The Professor’s Awakening

Frederick Walworth Brown in Smith's Magazine April 1 1908

The Professor’s Awakening

Frederick Walworth Brown in Smith's Magazine April 1 1908

The Professor’s Awakening

Frederick Walworth Brown in Smith's Magazine

PROFESSOR MEIGS was stout, middle-aged and retiring. His specialty was paleontology, and what he didn’t know about six-toed horses and flying reptiles and that sort of thing was the part that hasn’t yet been dug up. So engrossed in this study was he that he practically lived in the reptilian age, only rarely descending so far as the tertiary period, and never coming really in contact with the quaternary era and modern life.

It follows of course that he was very highly valued by his university. He was of no mortal use in a faculty council, where he was likely to sit stolidly and muse on Eocene shellfish; and his lectures put even the chosen few who elected his courses to sleep. But the name Augustus Xenophon Meigs, Ph.D., D. Sc., etc., etc., added untold weight to the catalogue, and his book called “The Upper Silurian Trilobites,” or something like that, was the recognized authority. Pie was a great man with any quantity of uncommon sense and not an ounce of the ordinary horse variety.

On a morning in the latter part of May, Professor Meigs was walking along High Street in what for him was an uncommonly hilarious mood. The reason was distinct enough, being nothing less than a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars which he had that day received, out of the clouds as it were, a long-forgotten uncle having died and left him this legacy.

He was considering whether he should invest the money in a pleasure trip to Europe or on a fossil-hunting expedition to the Bad Lands, when lie encountered his colleague, Professor Chisolm, in his motor-can Professor Chisolm, by some oversight of fate, was possessed of an income which made his professorial salary seem like pin-money for his wife. His car was a very neat little machine, a thirty horse-power runabout, capable of making fifty miles an hour. He drew up at the curb and hailed Professor Meigs.

“Come take a ride, Meigs,” he said.

Now Professor Meigs had never ridden in a motor-car. When his paleozoic mind had taken cognizance of their existence at all it was with a shade of disapproval. They were entirely too modern for his sympathies. Accordingly he now held back.

“Oh, come on,” cried Chisolm. “It’ll do you good. You stay indoors too much.”

Perhaps if the truth were known Professor Meigs with seven hundred and fifty dollars to his credit in the bank did not feel much like work that morning. At any rate Chisolm ultimately prevailed. For an hour Meigs would ride, since his friend evidently desired it, but he must be back at the end of that time, and with this agreement he donned the goggles Chisolm held out to him and took his seat in the car.

Once out on the road, with the wind singing past their ears and the motor turning off forty miles an hour with the ease of a transcontinental express, even Meigs found it impossible to concentrate his mind on either the delights of Europe or the reptilian horrors of paleontology ; and somewhat against his will and better judgment descended to luxurious enjoyment of the present.

They had made a run of something more than twenty miles, when Chisolm turned the car and started back, mindful of his agreement to return Meigs in an hour. A mile or two on the back track he detected something wrong in the smooth action of the motor. It was such an infinitesimal something that it made no difference in her speed or power, but Chisolm was one of those unfortunate motorists who can get no pleasure unless their machine is in absolutely perfect order.

Accordingly he stopped the car by releasing the clutch, and climbed out to investigate. The motor continued to run, and Chisolm squatted beside the forward wheel with his ear close to the hood, listening for the tiny “clack” which had disturbed him. It was not apparent now, and without looking up he called to the professor:

“Push that spark-lever forward, will you, Meigs?”

Now the eminent authority on the Silurian trilobites had no more idea what a spark-lever was than would a new-born babe. He looked helplessly toward Chisolm. The latter’s head was turned away as he listened intently to the whirring of the machinery. Meigs fancied that something terrible was about to happen. Perhaps the thing was going to explode, and only the instant pushing forward of the “spark-lever” could avert catastrophe.

Accordingly he looked eagerly for anything which might be called a lever. The little affair on the steering-wheel wholly escaped his eye, which however caught gladly the sight of the large brass handle projecting beside the driver’s seat. This undoubtedly was the thing Chisolm meant. No other contrivance which could be called a lever appearing, he reached over with anxious haste and —jammed in the clutch.

