WAS just graduated from college, when I received a letter from my uncle Ralph, which surprised me very much, as I had never known him except by name. I had always been told by my mother that he was very eccentric, and certainly the letter was queer; for it read:
Nephew Dick (if that's your name): I want an assistant in my laboratory. I will pay you well. Answer at once.
I was puzzled what to say in reply. I had no profession in view, and did n't like to throw away what might be a good chance. I talked it over with my mother, and she said she thought it would be worth trying and could certainly do no harm. So, not to be outdone in brevity, I answered:
Dear Uncle Ralph: If terms suit, I 'll try.
Your nephew, Dick.
I think he was pleased with the answer, for he received me very cordially, though he did n't say much. My salary was quickly and satisfactorily settled, and I took a room near my uncle's house and began my work.
At first I had so much to learn that I could n't have earned my salt; but before very long I began to see my way clearly, and I really think I made myself useful—still I could not be sure.
Strangely enough, I never could tell what my uncle was trying to accomplish. I made many mixtures of chemicals, prepared all sorts of apparatus, but was never allowed to see what my uncle was about. Whenever I had prepared any materials, he would carry them off into a little private room of which he always kept the key upon his watch-chain. No one was allowed to enter this room, and I soon learned that it was wisest to say nothing concerning it. Not being inquisitive, I did not pry into the mystery, but did whatever I was told to do, without asking any questions.
As time went on, I could see that my uncle was becoming very nervous and irritable over his work. Always a silent man, he now seldom spoke a word.
One day he sent me to buy some chemicals, giving me a list which he had written out for me. Upon examining the list I found that the articles would make a large package, so I picked up my little traveling-bag and started out.
Some of the substances required were rare, and I was obliged to ask at a number of places before I succeeded in finding them; and it was dusk when I reached the house.
I heard my uncle calling me as I came in, and found him very impatient.
"Did you get them all?" he asked, as soon as he saw me.
"Yes; after some trouble," I replied.
"Where are they?" he inquired.
"Here," I said, and I handed him the bag.
He took it without a word, and immediately retired into his private room.
During his absence, I busied myself in the laboratory in putting everything in order. I worked away for a long while—how long I cannot exactly tell—when suddenly I heard an explosion in my uncle's little room, followed by a cry.
I rushed to the door and knocked.
"What is it?" he growled.
"What is the matter?" I cried.
"Nothing! Don't be foolish!" said my uncle. "Nothing can hurt me!"
I went back to the laboratory, and, having nothing further to do, sat down to wait for his coming.
Again came the explosion, followed by the same cry.
I started up, and, before I thought, I cried aloud, "You 're not hurt, are you?"
The door opened suddenly, and my uncle came out, looking very much excited.
"Dick," said he, "go home. Here is your bag. I sha'n't need your help to-night."
I took what I thought was my bag, and went home to my room.
When I lighted my student-lamp I saw that, instead of my traveling-bag, my uncle had given me an old, dusty, wrinkled, and battered leather satchel, which looked as though it might be a century old.
I laughed, and tried to open it. It was locked. After puzzling over the lock until I was tired, I opened my closet door and flung the satchel upon the highest shelf.
"To-morrow," said I, "I 'll exchange it for my own bag."
I am afraid Uncle Ralph's treatment was beginning to affect my temper. I did n't like the way he had treated me that night. Then he had n't paid me my salary for a long time, and my bills were coming in faster than I could pay them.
It is very discouraging to do other men's work, especially when you are not allowed to see the results of your labor; and I had worked some months without a single hint of what I was about. I began to believe I had made a mistake. What good would it do me to work away in the dark, learning little or nothing, and without hope of doing better? My uncle would tell me nothing, and was provoked by being even questioned.
I became very much discouraged over my prospects, and wondered whether I ought not to confess I had made a mistake, and to begin the study of some regular profession.
How long I sat thinking, I cannot tell; but I was aroused by the faint flicker of my lamp as it went out, leaving me in perfect darkness.
