In Search of the Unknown
“Daylight was fading in the city of Antwerp. Down into the sea sank the sun, tinting the vast horizon with flakes of crimson, and touching with rich deep undertones the tossing waters of the Scheldt. Its glow fell like a rosy mantle over red-tiled roofs and meadows; and through the haze the spires of twenty churches pierced the air like sharp, gilded flames. To the west and south the green plains, over which the Spanish armies tramped so long ago, stretched away until they met the sky; the enchantment of the after-glow had turned old Antwerp into fairy-land; and sea and sky and plain were beautiful and vague as the night-mists floating in the moats below.
“Along the sea-wall from the Rubens Gate all Antwerp strolled, and chattered, and flirted, and sipped their Flemish wines from slender Flemish glasses, or gossiped over krugs of foaming beer.
“From the Scheldt came the cries of sailors, the creaking of cordage, and the puff! puff! of the ferry-boats. On the bastions of the fortress opposite, a bugler was standing. Twice the mellow notes of the bugle came faintly over the water, then a great gun thundered from the ramparts, and the Belgian flag fluttered along the lanyards to the ground.
“I leaned listlessly on the sea-wall and looked down at the Scheldt below. A battery of artillery was embarking for the fortress. The tublike transport lay hissing and whistling in the slip, and the stamping of horses, the rumbling of gun and caisson, and the sharp cries of the officers came plainly to the ear.
“When the last caisson was aboard and stowed, and the last trooper had sprung jingling to the deck, the transport puffed out into the Scheldt, and I turned away through the throng of promenaders; and found a little table on the terrace, just outside of the pretty café. And as I sat down I became aware of a girl at the next table—a girl all in white—the most ravishingly and distractingly pretty girl that I had ever seen. In the agitation of the moment I forgot my name, my fortune, my aunt, and the Crimson Diamond—all these I forgot in a purely human impulse to see clearly; and to that end I removed my monocle from my left eye. Some moments later I came to myself and feebly replaced it. It was too late; the mischief was done. I was not aware at first of the exact state of my feelings—for I had never been in love more than three or four times in all my life—but I did know that at her request I would have been proud to stand on my head, or turn a flip-flap into the Scheldt.
“I did not stare at her, but I managed to see her most of the time when her eyes were in another direction. I found myself drinking something which a waiter brought, presumably upon an order which I did not remember having given. Later I noticed that it was a loathsome drink which the Belgians call ‘American grog, ‘ but I swallowed it and lighted a cigarette. As the fragrant cloud rose in the air, a voice, which I recognized with a chill, broke, into my dream of enchantment. Could he have been there all the while—there sitting beside that vision in white? His hat was off, and the ocean-breezes whispered about his bald head. His frayed coat-tails were folded carefully over his knees, and between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand he balanced a bad cigar. He looked at me in a mildly cheerful way, and said, ‘I know now.’
“‘Know what?’ I asked, thinking it better to humor him, for I was convinced that he was mad.
“‘I know why cats bite.’
“This was startling. I hadn’t an idea what to say.
“‘I know why, ‘ he repeated; ‘can you guess why?’ There was a covert tone of triumph in his voice and he smiled encouragement. ‘Come, try and guess, ‘ he urged.
“I told him that I was unequal to problems.
“‘Listen, young man, ‘ he continued, folding his coat-tails closely about his legs—’try to reason it out: why should cats bite? Don’t you know? I do.’
“He looked at me anxiously.
“‘You take no interest in this problem?’ he demanded.
“‘Then why do you not ask me why?’ he said, looking vaguely disappointed.
“‘Well, ‘ I said, in desperation, ‘why do cats bite?—hang it all!’ I thought, ‘it’s like a burned-cork show, and I’m Mr. Bones and he’s Tambo!’
“Then he smiled gently. ‘Young man, ‘ he said, ‘cats bite because they feed on catnip. I have reasoned it out.’
“I stared at him in blank astonishment. Was this benevolent-looking old party poking fun at me? Was he paying me up for the morning’s snub? Was he a malignant and revengeful old party, or was he merely feeble-minded? Who might he be? What was he doing here in Antwerp—what was he doing now?—for the bald one had turned familiarly to the beautiful girl in white.
“‘Wilhelmina, ‘ he said, ‘do you feel chilly?’ The girl shook her head.
