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A short story by Wardon Allan Curtis

The Adventure Of Norah Sullivan And The Student Of Heredity

Title:     The Adventure Of Norah Sullivan And The Student Of Heredity
Author: Wardon Allan Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It was the time of full moon. As the orb of day dropped its red, huge disk below the western horizon, over the opposite side of the world, the moon, even more huge and scarcely less red, rose to irradiate with its mild beams the scenes which the shadows of darkness had not yet touched. Miss Nora Sullivan, a teacher in the public schools of the metropolis, sat upon the front porch of the paternal residence enjoying the loveliness of the vernal prospect and the balm of the air, for it was in the flowery month of June. Although the residence of Timothy Sullivan was well within the limits of the municipality of Chicago, one visiting at that hospitable abode might imagine himself in the country. From no part of the enclosure could you, during the leafy season, see another human habitation. A quarter of a mile down the road to the east, the electric cars for Calumet could be seen flitting by, but except at the intervals of their passing, there was seldom anything to suggest that the location was part of a great city. A quarter of a mile to the west, on the edge of a marsh--a situation well suited to such culture--lived a person engaged in the raising of African geese. As it is probable that you may never have heard of African geese, I will tell you that they are the largest of their tribe and that specimens of them often weigh as high as seventy pounds.

The person engaged in the culture of African geese was Wilhelm Klingenspiel, a man of German ancestry, but born in this country. Miss Sullivan had often heard of him, she had even partaken of the left leg of an African goose, which leg he had given Mr. Sullivan for the Sunday dinner, but she had never seen him. As Wilhelm Klingenspiel was young and single and as no other man of any description lived in the vicinity, it is not strange that Nora, who was also young and single, should sometimes fall to thinking of Mr. Klingenspiel and wonder what manner of man he was.

On this evening so attuned to romantic reveries, when the flowers, the birds, and all nature spoke of love, more than ever did Nora Sullivan's thoughts turn toward the large grove of trees to the westward in the midst of which Wilhelm Klingenspiel had his home and carried on his pleasant and harmless vocation of raising African geese. The evening song of the geese, tempered and sweetened by distance, came to her, accompanied by the most extraordinary booming and racketing of frogs which is to be heard outside of the tropical zone; for not only did Klingenspiel raise the largest geese on this terraqueous globe, but having, as a means of cheapening the cost of their production, devoted himself to the increasing of their natural food, by principles well known to all breeders he had developed a breed of frogs as monstrous among their kind as African geese are among theirs. By these huge batrachians was an extensive marsh inhabited, and battening upon the succulent nutriment thus afforded, the African geese gained a size and flavor which was rapidly making the fortune of Wilhelm Klingenspiel.

Nora had often meditated upon plans for making the acquaintance of Wilhelm, but it was plain that he was either very bashful or so immersed in his pursuits as to be indifferent to the charms of woman, for he had never made an attempt to see Nora in all the six months she had been his neighbor, and she was well worth seeing.

Accordingly, she decided that if she did not wish to indefinitely postpone making the acquaintance of the poulterer, she must take the initiative. Timothy Sullivan was a market gardener. Klingenspiel was not the only man in the neighborhood who grew big things. Mr. Sullivan was experimenting upon some cabbages of unusual size. He had started them in a hothouse during the winter. Later transferred to the garden, they had attained an amplitude such as few if any cabbages had ever attained before. In the pleasant light of the moon, even now was he engaged with the cabbages, pouring something upon them from a watering pot. As she watched her father, it occurred to Nora that she could find no more suitable excuse for visiting Mr. Klingenspiel than in carrying him some present in return for the goose's left leg he had presented her family for a Sunday dinner, and that there was no more appropriate present than one of the great cabbages.

No sooner had her father gone in than, selecting the largest cabbage, she started off with it, putting it in a small push-cart, as it was so large as to be too heavy and inconvenient to carry. It was somewhat late to call, but the evening was so delightful that Wilhelm Klingenspiel could hardly have gone to bed. Proceeding on her way, as the road passed into the swampy land of Klingenspiel's domain, her attention was engaged by the fact that a most singular commotion was taking place among the giant batrachians at some remote place south of the road. Their ordinary calls had increased both in volume and frequency, and at intervals she heard the sound of crashing in the brake and brush, as if some objects of unheard of size were falling into the marsh. Looking in the direction whence the sounds came, she saw indistinct and vague against the night sky, an enormous rounded thing rise in the air and descend, whereupon was borne to her another of the strange crashings. These inexplicable sounds and the inexplicable sight would have frightened Miss Sullivan had she not the resources with which modern science fortifies the mind against credulity and superstition. The round object, she told herself, was some sudden puff of smoke on a railway track far beyond; the crashing was the shunting of cars, which things, coming coincidentally with a battle of the frogs, to an ignorant mind would appear to be a phenomenon in the immediate vicinity. Bearing in mind that this seemingly real, but impossible, phenomenon could only be due to a fortuitous concatenation of actual occurrences, Nora was not disturbed in her mind. Leaving her cart some little distance up the road, in order that she might not be seen in the undignified position of pushing it, she walked into Klingenspiel's front yard, bearing her gift.