As I groped about my room, looking for matches, I heard a rustling which seemed to come from the other side of the room. Then came tiny knockings, irregularly, and muffled shouting, as though far away.
By listening more intently I heard the sounds plainly enough to distinguish the squeaking of mice and—could I be mistaken?—a scream; very faint, it is true, but still a scream of fright.
"Ah!" said I to myself, "there must be mice in the closet! But what can the scream be?"
I went to the closet, and, opening the door, was amazed to see that the upper part was faintly lighted, as though by a big firefly. Puzzled at this, I brought a chair, and, climbing upon it, saw—a grand battle. Upon one end of the shelf was a flying host of mice. How they scurried away! Some jumped to the floor; some seemed to merely vanish, and they were gone!
While smiling at their panic, what was my surprise to hear from the other end of the shelf some one addressing me in a piping, little voice.
"Eh?" I exclaimed,—"did any one speak?"
"I had the honor!" the voice replied.
Turning, I saw upon the shelf a diminutive figure carrying a little lantern in one hand, and something like a needle in the other.
Before I could recover from my astonishment, and not before I had been asked sarcastically whether I should know him the next time we met, the little man went on:
"This is a pretty way to treat me,—is n't it?"
"What in the world—what does this mean?" I blundered out.
"Well! I like that," replied the pygmy in a scornful tone; "asking what this means,—after having kept me shut up in that old leather satchel for over two thousand years! Why, I should have been starved before long; my provisions were almost gone, I can tell you! Perhaps you think I'm not hungry now? Oh, no! of course not!—and you want to know what this means?"
Here he burst out laughing so loudly that I plainly heard it.
"I should be glad to do anything in my power to aid you," I began, wishing to do my best to pacify the little fellow; "but as for having kept you shut up for twenty centuries, why, my dear fellow, that's simply absurd, for I am only twenty-three years old now!"
"Oh, see here," he answered scornfully, "that's a little more than I can stand! You 've played the innocent game long enough; you can't fool me that way again. Why, I suppose you will deny that your name is Trancastro, next?" and he hopped up and down in a rage.
"Tran—which? Tran—what?" I began.
"That's right, that's right!" cried the little imp in a perfect fury. "Go on—deny everything!"
"See here!" I cried, now out of patience with his folly, "I don't know anything about you or your Tran-what-you-may-call-him, and if you had n't kicked up such a racket in my closet I never would have come near you! I wish I had n't, and then the mice would have finished you—and a good riddance!"
As I paused for breath the little man held his lantern as near my face as possible, and after a long, earnest look, said with great gravity and deliberation:
"I think I must have made a mistake!"
Then, turning suddenly, he gave a great skip and shouted out, "And then—I am free!"
"Certainly you are, so far as I am concerned," I replied carelessly; "but I can't imagine what all this fuss is about. So long as you are pleased, I suppose I must be satisfied."
Meanwhile he had continued to jump and whirl about, until he dropped his lantern and it went out, leaving us in the dark. Then he calmed down enough to say, "What can you know about it? You—only twenty-three years old!" He chuckled as though this were a great joke at my expense, and went on, "If you will offer me a chair and something to eat, I 'll tell you the whole story."
So I stepped down from the chair, lighted my student-lamp, and offered my little guest my hand. Into it he climbed, and I deposited him upon the table under the light, where I could see him plainly.
He was about six inches in height, and dressed in what seemed to be mouse-skin. He wore a little belt, and a helmet the size of a thimble. His face was unwrinkled, but intelligent enough for any age.
Seeing he was unwilling to be stared at, I broke the silence by saying, "I am sorry I cannot offer you a chair—but mine are too large, I am afraid." I thought he might be hurt by the hint.
"Not at all!" he replied politely, now that he had convinced himself I was not that awful Tran-somebody. "See here!"
He beckoned to my favorite easy-chair. At once it rose gently into the air, and, dwindling down to a size suitable for the little wretch, dropped softly down upon the table beside him.
