A Tangled Tale/Knot X
"Yea, buns, and buns, and buns!"
"How very, very sad!" exclaimed Clara; and the eyes of the gentle girl filled with tears as she spoke.
"Sad—but very curious when you come to look at it arithmetically," was her aunt's less romantic reply. "Some of them have lost an arm in their country's service, some a leg, some an ear, some an eye——"
"And some, perhaps, all!" Clara murmured dreamily, as they passed the long rows of weather-beaten heroes basking in the sun. "Did you notice that very old one, with a red face, who was drawing a map in the dust with his wooden leg, and all the others watching? I think it was a plan of a battle——"
"The battle of Trafalgar, no doubt," her aunt interrupted, briskly.
"Hardly that, I think," Clara ventured to say. "You see, in that case, he couldn't well be alive——"
"Couldn't well be alive!" the old lady contemptuously repeated. "He's as lively as you and me put together! Why, if drawing a map in the dust—with one's wooden leg—doesn't prove one to be alive, perhaps you'll kindly mention what does prove it!"
Clara did not see her way out of it. Logic had never been her forte.
"To return to the arithmetic," Mad Mathesis resumed—the eccentric old lady never let slip an opportunity of driving her niece into a calculation—"what percentage do you suppose must have lost all four—a leg, an arm, an eye, and an ear?"
"How can I tell?" gasped the terrified girl. She knew well what was coming.
"You can't, of course, without data," her aunt replied: "but I'm just going to give you——"
"Give her a Chelsea bun, Miss! That's what most young ladies likes best!" The voice was rich and musical, and the speaker dexterously whipped back the snowy cloth that covered his basket, and disclosed a tempting array of the familiar square buns, joined together in rows, richly egged and browned, and glistening in the sun.
"No, sir! I shall give her nothing so indigestible! Be off!" The old lady waved her parasol threateningly: but nothing seemed to disturb the good-humour of the jolly old man, who marched on, chanting his melodious refrain:—
"Far too indigestible, my love!" said the old lady. "Percentages will agree with you ever so much better!"
Clara sighed, and there was a hungry look in her eyes as she watched the basket lessening in the distance: but she meekly listened to the relentless old lady, who at once proceeded to count off the data on her fingers.
"Say that 70 per cent. have lost an eye—75 per cent. an ear—80 per cent. an arm—85 per cent. a leg—that'll do it beautifully. Now, my dear, what percentage, at least, must have lost all four?"
No more conversation occurred—unless a smothered exclamation of "Piping hot!" which escaped from Clara's lips as the basket vanished round a corner could be counted as such—until they reached the old Chelsea mansion, where Clara's father was then staying, with his three sons and their old tutor.
Balbus, Lambert, and Hugh had entered the house only a few minutes before them. They had been out walking, and Hugh had been propounding a difficulty which had reduced Lambert to the depths of gloom, and had even puzzled Balbus.
"It changes from Wednesday to Thursday at midnight, doesn't it?" Hugh had begun.
"Sometimes," said Balbus, cautiously.
"Always," said Lambert, decisively.
"Sometimes," Balbus gently insisted. "Six midnights out of seven, it changes to some other name."
"I meant, of course," Hugh corrected himself, "when it does change from Wednesday to Thursday, it does it at midnight—and only at midnight."
"Surely," said Balbus. Lambert was silent.
"Well, now, suppose it's midnight here in Chelsea. Then it's Wednesday west of Chelsea (say in Ireland or America) where midnight hasn't arrived yet: and it's Thursday east of Chelsea (say in Germany or Russia) where midnight has just passed by?"
"Surely," Balbus said again. Even Lambert nodded this time.
"But it isn't midnight anywhere else; so it can't be changing from one day to another anywhere else. And yet, if Ireland and America and so on call it Wednesday, and Germany and Russia and so on call it Thursday, there must be some place—not Chelsea—that has different days on the two sides of it. And the worst of it is, the people there get their days in the wrong order: they've got Wednesday east of them, and Thursday west—just as if their day had changed from Thursday to Wednesday!"
"I've heard that puzzle before!" cried Lambert. "And I'll tell you the explanation. When a ship goes round the world from east to west, we know that it loses a day in its reckoning: so that when it gets home, and calls its day Wednesday, it finds people here calling it Thursday, because we've had one more midnight than the ship has had. And when you go the other way round you gain a day."
"I know all that," said Hugh, in reply to this not very lucid explanation: "but it doesn't help me, because the ship hasn't proper days. One way round, you get more than twenty-four hours to the day, and the other way you get less: so of course the names get wrong: but people that live on in one place always get twenty-four hours to the day."
