In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


At nine o’clock in the evening, July 31, 1900, the International Congress was to assemble in the great lecture-hall of the Belgian Scientific Pavilion, which adjourned the Tasmanian Pavilion, to hear the Countess Suzanne d’Alzette read her paper on the ux. 
          That morning the Countess and I, with five furniture vans, had transported the five great incubators to the platform of the lecture-hall, and had engaged an army of plumbers and gas-fitters to make the steam-heating connections necessary to maintain in the incubators a temperature of 100? Fahrenheit. 
          A heavy green curtain hid the stage from the body of the lecture-hall. Behind this curtain the five enormous eggs reposed, each in its incubator. 
          The Countess Suzanne was excited and calm by turns, her cheeks were pink, her lips scarlet, her eyes bright as blue planets at midnight. 
          Without faltering she rehearsed her discourse before me, reading from her type-written manuscript in a clear voice, in which I could scarcely discern a tremor. Then we went through the dumb show of exhibiting the uxen eggs to a frantically applauding audience; she responded to countless supposititious encores, I leading
her out repeatedly before the green curtain to face the great, damp, darkened auditorium. 
          Then, in response to repeated imaginary recalls, she rehearsed the extemporaneous speech, thanking the distinguished audience for their patience in listening to an unknown confrère, and confessing her obligations to me (here I appeared and bowed in self-abasement) for my faith in her and my aid in securing for her a
public hearing before the most highly educated audience in the world. 
          After that we retired behind the curtain to sit on an empty box and eat sandwiches and watch the last lingering plumbers pasting up the steam connections with a pot of molten lead. 
          The plumbers were Americans, brought to Paris to make repairs on the American buildings during the exposition, and we conversed with them affably as they pottered about, plumber-like, poking under the flooring with lighted candles, rubbing their thumbs up and down musty old pipes, and prying up planks in dark
          They informed us that they were union men and that they hoped we were too. And I replied that union was certainly my ultimate purpose, at which the young Countess smiled dreamily at vacancy. 
          We did not dare leave the incubators. The plumbers lingered on, hour after hour, while we sat and watched the little silver thermometers, and waited. It was time for the Countess Suzanne to dress, and still the plumbers had not finished; so I sent a messenger for her maid, to bring her trunk to the lecture-hall, and I
despatched another messenger to my lodgings for my evening clothes and fresh linen. 
          There were several dressing-rooms off the stage. Here, about six o’clock, the Countess retired with her maid, to dress, leaving me to watch the plumbers and the thermometers. 
          When the Countess Suzanne returned, radiant and lovely in an evening gown of black lace, I gave her the roses I had brought for her and hurried off to dress in my turn, leaving her to watch the thermometers. 
          I was not absent more than half an hour, but when I returned I found the Countess anxiously conversing with the plumbers and pointing despairingly at the thermometers, which now registered only 95?. 
          “You must keep up the temperature!” I said. “Those eggs are due to hatch within a few hours. What’s the trouble with the heat ?” 
          The plumber did not know, but thought the connections were defective. 
          “But that’s why we called you in!” exclaimed the Countess. “Can’t you fix things securely?” 
          “Oh, we’ll fix things, lady,” replied the plumber, condescendingly, and he ambled away to rub his thumb up and down a pipe. 
          As we alone were unable to move and handle the enormous eggs, the Countess, whose sweet character was a stranger to vindictiveness or petty resentment, had written to the members of the ornithological committee, revealing the marvellous fortune which had crowned her efforts in the search for evidence to sustain her
theory concerning the ux, and inviting these gentlemen to aid her in displaying the great eggs to the assembled congress. 
          This she had done the night previous. Every one of the gentlemen invited had come post-haste to her “hotel,” to view the eggs with their own sceptical and astonished eyes; and the fair young Countess and I tasted our first triumph in her cellar, whither we conducted Sir Peter Grebe, the Crown-Prince of Monaco, Baron de
Becasse, and his Majesty King Christian of Finland. 
          Scepticism and incredulity gave place to excitement and unbounded enthusiasm. The old King embraced the Countess; Baron de Becasse attempted to kiss me; Sir Peter Grebe made a handsome apology for his folly and vowed that he would do open penance for his sins. The poor Crown-Prince, who was of a nervous
temperament, sat on the cellar-stairs and wept like a child. 
          His grief at his own pig-headedness touched us all profoundly. 
          So it happened that these gentlemen were coming tonight to give their aid to us in moving the priceless eggs, and lend their countenance and enthusiastic support to the young Countess in her maiden effort. 