Ignoring my exclamations, he seated himself comfortably within it, and, looking up at me, said, as though nothing had happened, "I said I would tell you all about it, did n't I?"
"Yes," I answered, leaning eagerly forward.
"Well, I 'll not!" said he, bluntly.
"You 'll not?—and why not?" I asked.
"Oh," said he, calmly crossing his little legs, "you could n't understand it."
"Perhaps I could," I replied, smiling indulgently. "Just try me."
"Do you know what dmax is?" he asked, apparently hoping that I might.
"No, I can't say I do—exactly," I confessed unwillingly.
"Then of course you could n't understand it—for that's the very beginning of it! But no matter. Let's change the subject. Is there anything I can do for you in return for your hospitality to a hungry guest?"
"I beg your pardon! I quite forgot." And I rang the bell.
When the servant came, I ordered supper for two. This strange order caused the servant to gaze in silent astonishment. I repeated the order, however, and she hurried away without asking any questions. Returning, she placed the supper upon the table, without seeing the frantic retreat of the little man as she approached the table with the heavy tray.
"What an awkward blockhead!" exclaimed the angry little fellow. I made no answer, being puzzled over the proper way to ask my small friend to eat with a knife and fork larger than himself.
But, as I hesitated, the mysterious beckoning process again took place, and one half of the contents of the tray diminished to a size convenient for his use. He ate almost greedily, like a starving man. I watched him in silent wonder until he seemed to be satisfied.
Then, pushing back his chair, he said gratefully: "A very nice supper! I should like to return your kindness in someway. You little know what a service you have done me in releasing me from that cruel Trancast—"
Here he broke off suddenly and remained in a brown study. He seemed so melancholy that I interrupted his thoughts by asking:
"And what could you do for me?" He brightened up again as I spoke, and answered:
"Who can tell? What are your troubles?"
"Well," said I thoughtfully, "I have n't many. But I should like the advice of some one older and wiser than I am."
"I shall not say how wise I may be," said the little man soberly; "but perhaps, having lived forty centuries, I may be old enough to advise a young man of twenty-three."
I looked up, expecting to see him smiling, but he was as sober as a judge. So I told him all about my uncle and my work, and concluded by asking him what he thought I ought to do. He seemed intensely interested, and remained silent some moments after I had finished. I waited more anxiously for his opinion than I should have liked to admit.
At length he said solemnly, "Bring your uncle to me!"
"Bring—" I repeated, in amazement, "bring my—"
"Bring your uncle to me!" he repeated firmly, and so solemnly that I never thought of resisting.
"Oh, very well," I said hastily; "but how in the world am I to do it?"
"Easily enough!" he explained; "write him a note!"
"But what shall I say?" I asked helplessly.
"You said he was interested in chemistry?" asked the strange little fellow.
"I believe he cares for nothing else," I replied.
"Very well. Now write this: 'I have made a discovery to-night such as you never dreamed of. Come at once!' That will bring him," said my guest.
Why I was so easily bullied by the manikin I cannot tell; but I wrote the note and sent it at once.
"Now," resumed my little guest, "what else can I do for you?"
"Nothing," I replied, laughing; "unless you will pay my bills for me!"
"With pleasure," he answered gravely; "let me see them."
I brought the bills, and he went over them very carefully.
"Hm—hm—very good!" he said, when he had finished his examination. "You have not been very extravagant. I 'll reduce them for you!"
He began beckoning, as he had beckoned to the chair and the tea-tray, and I smiled, expecting to see the papers grow smaller and smaller. But when he stopped I could see no change, although he seated himself as though well satisfied. As he said nothing, I finally ventured to say:
"Well," he replied; "look at your bills!"
I picked them up and was astonished to see that the amounts had dwindled from dollars to cents, until each bill was for only a hundredth part of what it had been.
"But that is nonsense!" I said, looking up angrily. "I'm not a baby! What good will that do?"
"You 're only twenty-three," he said doubtfully; and, smiling as a knock was heard at the door, he made me a sign to open it.