"I suppose there is such a place," Balbus said, meditatively, "though I never heard of it. And the people must find it very queer, as Hugh says, to have the old day east of them, and the new one west: because, when midnight comes round to them, with the new day in front of it and the old one behind it, one doesn't see exactly what happens. I must think it over."
So they had entered the house in the state I have described—Balbus puzzled, and Lambert buried in gloomy thought.
"Yes, m'm, Master is at home, m'm," said the stately old butler. (N.B.—It is only a butler of experience who can manage a series of three M's together, without any interjacent vowels.) "And the ole party is a-waiting for you in the libery."
"I don't like his calling your father an old party," Mad Mathesis whispered to her niece, as they crossed the hall. And Clara had only just time to whisper in reply "he meant the whole party," before they were ushered into the library, and the sight of the five solemn faces there assembled chilled her into silence.
Her father sat at the head of the table, and mutely signed to the ladies to take the two vacant chairs, one on each side of him. His three sons and Balbus completed the party. Writing materials had been arranged round the table, after the fashion of a ghostly banquet: the butler had evidently bestowed much thought on the grim device. Sheets of quarto paper, each flanked by a pen on one side and a pencil on the other, represented the plates—penwipers did duty for rolls of bread—while ink-bottles stood in the places usually occupied by wine-glasses. The pièce de resistance was a large green baize bag, which gave forth, as the old man restlessly lifted it from side to side, a charming jingle, as of innumerable golden guineas.
"Sister, daughter, sons—and Balbus—," the old man began, so nervously, that Balbus put in a gentle "Hear, hear!" while Hugh drummed on the table with his fists. This disconcerted the unpractised orator. "Sister—" he began again, then paused a moment, moved the bag to the other side, and went on with a rush, "I mean—this being—a critical occasion—more or less—being the year when one of my sons comes of age—" he paused again in some confusion, having evidently got into the middle of his speech sooner than he intended: but it was too late to go back. "Hear, hear!" cried Balbus. "Quite so," said the old gentleman, recovering his self-possession a little: "when first I began this annual custom—my friend Balbus will correct me if I am wrong—" (Hugh whispered "with a strap!" but nobody heard him except Lambert, who only frowned and shook his head at him) "—this annual custom of giving each of my sons as many guineas as would represent his age—it was a critical time—so Balbus informed me—as the ages of two of you were together equal to that of the third—so on that occasion I made a speech——" He paused so long that Balbus thought it well to come to the rescue with the words "It was a most——" but the old man checked him with a warning look: "yes, made a speech," he repeated. "A few years after that, Balbus pointed out—I say pointed out—" ("Hear, hear"! cried Balbus. "Quite so," said the grateful old man.) "—that it was another critical occasion. The ages of two of you were together double that of the third. So I made another speech—another speech. And now again it's a critical occasion—so Balbus says—and I am making——" (Here Mad Mathesis pointedly referred to her watch) "all the haste I can!" the old man cried, with wonderful presence of mind. "Indeed, sister, I'm coming to the point now! The number of years that have passed since that first occasion is just two-thirds of the number of guineas I then gave you. Now, my boys, calculate your ages from the data, and you shall have the money!"
"But we know our ages!" cried Hugh.
"Silence, sir!" thundered the old man, rising to his full height (he was exactly five-foot five) in his indignation. "I say you must use the data only! You mustn't even assume which it is that comes of age!"' He clutched the bag as he spoke, and with tottering steps (it was about as much as he could do to carry it) he left the room.
"And you shall have a similar cadeau" the old lady whispered to her niece, "when you've calculated that percentage!" And she followed her brother.
Nothing could exceed the solemnity with which the old couple had risen from the table, and yet was it—was it a grin with which the father turned away from his unhappy sons? Could it be—could it be a wink with which the aunt abandoned her despairing niece? And were those—were those sounds of suppressed chuckling which floated into the room, just before Balbus (who had followed them out) closed the door? Surely not: and yet the butler told the cook—but no, that was merely idle gossip, and I will not repeat it.
The shades of evening granted their unuttered petition, and "closed not o'er" them (for the butler brought in the lamp): the same obliging shades left them a "lonely bark" (the wail of a dog, in the back-yard, baying the moon) for "awhile": but neither "morn, alas," (nor any other epoch) seemed likely to "restore" them—to that peace of mind which had once been theirs ere ever these problems had swooped upon them, and crushed them with a load of unfathomable mystery!
"It's hardly fair," muttered Hugh, "to give us such a jumble as this to work out!"
"Fair?" Clara echoed, bitterly. "Well!"
And to all my readers I can but repeat the last words of gentle Clara—