Radio Times/1926/12/19/The Centipede

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Radio Times by Ian Hay
The Centipede
4116864Radio Times — The CentipedeIan Hay

The Centipede

By IAN HAY. With illustrations by George Morrow.

The whole affair is a complete mystery to me, I wish my grand-nephew, Algernon Sprigge, would pay me one of his periodical visits; he might be able to elucidate it. He is a Gentleman Cadet of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and appears to possess a knowledge of the world quite surprising in one of his tender years. Besides, he is the owner of a clear and penetrating voice, which makes it an agreeable matter to converse with him. Not that I am so very deaf, but most young people seem to me nowadays to mumble in the most slovenly fashion.

My name is Erasmus Worthington, and I am an entomologist. In order, to render my identity quite clear, I may add that I am the author of Notes on the Thorax of the Hessian Fly, and The Life of the Weevil. These works, however, were produced in my youth, when a man's interests are less settled than in later life; for the last thirty years I have confined myself almost entirely to microscopic observation (and tabulation) of the functions of the Lesser Coleoptera. Consequently, I have lost touch with the trend of modern thought in other directions. Many of my most distinguished contemporaries in the scientific world are but mere names to me, and except for an occasional visit to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, I seldom go outside my house in Tavistock Square.

This may account for the fact that when Professor Pepper called upon me I had never heard of him. His visiting-card gave me no enlightenment. It was a rather large card—but possibly fashions in these things have changed during the last half century—and bore the device, in black lettering picked out with red:—

'Prof. Joe Pepper.

The Old-Established Specialist,'

followed by an address in Sheffield. I had no desire to receive him, for I was much occupied at the moment. I had rather foolishly allowed myself to be cajoled into giving what is called a Broadcast Lecture. I know nothing of these matters, but my old friend. Sir Sheardley Pott, of the Egyptological Section of the British Museum, had represented to me that it was my duty as the outstanding authority on my subject to give the world the benefit of my knowledge; and I had yielded.

On the afternoon in question I was engaged in putting the finishing touches to my manuscript, which I was to read aloud at the (I think) rather extraordinary hour of 6.35 p.m, at the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Company, which body is apparently responsible for the proper dissemination of what is known as broadcast matter. I gather that the instrument employed is some form of universal wireless telephone; but as I say, I know nothing of items in a somewhat protracted scheme of these things, of these things. (I once endeavoured, some years ago, to use an ordinary telephone, in Charing Cross Railway Station—I had momentarily forgotten where I was going, and was endeavouring, at the suggestion of a ticket clerk, to communicate with some one who might know—but after depositing practically all my small silver in the box beside the instrument without achieving any tangible result I abandoned the attempt, and registered a determination to avoid such crude mechanisms in future.) However, I had been assured that the process of broadcasting of broadcasting was quite simple, and that my privacy would be assured in all respects.

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It was nearly five o'clock, and, as I say. Prof. Pepper's call was most inopportune. However, although I knew nothing of Sheffield University, I felt that common courtesy demanded that I should receive its representative.

My housekeeper showed the Professor in. I am a little dim-sighted, but he appeared to me to be dressed rather loudly for a man of our calling. He shook hands with me in an extremely ceremonious manner, and I offered him a chair. He thanked me, and seated himself upon the very edge of it, having placed his hat, which was round and white, underneath.

I then asked him to state his business. He replied by producing a copy of a morning paper and pointing to a paragraph.

I suppose that's thee. Professor?' he said, in a husky voice. From his mode of address I took him to be of old Quaker stock, which predisposed me a little more favourably towards him.

I found my spectacles and read the paragraph. It appeared to be an announcement of the broadcasting programme for the evening. I realized for the first time that my lecture was merely to be one of a series of entertainment. I noticed that I was to be preceded at 6.25 by Mr. Alf Roper, in Farmyard Imitations, followed at seven o'clock by Time. News, and Weather Forecast. While not particularly impressed by the company which I found myself, I was genuinely annoyed to find that in some person unknown had altered, the title of my lecture from A Few Observations upon the Habits of the Lesser Coleoptera to Insects I Have Known.

Professor Pepper placed his thumb upon the notice.

That's thee, isn't it. Prof.?' he repeated. That's thee that's going to broadcast about insects?' He spoke with a peculiar intonation, which I took to be a form of the Yorkshire dialect.

I replied, with a touch of formality, that I proposed to offer some observations upon the habits of the Lesser Coleoptera, and asked him if he were an entomologist too.

He took no notice of my question.

