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"THE progress of invention in this country has been very remarkable," said Mr. Pedagog, as he turned his attention from a scientific weekly he had been reading to a towering pile of buckwheat cakes that Mary had just brought in. "An Englishman has just discovered a means by which a ship in distress at sea can write for help on the clouds."
"Extraordinary!" said Mr. Whitechoker.
"It might be more so," observed the Idiot, coaxing the platterful of cakes out of the School-Master's reach by a dextrous movement of his hand. "And it will be more so some day. The time is coming when the moon itself will be used by some enterprising American to advertise his soap business. I haven't any doubt that the next fifty years will develop a stereopticon by means of which a picture of a certain brand of cigar may be projected through space until it seems to be held between the teeth of the man in the moon, with a printed legend below it stating that this is Tooforfivers Best, Rolled from Hand-made Tobacco, Warranted not to Crock or Fade, and for sale by All Tobacconists at Eighteen for a Dime."
You would call that an advance in invention, eh?" asked the School-Master.
"Why not?" queried the Idiot.
"Do you consider the invention which would enable man to debase nature to the level of an advertising medium an advance?"
"I should not consider the use of the moon for the dissemination of good news a debasement. If the cigars were good — and I have no doubt that some one will yet invent a cheap cigar that is good — it would benefit the human race to be acquainted with that fact. I think sometimes that the advertisements in the newspapers and the periodicals of the day are of more value to the public than the reading-matter, so-called, that stands next to them. I don't see why you should sneer at advertising. I should never have known you, for instance, Mr. Pedagog, had it not been for Mrs. Pedagog's advertisement offering board and lodging to single gentlemen for a consideration. Nor would you have met Mrs. Smithers, now your estimable wife, yourself, had it not been for that advertisement. Why, then, do you sneer at the ladder upon which you have in a sense climbed to your present happiness? You are ungrateful."
THE MOON ITSELF WILL BE USED
"How you do ramify!" said Mr. Pedagog. "I believe there is no subject in the world which you cannot connect in some way or another with every other subject in the world. A discussion of the merits of Shakespeare's sonnets could be turned by your dextrous tongue in five minutes into a quarrel over the comparative merits of cider and cod-liver oil as beverages, with you, the chances are, the advocate of cod-liver oil as a steady drink."
"Well, I must say," said the Idiot, with a smile, "it has been my experience that cod-liver oil is steadier than cider. The cod-liver oils I have had the pleasure of absorbing have been evenly vile, while the ciders that I have drank have been of a variety of goodness, badness, and indifferentness which has brought me to the point where I never touch it. But to return to inventions, since you desire to limit our discussion to a single subject, I think it is about the most interesting field of speculation imaginable."
"There you are right," said Mr. Pedagog, approvingly. "There is absolutely no limit to the possibilities involved. It is almost within the range of possibilities that some man may yet invent a buckwheat cake that will satisfy your abnormal craving for that delicacy, which the present total output of this table seems unable to do."
Here Mr. Pedagog turned to his wife, and added: "My dear, will you request the cook hereafter to prepare individual cakes for us? The Idiot has so far monopolized all that have as yet appeared."
"It appears to me," said the Idiot at this point, "that you are the ramifier, Mr. Pedagog. Nevertheless, ramify as much as you please. I can follow you — at a safe distance, of course — in the discussion of anything, from Edison to flapjacks. I think your suggestion regarding individual cakes is a good one. We might all have separate griddles, upon which Gladys, the cook, can prepare them, and on these griddles might be cast in bold relief the crest of each member of this household, so that every man's cake should, by an easy process in the making, come off the fire indelibly engraved with the evidence of its destiny. Mr. Pedagog's iron, for instance, might have upon it a school-book rampant, or a large head in the same condition. Mr. Whitechoker's cake-mark might be a pulpit rampant, based upon a vestryman dormant. The Doctor might have a lozengy shield with a suitable tincture, while my genial friend who occasionally imbibes could have a barry shield surmounted by a small effigy of Gambrinus."
"You appear to know something of heraldry," said the poet, with a look of surprise.
"I know something of everything," said the Idiot, complacently.
"It's a pity you don't know everything about something," sneered the Doctor.
"I would suggest," said the School-Master, dryly, "that a little rampant jackass would make a good crest for your cakes."
"That's a very good idea," said the Idiot. "I do not know but that a jackass rampant would be about as comprehensive of my virtues as anything I might select. The jackass is a combination of all the best qualities. He is determined. He minds his own business. He doesn't indulge in flippant conversation. He is useful. Has no vices, never pretends to be anything but a jackass, and most respectfully declines to be ridden by Tom, Dick, and Harry. I accept the suggestion of Mr. Pedagog with thanks. But we are still ramifying. Let us get back to inventions. Now I fully believe that the time is coming when some inventive genius will devise a method whereby intellect can be given to those who haven't any. I believe that the time is coming when the secrets of the universe will be yielded up to man by nature."
"And then?" queried Mr. Brief.