Chisolm narrowly escaped. He admitted later in private that he deserved death for making such a request of such a man. As the car sprang forward the hub of the wheels took him in the bend of the leg and pitched him spinning in the ditch. By the time he could gather himself up the machine was fifty yards away. He started in pursuit and instantly ascertained that his leg was damaged beyond the possibility of anything but a slow and painful walk.

With this discovery our interest in Professor Chisolm ceases. Henceforth the point of action centres on Professor Meigs.

The forward lurch of the machine as the clutch took hold had the effect of paralyzing the mind of the master of paleontology. For an instant he thought the anticipated catastrophe had arrived. He did not observe Professor Chisolm’s hurried exit from the road, and it was some seconds before he awoke to his awful situation.

Meanwhile the car gathered way, and when Professor Meigs’ groping mind finally laid hold of realities, she was bowling merrily along with the cheerful hum of well-lubricated machinery and heading almost imperceptibly but none the less surely towards the right-hand ditch.

Now in boyhood the professor had at one time owned a boat. He therefore recognized the wheel of the motor-car as the steering contrivance. Goaded by the absolute necessity of action, he gingerly transferred himself to the driver’s position and laid shaking hands on the wheel. So far everything was lovely, but here experience failed him.

Summoning all his resolution he twisted the wheel to the right, which as every yachtsman knows is the way to turn a boat to the left. Not so, however, with a motor-car, and the machine beneath the professor instantly made for the right-hand ditch with horrifying celerity.

Desperately he rolled the wheel to port, and even as the front tires grazed the edge of the ditch the car responded and returned to the highway. With spark retarded she was now making perhaps twenty miles an hour, but to the anguished professor her flight seemed as precipitous as that of a bullet from a gun.

When he finally got her straightened out in the middle of the road, after numerous and almost despairing attempts, he breathed a sigh that seemed to rise from unplumbed depths and be expressive at once of satisfaction over this initial success and of the most profound despair concerning the ultimate outcome.

Imagine his predicament. One of his pet silurian trilobites—whatever they are—would not have been more out of place. ' Here was a mind trained since youth to the formulation of ideas along the single line of the organic remains to be found in the various strata of the earth crust, now suddenly called upon to solve the problem of stopping a twentieth century, petrol motor-car. It was like asking an Andaman Islander for a synopsis of Hegel’s philosophy, or requiring an average citizen to give on the spur of the moment a correct list of the Presidents of the United States.

True, the problem was simplicity itself. A solitary minim of commonsense would have told him that if pushing a lever forward started the machine, pulling said lever back would stop it. But common sense was Professor Meigs’ absent member.

For some time his whole mental activity, working at fever-heat, was absorbed in keeping the machine in the middle of the road. After a mile or two, however, he attained sufficient proficiency in the art of steering to venture now and then to turn his gaze on nearer objects. He discovered two levers to his right, three pedals at his feet, and a small brass lever close to his hand on the wheel.

This last, owing to its conspicuous position, he judged to be most important and dangerous. With the utmost care he avoided touching it. As he was considering these matters the car struck a sandy bit of road and the front wheels slewed wickedly, wrenching the wheel in his hands. Agitated beyond conscious thought, the professor flung out his left foot for a better brace as he labored with the twisting wheel.

Instantly there broke forth close beneath and below him a horrid wail that rose to a shriek of dolor, died to a groan and anon rose again. The professor’s nerves were cocked and primed, and with the first wild note of his own siren he jumped like a scorched cat. In so doing his thumb came in contact with that little lever on the wheel and shoved it a notch or two forward. Unwittingly he had now obeyed Professor Chisolm’s command and advanced the spark. He did not notice the occurrence, but what he did notice was an immediate acceleration in the car’s motion.

Meanwhile the siren wailed and wailed, rose and fell, shrieked and groaned, howling his situation over hill and dale, for it was some minutes before he discovered the connection between the lugubrious sound and his own toe.

The car was now traveling close to thirty miles an hour, and the professor felt that he was riding on the whirlwind.