The two-story white house of Wilhelm Klingenspiel seemed to be deserted. Despite the genial season, every door was shut, and so was every window, so far as Nora could see, for if any windows were open down stairs, at least the blinds were shut. There were no blinds in the second story. Looking around in no little disappointment, she was astonished to see a row of sheds and fences in rear of the house had been demolished as if struck by a cyclone and that a goodly sized barn had departed from its normal position and with frame intact was lying on its side like a toy barn tipped over by a child. As she was gazing upon this ruinage and striving to conjecture what had caused it, she heard a voice, muffled and strange, yet distinctly audible, saying:

"Ribot is running amuck, Ribot is running amuck," and looking up she beheld, darkly visible against the panes of an upper story window, a human form. As she looked, the form disappeared and presently a person rushed from the front door, hauled her into the house and upstairs, where she found herself still holding her cabbage and observing a short man of a full habit, with a round moon face, illuminated by a large pair of spectacles that sustained themselves with difficulty upon a very snub nose. He was nearly bald, yet nevertheless of a kindly, studious, and astute appearance. One did not need to look twice to see that Wilhelm Klingenspiel was a scholar.

"What--what--what is the matter?" exclaimed Nora.

"Ribot is running amuck."

"Who is Ribot?"

Klingenspiel was about to answer, when the whole air was filled with what one would have called a squeal if it had been one fiftieth part so loud, and over a row of willow bushes across the road leapt an astounding great creature, twice as large as the largest elephant, and Nora began to realize that her scientific deductions regarding the phenomenon in the swamp had been utterly erroneous. The creature was of an oblong build, rounded in contour, and its hide was marked by large blotches of black and rufous yellow upon a ground of white. With extreme swiftness the creature scurried down the road, its legs being so short in proportion to its body and moving with such twinkling rapidity that it seemed to be propelled upon wheels. The appearance of this strange monster and the appalling character of its squealing, caused Nora to tremble like a leaf, but the animal having departed, a laudable curiosity made her forget her fears, and she asked:

"What is it?"

"That was Ribot."

"Who and what is Ribot?"

"Ribot was a celebrated French scientist, an authority on the subject of heredity. You doubtless know something of the subject, how certain traits appear in families generation after generation. Accidental traits, if repeated for two or three generations, often become inherent traits. To show you to what a strange extent this is true, I will call your attention to the case of the ducal house of Bethune in France, where three successive generations having had the left hand cut off at the wrist in battle, the next three generations were born without a left hand."

The erudite dissertation of Wilhelm Klingenspiel was here interrupted by the reappearance of the mottled monster, who, with a scream that filled the blue vault of heaven, rushed into the yard and paused before a mighty oak, whose sturdy trunk had stood rooted in that soil before the city of Chicago existed, before the United States was born, when Cahokia was the capital of Illinois and the flag of France waved over the great West. The flash of terrible white teeth showed in the moonlight as the monster gnawed at the base of the tree a few times and with a crash its leafy length lay upon the ground. Contemplating for a brief space the ruin it had wrought, the monster emitted another of its appalling screams and was off once more on its erratic, aimless course.

"What in the world is this awful creature?" cried Nora.

"The subject of heredity," resumed Klingenspiel, "is one of vast importance, and although its principles are well understood, man has hitherto not touched the possibilities that can be accomplished. The span of a man's life is so short that in selecting and breeding choice strains of animals, an individual can see only a comparatively small number of generations succeed each other. Suppose some one family had for two hundred years carried on continuous experiments in breeding any race of animals. What remarkable results would have been attained! Behold what remarkable results are attained in raising varieties of plants, where the swiftness of succeeding generations enables man to accomplish what he seeks in a very short time. Observing the difficulties that confront the animal breeder and wishing to see in my own lifetime certain results that might ordinarily be expected only in a duration of several lifetimes, I sought an animal which came to maturity rapidly, whose generations succeeded each rapidly. At the same time, I wanted an animal comparatively highly organized, a mammal, not a reptile."

At this point, his instructive discourse was interrupted by the reappearance of the monster, which charged into the yard with its nose to the ground, following some scent, sniffing so loudly that the sound was plainly audible despite the closed window. After having hastened about the yard for a few moments it was off up the road to the eastward, still with nose to the ground, until coming to the push cart left at the roadside by Nora, it examined it carefully and then with a sudden access of unaccountable rage, fell upon it and demolished it, beating and chewing it into bits.

Whatever celerity this terrible beast had exhibited before, was now completely eclipsed, as with nose to the ground, it rushed back to the yard, straight to the house, and rearing on its hinder quarters, placed its forelegs on the porch roof, which gave way beneath the ponderous weight. Not disconcerted by the removal of this support, the monster continued to maintain its sitting posture, looking in the window at the terrified persons beyond, snapping and gnashing its huge jaws in a manner terrible to hear and still more terrible to contemplate. Nora was partially reassured by observing that the animal's head was too wide to go through the window, but the hopes thus raised were dashed by Klingenspiel moaning:

"He'll gnaw right through the house, he'll chew right through the roof. He'll get in. He has smelled that big cabbage and he'll get in."