I did so, and there stood my tailor, Mr. Mewlett. I frowned, for I owed him more than a hundred dollars. But he smiled politely, saying, "Could you oblige me with that dollar or two you owe me? I need a little change to-night."
I stared at him in wonder; but, thinking it wise to ask no questions, I took his bill from the pile on the table and handed it to him.
He read it aloud: "One dollar and fourteen cents."
I counted out the money. He receipted the bill and left me, seeming perfectly contented.
I dropped into a chair, too much puzzled to say a word.
Just then the door banged open wide, and in came my uncle, purring and blowing with the exertion of climbing the stairs.
"Well, on what fool's errand have you brought me her—" he began; but suddenly I heard a shriek from the pygmy on the table. As I turned, he began beckoning—beckoning—beckoning, as if he were frantic.
I turned to look at my uncle. He was gone.
Then I turned again to the little man on the table. What a sight met my eyes!
There stood upon the table the miniature image of my uncle, staring with wide-open eyes at the little figure of my guest. For a moment they glared at each other—and then, before I could interfere, they were fighting for their lives. It was over in a second. My uncle was too old and feeble to be a match for the wiry little warrior in leather. As they separated, my uncle seemed to be wounded, for he staggered an instant, and then fell backward, staining the cloth like an overturned bottle of red ink.
"You scoundrel!" I cried, starting forward in anger; "what have you done?"
For a moment the little fellow had no breath to answer. He panted helplessly, and at length gasped out:
"It is—but—justice! It is Trancastro!"
"Trancastro?" I exclaimed—"that was my uncle! Explain. I cannot understand!"
"Do you know what dmax is?" he asked, as he wiped his sword on a napkin.
"No!" I shouted.
"Then you could n't understand," he said, mournfully shaking his head.
Enraged by his answer, I rushed for the table; but, before I could reach them, my uncle struggled to his feet and resumed the conflict, using his umbrella most valiantly. I paused a moment, hoping he might yet conquer, but the fight was too unequal. By a skilful twist of his opponent's wrist my uncle's umbrella was sent flying out of his hand. Being disarmed, he sank upon one knee and begged for mercy.
"Trancastro!" cried the victor, "you deserve no better fate than the cruel death you meant for me!"
"Oh, have mercy!" cried my uncle.
"Mercy?" repeated the manikin, in a cruel tone; "and did you have mercy, Trancastro, when I hung for so many weary years in your cage-dungeon beneath the floating Castle of Volitana? Did you have mercy, I say, when the black cat broke through the ice-wall, and the witch changed me to a frozen mastodon? No! And where is the Princess of the Rosy Flame? Where is the Emerald of Golconda?"
My uncle hung his head and attempted no reply.
"Come," repeated the stranger; "I have waited for this meeting for centuries. Draw and defend yourself!"
"I have only an umbrella," my uncle objected.
"Then draw your umbrella!" was the relentless reply. As the little fellow advanced with sword on guard, I recovered from my feeling that this incident was a mere puppet-show. My uncle was about to be slain before my eyes.
I could not stand this. The honor of the family forbade me to remain neutral. I rushed to the table, crying, "Here! here!—this has gone quite far enough!"
Again the beckoning. I became in a moment a third pygmy upon my own table.
"Now," exclaimed the triumphant warrior, "we are upon equal terms! Come on!"
I had no weapon. I dared not interfere. While I stood hesitating, the little tyrant made a slip-knot from one of my curtain-cords, threw the noose over my uncle's neck, and rose into the air, dragging his victim after him. I heard a breaking of glass, and, regaining my natural size in a moment, rushed to the window only to see them flying away!
All that remained to convince me that I could not be mistaken was the stain upon the cloth, the little arm-chair, and the miniature supper. I searched the room, but found nothing.
Until now I have never told the story—for who would have credited it? But any one who believes my story, and would like to see what remains of Trancastro and his victim, has only to open the battered little satchel, and there can still be seen the little chair, the little knife and fork, and all the relics left by my guest. No unbeliever shall ever see them.