Luckily the road ran straight for miles, and despite the increased speed he found it not difficult to keep the machine in its course. Somewhat reassured after a time, he fell to considering his condition. To jump was obviously suicidal. He recalled that runaway horses were sometimes stopped by heading them into a fence. Should he try this method with the ramping Titan beneath him? A glance at the rail fence beside the road answered that question. No fence yet built would stop this creature for a moment. There seemed nothing to do but sit still and keep the thing in the road till it stopped of its own accord. He realized that he might strike New Orleans or Boston before this happened, but there seemed nothing else to do.

Presently the car topped a hill, and before him the professor saw a long straight stretch of road descending at what seemed a fearful gradient to the river and the bride. Horror of horrors ! Suppose the draw was open ? Down the long hill the machine dropped like a lead weight from a balloon while he clutched the wheel with aching fingers and struggled to hold her true.

She shied like a wild horse, viciously, and without apparent cause. Only by nerve-racking vigilance could he keep her from climbing the clay banks on either hand. Despair cankered his soul. The narrow approaches of the bridge grew momently nearer, and to the perspiring professor it seemed an impossible feat to guide this plunging projectile between the flanking railings. The thing seemed not within reason. No car could pass through such a space.

But the debouches of the bridge widened as he neared, and when he arrived the car sprang between them with ample space on either side, and with the utmost ease he shot her out on the rattling planks of the bridge.

Near the middle was the draw, and by the mercy of Heaven, closed. A sign admonished all vehicles to move slowly across this span, but the professor had no slowness at his command. The car struck the draw with a thump that made it teeter on its centre, and the draw-tender rushed from his shanty waving a green flag. He saved his life by leaping the railing to the footpath, for by some unconscious act of cerebration the professor's hand followed his eye and he guided the machine straight at the man.

“Til take your number,” yelled the latter as the car shot past, and the professor heard him with satisfaction. If Chisolm got in trouble over this it would serve him right.

Meanwhile the car had cleared the bridge in a stupendous bound and was racing toward a right-angled turn in the road. Everything was forgotten in the awful question whether or not he could round it successfully. He braced himself for the ordeal, and in his agitation wrenched the wheel too soon. The car shot up the slight bank, struck a fence on the corner, and tearing irresistibly forward, ripped up some fifty feet of pickets before he could turn her again toward the road. The pointed palings filled the air, and to the professor seemed coming his way like so many javelins. He escaped untouched, however, and regained the road after a dizzying plunge in the ditch.

Half a mile farther a covered wagon loomed suddenly ahead. The professor shouted at top-lung, and, of course, his voice was swept away behind him in useless, vapid sound. The wagon stolidly held the middle of the road, and there was not room to pass on either side had he possessed the skill for such a nice calculation of hubs.

In this awful moment the secret of the siren, discovered earlier in the mad flight, recurred to him. Without looking down he jammed his foot hard on the pedal. Unfortunately there happened to be three pedals, and the one his foot struck was the throttle. With a full head of gasoline the machine fairly leaped into the air, and the terrified professor removed his foot as though the pedal had been hot.

The distance between the vehicles lessened appallingly. Something must be done. He glanced down. One of those pedals controlled the siren. Which, was the question. Gingerly he tried the second. The siren remained mute, but a fearful grating sound broke out beneath and behind him. He had applied the brakes without releasing the clutch. The car’s speed slackened, but with such a thrashing and pounding of its vital parts as seemed to threaten instant dissolution into jagged bits of iron for which he would prove a most inviting target.

His fears diverted by this new menace, he released the pedal with alacrity. The grating ceased and the car quickly regained its former speed. It approached its unsuspecting victim as a lion stalks his prey. Another minute and wagon, horse and driver would be hurled in devastating ruin in the ditch.

But the professor was learning, and without much delay he planted a substantial foot on the third pedal, and the response of the siren was a shattering, deafening shriek. It galvanized the horse ahead, and he got off the road of his own accord. In his re; lief the professor forgot to remove his foot, and as the horrible sound persisted the animal made frantic endeavors to climb a rail fence.

A red-faced farmer raved alternately at the horse and the professor as the machine surged past, and again the unlucky driver hoped his victim would take his number.