"In that case," remarked Nora, with decision, "I'll not wait for him to come in to get the cabbage, but throw it out to him," and raising the window, thrust out the cabbage, which having caught with a deftness unexpected in a creature of its bulk, the beast retired a short space and proceeded to eat with every appearance of enjoyment.

"In Paris, a few years ago," resumed Klingenspiel, "one of the learned faculty that lend a well deserved renown to the medical department of that ancient institution, the University of Paris, discovered an elixir which used during the period of human growth--and even after--causes the stature to increase. By depositing an increased supply of the matter necessary to the formation of bones, the frame increases and the fleshy covering grows with it. You have doubtless read of this in the papers, as I have seen it mentioned there recently myself----"

"I beg your pardon," interrupted Nora, "but I must know what that monster is. Please do not keep me in suspense any longer."

"Allow me to develop my discourse in its natural sequence," said Klingenspiel. "I learned of this elixir at the time its originator first formulated it and as we were friends, I secured from him the formula----"

"What is that animal?" cried Nora, seizing Klingenspiel's ear with a dexterity born of long experience in educational work, and lifting him slowly toward a position upon the points of his toes.

"A guinea pig, a guinea pig, a guinea pig," howled the student of heredity.

"You guinea, you," exclaimed Nora in incredulous amazement, and yet as she looked at the monster, which having finished the cabbage was crouching contentedly between two huge elms, she was struck by the familiarity of the markings and contour of the tremendous brute. Turning in such wise that of the appendices of his countenance it should be his short and elusive nose instead of his ears presented toward the grasp of the expert in the science of pedagogy, Klingenspiel continued.

"Generations of guinea pigs succeed each other in less than three months. In less than ten months, a pair of guinea pigs become great-grandfather and great-grandmother. In a few years, heredity could here do what a century of breeding horses could not. I treated a pair of young guinea pigs with the elixir. Their growth was wonderful. Their children inherited the size of their parents and to this the elixir added, and so on, cumulatively, for successive generations. I kept only a single pair out of each brood and disposed of that pair as soon as the next generation became grown. I did this partly because I could thus conduct my experiment with greater secrecy. Besides, after the guinea pigs were large enough, I found considerable profit in selling their hides for leather. Unfortunately, the animal is unfit for food. My labors, therefore, were bent upon creating a breed of draught animals, creatures greater than elephants and with the agility of guinea pigs. A team of these guinea pigs would outstrip the fastest horse, though hauling a load of tons. The hide, too, would be extremely valuable. I had at last reached a size beyond which I did not care to go. Ribot and his mate were twice the bulk of elephants. I was now ready to establish a herd. But alas! Two days ago, the mate died. All my labors were for nothing. I had only the one enormous male left. All the connecting links between him and the first small ancestors are gone. But worse. As is often the case with male elephants when the mate dies, Ribot went mad, ran amuck. Hitherto docile and kind, as is the nature of the Cavia cobaya, vulgarly called guinea pig, this evening Ribot became as you have seen him. I have lost my labors. Momentarily I expect to lose my life."

"What's the matter with it now? Look at it, look at it," exclaimed Nora.

Ribot had rolled on his back and after giving a few feeble twitches of his great legs, remained without life, his legs pointing stiffly into the air.

"He is dead," said Klingenspiel, and Nora was unable to tell whether relief and joy or regret and despair predominated in this utterance. "Ribot is dead. Our lives are saved, my experiment is ruined."

Turning toward Nora and scrutinizing her attentively for the first time, he remarked, "How white your face is. The strain has been a dreadful one. It has driven all the color away from you." And then letting his eyes wander over her person until they paused upon her hands resting in the moonlight upon the top of the sash, "and how green your hands are. What can it be? Paris green," he said after a close examination. "It was that which killed Ribot."

"I remember now. Father was sprinkling something on them. It is cabbage worm time."

"I hope you will allow me to call," said Klingenspiel, and Nora graciously assenting, he continued: "I admire your beauty, I admire your many admirable qualities of head and heart, but above all, your decision, your great decision."

"Oh, I don't think I showed much decision just because I threw the cabbage out."

"I referred to your taking my ear and learning, out of its due order in the thesis I was expounding, what manner of beast Ribot was. Ribot killed two of my best African geese. They are, however, still fit for food. I am going to beg your acceptance of one."

"We will have it for dinner to-morrow," said Nora, "and you must come over."

"I shall be pleased to do so," said Klingenspiel, and that was the beginning of a series of visits to the home of Timothy Sullivan that resulted in the marriage of Miss Nora and Wilhelm Klingenspiel. The latter still raises African geese there in the vicinity of Stony Island, but he has made no more experiments with guinea pigs, for his wife will not hear to it.

[The end]
Wardon Allan Curtis's short story: Adventure Of Norah Sullivan And The Student Of Heredity