'I were up in London for the day,' he said, and that little par caught my eye; so I made up my mind there and then to come and ask thee a favour. I've always been friendly with professors, ever since I had a good turn done me by old Professor Maggs. I was only a lad, and he was at the top of the tree. We were both with Lord George Sanger at the time; I was just a nipper in the stables, while the Professor was the biggest draw in the show. What he couldn't do with fleas you wouldn't believe; draw little carriages, and everything! But he always had a kind word for me; and once he gave me a pound, and never asked for it back; and once he got me off a hiding. I've always had a soft spot for professors since then. Professors is all right!'

A great deal of this singular harangue, delivered, as it was, in an almost unintelligible dialect, was, I fear, entirely lost on me; but as my visitor appeared to be a person of sincere convictions and affectionate disposition—besides having some obscure connection with our aristocracy—I begged him to continue.

'The fact is,' he said, drawing his chair a little closer to mine, 'I've had a shocking fortnight, ever since Doncaster. However carefully I work out a system—single, double, or combination—nothing seems to come right.'

'It is, indeed, vexing,' I agreed, 'when calculations, however carefully computed, fail to yield a satisfactory formula.'

'And of course,' he added, 'it's terrible for my professional reputation.'

Your students are becoming critical? I suggested.

'Critical?' he cried. 'Most of them are downright rude about it!' (Discipline is evidently lax in some of these newer universities.) 'And if I don't pull off something pretty big pretty soon, I shan't have any of them left. I've got to find genuine unexpected surprise for them—something that nobody else knows nowt about.'

'Some unprecedented discovery in the entomological world, you mean?'

'That's right. In the—what you said, Professor.'

'It is not too easy,' I remarked. 'The whole field of research has been fully covered in recent years.'

'And don't I know it!' said the Professor, bitterly. 'But I'm round the corner at last, and thou's shown me the way!'

'I?'

'Yes. I picks up the paper this morning, and what do I see? I see that another professor—that's thee—is going to lecture to-night on Insects I Have Known. When I read that, I said to myself: "That's a message straight from heaven! Insects I Have Known. And me with the name of the finest insect on four legs in my waistcoat pocket now!"'

I became interested, despite myself. 'Quadrupedal Coleoptera are comparatively rare,' I agreed. 'And this is a newly-discovered species?'

'Absolutely.'

'And its name—if it has a name yet?'

'Oh, yes, it has a name.'

'Might I ask——?'

'Of course thou can: it's all in the family, like The Centipede!'

'Centipede?'

'Yes. Don't say thou's heard of him!"

'Of course I have heard of the centipede,' I said. 'But that insect has, by derivation, though not in fact, a hundred legs, not four.'

Here, to my extreme discomfort, my visitor (slapped me violently upon the knee, and gave way to uncontrollable laughter.

"That's a good one! That's champion!' he roared.

'A four-legged centipede,' I continued, endeavouring to soothe him, 'would indeed be a novel discovery.'

'And I have discovered it!'

'Of course,' I felt bound to remind him, 'a centipede does not really possess a hundred legs——'

'Thou'd think mine had, to see him run!'

'Neither,' I continued, 'are they termed legs, scientifically. But perhaps you say legs in Sheffield.'

'We do that!' replied the Professor.

'You express yourself a little loosely in certain other respects,' I added. Obviously, a four-legged centipede is a contradiction of terms. This creature cannot be a real centipede."

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The man laughed again.

'He isn't—and thou knows it! Thou's none so thick. Professor!'

I ignored the compliment; for it was evidently intended as such.

'You mean,' I said, 'that it—he, if you will—is of the centipede type—the myriapoda class—but possesses certain distinctive and outstanding characteristics of its—his—own?'

'That's right; there's none like him.'

'Have you a specimen?'

'Have I what?'

'Have you the centipede with you?'

'With me? Do you think he's outside, a four-wheeler? He's at Windsor!'

I caught his meaning.

'You have sent him to the Castle?'

'No; but there's a Meeting at Windsor to-morrow, that's all.'

'And at this meeting you propose to introduce your discovery to your-disciples?'

'That's the exact idea.'

'To-morrow?'

'No; to-night. To-morrow will be too late.'

'Indeed?'

'Yes. And that's where thou can help me. Thou's going to broadcast to-night?'

'Yes; in less than an hour.'

'Then, as one professor to another, will thou do me a good turn? Will thou put in a word for The Centipede in the lecture?'

Professor Pepper's hand grasped my knee; there were actually tears in his eyes.

'You mean you desire me to utter something in the way of a preliminary announcement-drop a hint, as it were that you are about to spring a surprise upon mankind?

'A hint would be no use. Professor. Thou doesn't know these people. Give it them red hot; tell them the whole glad story.'

'But I should be forestalling your own announcement.'

'Never thou mind that. Tell them all thou knows, but say I told thee. That's all that matters.'

'You are generous, sir,' I said, 'to allow me to share this distinction——'

'Professors should back professors,' said my visitor, simply.