Things went smoothly after that for some miles, and Professor Meigs tabulated in his memory the results of the recent experiments. First pedal— more speed. Second pedal—retarded motion, but sounds of imminent disruption. Third pedal—horn. The

fact that he knew so much filled him with a certain fearful elation.

So far as he could see there were but three things now that he had not tried ; the two long levers at his side, and the little one on the wheel. One of the long ones had produced his present predicament, and he was afraid to touch it again. The other controlled the reverse, but, of course, he did not know it. Pie put a hand on tins second lever and tried gently to move it, but it seemed locked, as indeed it was till the forward clutch had been released.

The only remaining thing was that conspicuous and therefore probably dangerous little brass lever on the wheel. He was considering the advisability of risking sudden death by manipulating it, when he became aware that he was approaching a town. The first evidence of this was a huge red and white sign beside the road admonishing the traveler that the automobile speed law would be strictly enforced within the limits of said village.

The lettering was large, the wording concise, and the professor had no difficulty in reading it. For the first time since the ride began a smile touched his lips. He had no idea what the law was, but he had a very certain idea that he was breaking it. The point was, how were they going to enforce it?

By taking his number? Good! By arresting him? Better yet, since it presupposed the stopping of the machine. With rare presence of mind he turned on his terrible siren, and raged into that village at thirty miles an hour.

All the dogs and all the children hailed him gladly, answering the bellows of his horn. Once a perspiring gentleman in his shirt-sleeves rushed out in front of the machine waving his hand like one in authority and displaying a glittering nickle-plated shield attached to his left suspender. As the machine neared he leaped to the safety of the sidewalk.

“Stop !” he yelled.

Sadly the professor shook his head and left him fuming. In the centre of the village he executed a double turn, first to the right and then to the left, with the dexterity which surprised him, and he was instantly frozen with horror. Two hundred yards away a freight-train stood solidly across the road.

There is something absolutely final about a freight-train blocking a public highway. The occurrence is exasperating enough when you have your vehicle under complete control. The train may move the next minute and it may stand still for half an hour. Whatever it does it is sufficient unto itself. You cannot butt it out of the road, and usually you cannot circumvent it in any way. It is a law unto itself, and you await its pleasure.

Consider, then, the situation of the professor; two hundred yards away, moving at something like thirty miles an hour, and unable to stop ! He rose to jump, and as he did so the train started with a jangling of couplings and a bumping of box cars. The caboose appeared in leisurely progression across the field of vision, and the machine scraped past, so close he might have touched the brakeman gaping on the rear platform.

Limp with the reaction from that tense moment the professor lapsed in his seat behind the wheel, and was only roused by the appearance of another machine coming swiftly toward him.. Promptly he took to the ditch. There was a rush of conflicting aircurrents as the cars passed, and instantly he was plunged in a blinding cloud of dust.

It was a trying experience. Unable to see and guessing at the road, he could only hold the wheel motionless and wait for light. The cloud thinned quickly and he breathed again. He was still on the road; and after the experience, guiding the car in open sunlight seemed an easy task.

It was perhaps ten minutes after this encounter that a great white light broke on the paleontologically clouded mind of Professor Meigs.

“Oh, he-1-1-1 !” he said slowly and impressively.

It had at last dawned on him that reversing the process of starting the machine ought, by all the rules of logic, to stop it. He grasped the lever that had been his undoing. It worked hard, and his first tentative pull did not release it. He thrust out his foot for a brace and by great good fortune it fell upon the second pedal.

With a heave the professor pulled back the lever, thereby releasing the clutch, and at the same time the thrust of his foot applied the brakes. The car jarred to a full stop within two lengths.

For some seconds the professor could not believe his senses. One instant he had been traveling like the wind; the next he was standing still. Then for a time he feared either to release his hold on the lever or to raise his foot from the pedal. Slowly he executed these manoeuvres, ready on the instant to apply his suddenly acquired control if the creature showed any signs of further motion.

None appearing, he rose hastily and alighted, staggered to the side of the road and sat down heavily. The motor whirred on, and he eyed the machine as though expecting it at any moment to make off by itself. Presently he found a tree, arranged his back comfortably against it and closed his eyes.