          Sir Peter Grebe arrived first, all covered with orders and decorations, and greeted us affectionately, calling the Countess the “sweetest lass in France,” and me his undutiful Yankee cousin who had landed feet foremost at the expense of the British Empire. 
          The King of Finland, the Crown-Prince, and Baron de Becasse arrived together, a composite mass of medals, sashes, and academy palms. To see them moving boxes about, straightening chairs, and pulling out rugs reminded me of those golden-embroidered gentlemen who run out into the arena and roll up carpets after the
acrobats have finished their turn in the Nouveau Cirque. I was aiding the King of Finland to move a heavy keg of nails, when the Countess called out to me in alarm, saying that the thermometers had dropped to 80? Fahrenheit. 
          I spoke sharply to the plumbers, who were standing in a circle behind the dressing-rooms; but they answered sullenly that they could do no more work that day. Indignant and alarmed, I ordered them to come out to the stage, and, after some hesitation, they filed out, a sulky, silent lot of workmen, with their tools already
gathered up and tied in their kits. At once I noticed that a new man had appeared among them—a red-faced, stocky man wearing a frock-coat and a shiny silk hat. 
          “Who is the master-workman here?” I asked. 
          “I am,” said a man in blue overalls. 
          “Well,” said I, “why don’t you fix those steam-fittings?” 
          There was a silence. The man in the silk hat smirked. 
          “Well?” said I. 
          “Come, come, that’s all right,” said the man in the silk hat. “These men know their business without you tellin’ them.” 
          “Who are you?” I demanded, sharply. 
          “Oh, I’m just a walkin’ delegate,” he replied, with a sneer. “There’s a strike in New York and I come over here to tie this here exposition up. See?” 
          “You mean to say you won’t let these men finish their work?” I asked, thunderstruck. 
          “That’s about it, young man,” he said, coolly. 
          Furious, I glanced at my watch, then at the thermometers, which now registered only 75?. Already I could hear the first-comers of the audience arriving in the body of the hall. Already a stage-hand was turning up the footlights and dragging chairs and tables hither and thither. 
          “What will you take to stay and attend to those steam-pipes?” I demanded, desperately. 
          “It can’t be done nohow,” observed the man in the silk hat. “That New York strike is good for a month yet.” Then, turning to the workmen, he nodded and, to my horror, the whole gang filed out after him, turning deaf ears to my entreaties and threats. 
          There was a deathly silence, then Sir Peter exploded into a vivid shower of words. The Countess, pale as a ghost, gave me a heart-breaking look. The Crown-Prince wept. 
          “Great Heaven!” I cried; “the thermometers have fallen to 70?!” 
          The King of Finland sat down on a chair and pressed his hands over his eyes. Baron de Becasse ran round and round, uttering subdued and plaintive screams; Sir Peter swore steadily. 
          “Gentlemen,” I cried, desperately, “we must save those eggs! They are on the very eve of hatching! Who will volunteer?” 
          “To do what?” moaned the Crown-Prince. 
          “I’ll show you,” I exclaimed, running to the incubators and beckoning to the Baron to aid me. 
          In a moment we had rolled out the great egg, made a nest on the stage floor with the bales of cotton-wool, and placed the egg in it. One after another we rolled out the remaining eggs, building for each its nest of cotton; and at last the five enormous eggs lay there in a row behind the green curtain. 
          “Now,” said I, excitedly, to the King, “you must get up on that egg and try to keep it warm.” 
          The King began to protest, but I would take no denial, and presently his Majesty was perched up on the great egg, gazing foolishly about at the others, who were now all climbing up on their allotted eggs. 
          “Great Heaven!” muttered the King, as Sir Peter settled down comfortably on his egg, “I am willing to give life and fortune for the sake of science, but I can’t bear to hatch out eggs like a bird!” 
          The Crown-Prince was now sitting patiently beside the Baron de Becasse. 
          “I feel in my bones,” he murmured, “that I’m about to hatch something. Can’t you hear a tapping on the shell of your egg, Baron?” 
          “Parbleu!” replied the Baron. “The shell is moving under me.” 
          It certainly was; for, the next moment, the Baron fell into his egg with a crash and a muffled shriek, and floundered out, dripping, yellow as a canary. 
          “N’importe!” he cried, excitedly. “Allons! Save the eggs! Hurrah! Vive la science!” And he scrambled up on the fourth egg and sat there, arms folded, sublime courage transfiguring him from head to foot. 