“‘Not in the least, papa.’
“‘Her father!’ I thought—’her father!’ Thank God she did not say ‘popper’!
“‘I have been to the Zoo to-day, ‘ announced the bald one, turning towards me.
“‘Ah, indeed, ‘ I observed; ‘er—I trust you enjoyed it.’
“‘I have been contemplating the apes, ‘ he continued, dreamily. ‘Yes, contemplating the apes.’
“I tried to look interested.
“‘Yes, the apes, ‘ he murmured, fixing his mild eyes on me. Then he leaned towards me confidentially and whispered, ‘Can you tell me what a monkey thinks?’
“‘I cannot, ‘ I replied, sharply.
“‘Ah, ‘ he sighed, sinking back in his chair, and patting the slender hand of the girl beside him—’ah, who can tell what a monkey thinks?’ His gentle face lulled my suspicions, and I replied, very gravely:
“‘Who can tell whether they think at all?’
“‘True, true! Who can tell whether they think at all; and if they do think, ah! who can tell what they think?’
“‘But, ‘ I began, ‘if you can’t tell whether they think at all, what’s the use of trying to conjecture what they would think if they did think?’
“He raised his hand in deprecation. ‘Ah, it is exactly that which is of such absorbing interest—exactly that! It is the abstruseness of the proposition which stimulates research—which stirs profoundly the brain of the thinking world. The question is of vital and instant importance. Possibly you have already formed an opinion.’
“I admitted that I had thought but little on the subject.
“‘I doubt, ‘ he continued, swathing his knees in his coat-tails—’I doubt whether you have given much attention to the subject lately discussed by the Boston Dodo Society of Pythagorean Research.’
“‘I am not sure, ‘ I said, politely, ‘that I recall that particular discussion. May I ask what was the question brought up?’
“‘The Felis domestica question.’
“‘Ah, that must indeed be interesting! And—er—what may be the Felis do—do—’
“‘Domestica—not dodo. Felis domestica, the common or garden cat.’
“‘Indeed, ‘ I murmured.
“‘You are not listening, ‘ he said.
“I only half heard him. I could not turn my eyes from his daughter’s face.
“‘Cat!’ shouted the bald one, and I almost leaped from my chair. ‘Are you deaf?’ he inquired, sympathetically.
“‘No—oh no!’ I replied, coloring with confusion; ‘you were—pardon me—you were—er—speaking of the dodo. Extraordinary bird that—’
“‘I was not discussing the dodo, ‘ he sighed. ‘I was speaking of cats.’
“‘Of course, ‘ I said.
“‘The question is, ‘ he continued, twisting his frayed coat-tails into a sort of rope—’the question is, how are we to ameliorate the present condition and social status of our domestic cats?’
“‘Feed ‘em, ‘ I suggested.
“He raised both hands. They were eloquent with patient expostulation. ‘I mean their spiritual condition, ‘ he said.
“I nodded, but my eyes reverted to that exquisite face. She sat silent, her eyes fixed on the waning flecks of color in the western sky.
“‘Yes, ‘ repeated the bald one, ‘the spiritual welfare of our domestic cats.’
“‘Toms and tabbies?’ I murmured.
“‘Exactly, ‘ he said, tying a large knot in his coat-tails.
“‘You will ruin your coat, ‘ I observed.
“‘Papa!’ exclaimed the girl, turning in dismay, as that gentleman gave a guilty start, ‘stop it at once!’
“He smiled apologetically and made a feeble attempt to conceal his coat-tails.
“‘My dear, ‘ he said, with gentle deprecation, ‘I am so absent-minded—I always do it in the heat of argument.’
“The girl rose, and, bending over her untidy parent, deftly untied the knot in his flapping coat. When he was disentangled, she sat down and said, with a ghost of a smile, ‘He is so very absent-minded.’
“‘Your father is evidently a great student, ‘ I ventured, pleasantly. How I pitied her, tied to this old lunatic!
“‘Yes, he is a great student, ‘ she said, quietly.
“‘I am, ‘ he murmured; ‘that’s what makes me so absent-minded. I often go to bed and forget to sleep.’ Then, looking at me, he asked me my name, adding, with a bow, that his name was P. Royal Wyeth, Professor of Pythagorean Research and Abstruse Paradox.