Just what went on in the professor’s scientifically trained mind cannot be set down. Enough, that at the end of ten minutes he arose, and walked valiantly to the machine. With minute particularity he went over the levers and pedals, enumerating aloud the attributes of each so far as he had learned them.

“At least I can stop it,” he said finally, and forthwith climbed in and looked about him.

He was in the midst of a straggling village, the streets of which were mainly flanked by vacant lots. Across these open vistas the professor was able to see his way to what he had in view. Carefully he shoved the lever at his side. There was no sudden jamming of it forward as far as it would go, as in the case which had produced the disaster, and the result was that the low-speed gear was enmeshed instead of the high, and the car started slowly forward.

The professor was delighted. The machine crawled along at the gait of a shambling horse, and the professor grasped the wheel with a triumphant smile. At the first corner he turned to the right, and by continuing to turn to the right, presently came out on the main road once more and headed back upon his trail.

For a time he was quite satisfied with the shambling horse gait, but with the straight road before him, he presently began to chafe at his speed. He tried pushing down the pedal which had given more speed before, but this time it did not respond.

Next he glanced at the lever. Perhaps he had not pushed it far enough.

Accordingly he gave it another shove, and as the high-speed gear took hold the car gathered way with a rush.

‘T can stop it any time,” said the professor, with the air of a small boy playing with fire.

A little farther on, doubts beginning to assail him, he did stop it just to satisfy himself that he could. With that all hesitation ended, and he drove her along at the best pace he dared, even venturing to press the throttle now and then on straight stretches of road.

Ten miles back he came upon Professor Chisolm wearily limping along and examining every rod of the way for trace of his wrecked machine and mangled colleague. As the car came to a handsome stop abreast of him, his mouth opened in amazement and then closed in anger.

“I didn’t know you could run it,” he growled. “Why didn’t you come back sooner?”

“I came back as soon as I learned how,” said Meigs mildly.

He surrendered the wheel to Chisolm, who turned the car round— Meigs watching every motion intently —and they started back.

“It isn’t as difficult as it looks, is it?” said Meigs presently.

“What?” asked Chisolm shortly, his leg hurting him.

“Running it,” said Meigs. “But what’s this little lever for?”

“Spark control,” answered Chisolm.

“How does it work?”

“Push it forward to increase your speed and pull it back to decrease it.”

“I believe that’s the only thing I didn’t find out. No, I didn’t discover how to back it, cither.”

Chisolm looked at him in puzzled surprise.

“Do you mean to say you found out how to run it by yourself?” he demanded.

“Well,” said Professor Meigs, “I had to. It ran away with me, and I had to find out how to stop it.”

“How far did you go?”

“Within five miles of town.”

“And then turned around and came back?”

“I went round a block to turn it.” Chisolm was silent for a moment. “I beg your pardon, Meigs, for being so short back there,” he said then. “I didn’t understand. It took me a week with a man sitting beside me. I don’t see how you did it.”

As they drove into town Meigs roused from a reverie which may have had to do with prehistoric mammals and may not.

“How much does one of these things cost?” he asked.

“I paid twelve hundred for this one,” said Chisolm. “I’m thinking of getting another. If you want to buy a machine I’ll sell this one cheap. The engine’s in good order and I’ve just put on two new tires.”

“I’m afraid they’re too expensive for me,” said Meigs. “I didn’t know they cost so much.”

“Well, I tell you what I’ll do,” said Chisolm. “It’s practically as good as new, but you can have it for seven hundred and fifty. And it’s really a bargain at that price.”

“I could pay that,” said Meigs weakly. “I súpose my health would be better if I got out more.”

“No doubt about it,” cried Chisolm. “It’s really wonderful how much better work a man can do if he gets outdoors regularly. I’ve proved that.” They pulled up at Professor Meigs’ door.

“What do you say?” asked Chisolm as his colleague alighted.

For a moment Meigs hesitated, looking at the machine before him, palpitating like a live thing. After all he didn’t care much about a trip to Europe, and if he requested it the university would pay for the expedition to the Bad Lands. Then there was the question of his health. And it was a bargain, for Chisolm said so.

“I "think I’ll take it,” he said. “I'll give you a check to-morrow.” And he entered his house to repent at leisure.