          We all gave him a cheer, which was hushed as the stage-manager ran in, warning us that the audience was already assembled and in place. 
          “You’re not going to raise the curtain while we’re sitting, are you?” demanded the King of Finland, anxiously. 
          “No, no,” I said; “sit tight, your Majesty. Courage, gentlemen! Our vindication is at hand!” 
          The Countess glanced at me with startled eyes; I took her hand, saluted it respectfully, and then quietly led her before the curtain, facing an ocean of upturned faces across the flaring footlights. 
          She stood a moment to acknowledge the somewhat ragged applause, a calm smile on her lips. All her courage had returned; I saw that at once. Very quietly she touched her lips to the eau-sucrée, laid her manuscript on the table, raised her beautiful head, and began: 
          “That the ux is a living bird I am here before you to prove—” 
          A sharp report behind the curtain drowned her voice. She paled; the audience rose amid cries of excitement. 
          “What was it?” she asked, faintly. 
          “Sir Peter has hatched out his egg,” I whispered. “Hark! There goes another egg!” And I ran behind the curtain. 
          Such a scene as I beheld was never dreamed of on land or sea. Two enormous young uxen, all over gigantic pin-feathers, were wandering stupidly about. 
          Mounted on one was Sir Peter Grebe, eyes starting from his apoplectic visage; on the other, clinging to the bird’s neck, hung the Baron de Becasse. 
          Before I could move, the two remaining eggs burst, and a pair of huge, scrawny fledgelings rose among the debris, bearing off on their backs the King and Crown-Prince. 
          “Help!” said the King of Finland, faintly. “I’m falling off!” 
          I sprang to his aid, but tripped on the curtain-spring. The next instant the green curtain shot up, and there revealed to that vast and distinguished audience, roamed four enormous chicks, bearing on their hacks the most respected and exclusive aristocracy of Europe. 
          The Countess Suzanne turned with a little shriek of horror, then sat down in her chair, laid her lovely head on the table, and very quietly fainted away, unconscious of the frantic cheers which went roaring to the roof. 
          This, then, is the true history of the famous exposition scandal. And, as I have said, had it not been for the presence in that audience of two American reporters nobody would have known what all the world now knows—nobody would have read of the marvellous feats of bareback riding indulged in by the King of
Finland— nobody would have read how Sir Peter Grebe steered his mount safely past the footlights only to come to grief over the prompter’s box. 
          But this is scandal. And, as for the charming Countess Suzanne d’Alzette, the public has heard all that it is entitled to hear, and much that it is not entitled to hear. 
          However, on second thoughts, perhaps the public is entitled to hear a little more. I will therefore say this much—the shock of astonishment which stunned me when the curtain flew up, revealing the King-bestridden uxen, was nothing to the awful blow which smote me when the Count d’Alzette leaped from the orchestra,
over the footlights, and bore away with him the fainting form of his wife, the lovely Countess d’Alzette. 
          I sometimes wonder—but, as I have repeatedly observed, this dull and pedantic narrative of fact is no vehicle for sentimental soliloquy. It is, then, merely sufficient to say that I took the earliest steamer for kinder shores, spurred on to haste by a venomous cablegram from the Smithsonian, repudiating me, and by another
from Bronx Park, ordering me to spend the winter in some inexpensive, poisonous, and unobtrusive spot, and make a collection of isopods. 
          The island of Java appeared to me to be as poisonously unobtrusive and inexpensive a region as I had ever heard of; a steamer sailed from Antwerp for Batavia in twenty-four hours. Therefore, as I say, I took the night-train for Brussels, and the steamer from Antwerp the following evening. 
          Of my uneventful voyage, of the happy and successful quest, there is little to relate. The Javanese are frolicsome and hospitable. There was a girl there with features that were as delicate as though chiselled out of palest amber, and I remember she wore a most wonderful jewelled, helmet-like head-dress, and jingling
bangles on her ankles, and when she danced she made most graceful and poetic gestures with her supple wrists—but that has nothing to do with isopods, absolutely nothing. 
          Letters from home came occasionally. Professor Farrago had returned to the Bronx and had been re-elected to the high office he had so nobly held when I first became associated with him. 
          Through his kindness and by his advice I remained for several years in the Far East, until a letter from him arrived recalling me and also announcing his own hurried and sudden departure for Florida. He also mentioned my promotion to the office of subcurator of department; so I started on my homeward voyage very much
pleased with the world, and arrived in New York on April 1, 1904, ready for a rest to which I believed myself entitled. And the first thing that they handed me was a letter from Professor Farrago, summoning me South.