“‘My first name is Penny—named after Professor Penny, of Harvard, ‘ he said; ‘but I seldom use my first name in connection with my second, as the combination suggests a household remedy of penetrating odor.’
“‘My name is Kensett, ‘ I said, ‘Harold Kensett, of New York.’
“‘Student of diamonds?’
“I smiled. ‘Oh, I see you know who my great-aunt was, ‘ I said.
“‘I know her, ‘ he said.
“‘Ah—perhaps you are unaware that my great-aunt is not now living.’
“‘I know her, ‘ he repeated, obstinately.
“I bowed. What a crank he was!
“‘What do you study? You don’t fiddle away all your time, do you?’ he asked.
“Now that was just what I did, but I was not pleased to have Miss Wyeth know it. Although my time was chiefly spent in killing time, I had once, in a fit of energy, succeeded in writing some verses ‘To a Tomtit, ‘ so I evaded a humiliating confession by saying that I had done a little work in ornithology.
“‘Good!’ cried the professor, beaming all over. ‘I knew you were a fellow-scientist. Possibly you are a brother-member of the Boston Dodo Society of Pythagorean Research. Are you a dodo?’
“I shook my head. ‘No, I am not a dodo.’
“‘Only a jay?’
“‘A—what?’ I said, angrily.
“‘A jay. We call the members of the Junior Ornithological Jay Society of New York, jays, just as we refer to ourselves as dodos. Are you not even a jay?’
“‘I am not, ‘ I said, watching him suspiciously.
“‘I must convert you, I see, ‘ said the professor, smiling.
“‘I’m afraid I do not approve of Pythagorean research, ‘ I began, but the beautiful Miss Wyeth turned to me very seriously, and, looking me frankly in the eyes, said:
“‘I trust you will be open to conviction.’
“‘Good Lord!’ I thought. ‘Can she be another lunatic?’ I looked at her steadily. What a little beauty she was! She also, then, belonged to the Pythagoreans—a sect I despised. Everybody knows all about the Pythagorean craze, its rise in Boston, its rapid spread, and its subsequent consolidation with mental and Christian science, theosophy, hypnotism, the Salvation Army, the Shakers, the Dunkards, and the mind-cure cult, upon a business basis. I had hitherto regarded all Pythagoreans with the same scornful indifference which I accorded to the faith-curists; being a member of no particular church, I was scarcely prepared to take any of them seriously. Least of all did I approve of the ‘business basis, ‘ and I looked very much askance indeed at the ‘Scientific and Religious Trust Company, ‘ duly incorporated and generally known as the Pythagorean Trust, which, consolidating with mind-curists, faith-curists, and other flourishing salvation syndicates, actually claimed a place among ordinary trusts, and at the same time pretended to a control over man’s future life. No, I could never listen—I was ashamed of even entertaining the notion, and I shook my head.
“‘No, Miss Wyeth, I am afraid I do not care to listen to any reasoning on this subject.’
“‘Don’t you believe in Pythagoras?’ demanded the professor, subduing his excitement with difficulty, and adding another knot to his coat-tails.
“‘No, ‘ I said, ‘I do not.’
“‘How do you know you don’t?’ inquired the professor.
“‘Because, ‘ I said, firmly, ‘it is nonsense to say that the soul of a human being can inhabit a hen!’
“‘Put it in a more simplified form!’ insisted the professor. ‘Do you believe that the soul of a hen can inhabit a human being?’
“‘No, I don’t!’
“‘Did you ever hear of a hen-pecked man?’ cried the professor, his voice ending in a shout.
“I nodded, intensely annoyed.
“‘Will you listen to reason, then?’ he continued, eagerly.
“‘No, ‘ I began, but I caught Miss Wyeth’s blue eyes fixed on mine with an expression so sad, so sweetly appealing, that I faltered.
“‘Yes, I will listen, ‘ I said, faintly.
“‘Will you become my pupil?’ insisted the professor.
“I was shocked to find myself wavering, but my eyes were looking into hers, and I could not disobey what I read there. The longer I looked the greater inclination I felt to waver. I saw that I was going to give in, and, strangest of all, my conscience did not trouble me. I felt it coming—a sort of mild exhilaration took possession of me. For the first time in my life I became reckless—I even gloried in my recklessness.