"Then some man will try to improve on the secrets of the universe. He will try to invent an apparatus by means of which the rotation of the world may be made faster or slower, according to his will. If he has but one day, for instance, in which to do a stated piece of work, and he needs two, he will put on some patent brake and slow the world up until the distance travelled in one hour shall be reduced one-half, so that one hour under the old system will be equivalent to two; or if he is anticipating some joy, some diversion in the future, the same smart person will find a way to increase the speed of the earth so that the hours will be like minutes. Then he'll begin fooling with gravitation, and he will discover a new-fashioned lodestone, which can be carried in one's hat to counteract the influence of the centre of gravity when one falls out of a window or off a precipice, the result of which will be that the person who falls off one of these high places will drop down slowly, and not with the rapidity which at the present day is responsible for the dreadful outcome of accidents of that sort. Then, finally —"
DECLINES TO BE BIDDEN
"You pretend to be able to penetrate to the finality, do you?" asked the Clergyman.
"Why not? It is as easy to imagine the finality as it is to go half-way there," returned the Idiot. "Finally he will tackle some elementary principle of nature, and he'll blow the world to smithereens."
There was silence at the table. This at least seemed to be a tenable theory. That man should have the temerity to take liberties with elementary principles was quite within reason, man being an animal of rare conceit, and that the result would bring about destruction was not at all at variance with probability.
"I believe it's happened once or twice already," said the Idiot.
"Do you really?" asked Mr. Pedagog, with a show of interest. "Upon what do you base this belief?"
"Well, take Africa," said the Idiot. "Take North America. What do we find? We find in the sands of the Sahara a great statue, which we call the Sphinx, and about which we know nothing, except that it is there and that it keeps its mouth shut. We find marvellous creations in engineering that to-day surpass anything that we can do. The Sphinx, when discovered, was covered by sand. Now I believe that at one time there were people much further advanced in science than ourselves, who made these wonderful things, who knew how to do things that we don't even dream of doing, and I believe that they, like this creature I have predicted, got fooling with the centre of gravity, and that the world slipped its moorings for a period of time, during which time it tumbled topsy-turvey into space, and that banks and banks of sand and water and ice thrown out of position simply swept on and over the whole surface of the globe continuously until the earth got into the grip of the rest of the universe once more and started along in a new orbit. We know that where we are high and dry to-day the ocean must once have rolled. We know that where the world is now all sunshine and flowers great glaciers stood. What caused all this change? Nothing else, in my judgment, than the monkeying of man with the forces of nature. The poles changed, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit that, if the north pole were ever found and could be thawed out, we should find embedded in that great sea of ice evidences of a former civilization, just as in the Saharan waste evidences of the same thing have been found. I know of a place out West that is literally strewn with oyster-shells, and yet no man living has the slightest idea how they came there. It may have been the Massachusetts Bay of a prehistoric time, for all we know. It may have been an antediluvian Coney Island, for all the world knows. Who shall say that this little upset of mine found here an oyster-bed, shook all the oysters out of their bed into space, and left their clothes high and dry in a locality which, but for those garments, would seem never to have known the oyster in his prime? Off in Westchester County, on the top of a high hill, lies a rock, and in the uppermost portion of that rock is a so-called pot-hole, made by nothing else than the dropping of water of a brook and the swirling of pebbles therein. It is now beyond the reach of anything in the shape of water save that which falls from the heavens. It is certain that this pot-hole was never made by a boy with a watering-pot, by a hired man with a hose, by a workman with a drill, or by any rain-storm that ever fell in Westchester County. There must at some time or another have been a stream there; and as streams do not flow uphill and bore pot-holes on mountaintops, there must have been a valley there. Some great cataclysm took place. For that cataclysm nature must be held responsible mainly. But what prompted nature to raise hob with Westchester County millions of years ago, and to let it sleep like Rip Van Winkle ever since? Nature isn't a freak. She is depicted as a woman, but in spite of that she is not whimsical. She does not act upon impulses. There must have been some cause for her behavior in turning valleys into hills, in transforming huge cities into wastes of sand, and oyster-beds into shell quarries; and it is my belief that man was the contributing cause. He tapped the earth for natural gas; he bored in and he bored out, and he bored nature to death, and then nature rose up and smote him and his cities and his oyster-beds, and she'll do it again unless we go slow."
"There is a great deal in what you say," said Mr. Whitechoker.
"Very true," said Mrs. Pedagog. "But I wish he'd stop saying it. The last three dozen cakes have got cold as ice while he was talking, and I can't afford such reckless waste."
"Nor we, Mrs. Pedagog," said the Idiot, with a pleasant smile; "for, as I was saying to the Bibliomaniac this morning, your buckwheat cakes are, to my mind, the very highest development of our modern civilization, and to have even one of them wasted seems to me to be a crime against Nature herself, for which a second, third, or fourth shaking up of this earth would be an inadequate punishment."
This remark so pleased Mrs. Pedagog that she ordered the cook to send up a fresh lot of cakes; and the guests, after eating them, adjourned to their various duties with light hearts, and digestions occupied with work of great importance.