was always Balbus’ first question in testing a lodging: and “Does the chimney smoke?” his second. Satisfied on all points, he secured the refusal of the room, and they moved on to Number Twenty-five.
This landlady was grave and stern. “I’ve nobbut one room left,” she told them: “and it gives on the back-gyardin.”
“But there are cabbages?” Balbus suggested.
The landlady visibly relented. “There is, sir,” she said: “and good ones, though I say it as shouldn’t. We can’t rely on the shops for greens. So we grows them ourselves.”