'But, really, I must know definitely and exactly the terms in which I am to disclose——'

'If I write something down will you read it out?' asked the Professor, producing a fountain-pen.

'With pleasure,' I replied, and rose to my feet. The extent of my responsibility was now fixed. 'But I must beg you to make haste; I think I hear my cab at the door.'

Professor Pepper was already at work. He appeared to be a slow writer; I noticed that his breathing was laborious, and that he followed the motions of his pen with the tip of his tongue. Evidently he was acutely conscious that he was at a great and responsible moment in his career.

My housekeeper brought in my overcoat and muffler. By the time that I was fortified against the night air, my visitor's announcement was written, blotted, folded, and handed to me.

'Read that to them. Professor,' he said, in a voice which trembled with emotion. 'Read it loud and slow, at the end of thy lecture, just before the boys cut off the juice!'

Needless to say, this last remark conveyed no meaning to me whatever; but it was soon eclipsed by another which my eccentric friend addressed to me as he shook my hand through the window of the cab.

'If us pulls this off,' he said, in a hoarse whisper, 'thou's on!'

Everyone at the Headquarters of the Broadcasting Company was extremely courteous and helpful, and the procedure not uninteresting.

In due course I found myself seated at a table in a comfortably-furnished room, with my manuscript in my hand. My seat had just been vacated by a rather despondent-looking person in a dinner jacket, who, when I entered the room, had been engaged, for no reason that I could divine, in making uncouth noises to himself. Several days afterwards it occurred to me that he must have been the Farmyard Impersonator.

On the table itself, exactly opposite to me, stood a curious-looking box-like structure, into which I was directed to address my remarks. As soon as I was ready, the young man in charge of the proceedings leaned over and announced into the apparatus:—

'London calling! For this week's Science Talk I have pleasure in announcing that we have secured Professor Erasmus Worthington, the well-known entomologist, who will now lecture to you upon Insects I Have Known.'

He withdrew his head and signed to me to begin.

'That is not the title of my lecture,' I said, a little sharply. 'Will you kindly restate it correctly?'

The young man immediately exhibited symptoms of violent distress, and from the excited pantomime in which he indulged I soon realized that my audience were already listening, and that my reproof had been of a less private nature than I had intended. So I merely signalled to him to leave me (which he did) and began my discourse.

It was listened to throughout in complete and breathless silence. Rarely have I addressed a more attentive audience, and rarely have I become more absorbed in my own words. By the time that the young man had returned, bringing with him a printed sheet which I took to contain the Time, News, and Weather Forecast, and had begun hovering about me in a manner which plainly indicated that he wished me to conclude. Professor Pepper had entirely slipped from my memory.

However, no harm was done. As I rose to my feet, a blue folded slip slid from among my papers and dropped upon the table before me. It was the Professor's precious secret. I immediately sat down again.

'Before I leave you,' I announced, raising my voice purposely to indicate to the young man that I was not to be hurried, 'I have to fulfil the extremely pleasant duty of reading to you a communication from a colleague of mine in the world of Research whose name, I feel sure, will be familiar and respected among many of you. Professor Joseph Pepper, the Old-Established Specialist—I was reading from the blue slip now—of Sheffield—here I gave his address—sends greetings to all clients, old new, thanks them for past support in good times and bad, and begs to inform them that The Centipede is a dead snip for the 2.30 at Windsor to-morrow.'

I need hardly say that this unexpected rigmarole conveyed no meaning to me whatsoever. But, after all, Professor Pepper probably knew his own business best; and as his disciples were mainly natives of Yorkshire, I concluded that he had composed his message in the form most easily intelligible to their understanding. Having performed the favour asked, I tried to allow the whole incident to fade from my memory, but I am bound to admit that the excited, not to, say querulous, behaviour of the young man in the Studio filled me with misgivings.

Judge of my stupefaction, then, when this morning, two days after my lecture, I received by the first post an envelope containing Treasury notes to the value of twelve pounds ten shillings, accompanied by the following incomprehensible communication:

Dear Prof.,

When I said you was on, of course I meant the odds to a pound. Of course you saw the result—the length of the street! Centipede's S.P, was 100-8—and very nice too. I enclose £12 10s. with best thanks and comps. for your esteemed assistance.

Your brother.

Professor Joe Pepper.

The Well-Known Expert.

N.B.—Another Big Winner next Monday!

As I say, the whole affair is a complete mystery to me. However, I have just received a telegram from my grand-nephew, Algernon Sprigge, in which he announces his intention of coming to spend the week-end with me. I shall refer the matter to him, but I doubt if he will be able to make anything of it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.


The longest-living author of this work died in 1952, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 71 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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