A Tragedy in Black and White and Other Stories
R.O.R.;/ or,“Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat.”
R.O.R.;/ or,“Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat.”
In a principal city of a far-away corner of the Antipodes, a solemn meeting was being held. A citizen of great wealth, reputed, indeed, to be worth many millions, had lately died. Strange to say, although he was so rich a man, he had no poor relations; at least, no person had put in a plea of kinship. Much excitement was, therefore, felt as to the contents of the dead man's will. This was to be read, by special direction, in the presence of certain persons, whose names were mentioned, and in a public hall, where all who were so disposed might listen.
It was the meeting to hear the will which was now going forward.
The chosen few, specified by the deceased, were accommodated with arm-chairs on a raised daïs; and the body of the hall was filled by a curious crowd, each individual of which it was composed hoping that he or she might be mentioned in this eccentric will.
Conversation was carried on in whispers which gradually died away, and a deep hush fell on the multitude as the lawyer, who was to read the will, advanced slowly and importantly to the edge of the daïs. He lightly touched his lips with a fine cambric handkerchief, coughed impressively twice, and unfolded the will.
Expectation stood on tiptoe.
The document was very short and to the point.page 70
“I, John Bates, being at this present time of a sane mind, do give and bequeath the whole of my fortune to that man who, upon his own showing, shall have wrought the greatest benefit to the human race. The claims must be made in person, and before a certain date, and shall be judged by a council composed of the following six persons. [Here the names were mentioned]. These six judges, however, shall be debarred from lodging a claim themselves, their respective merits being so equal that Solomon himself could not decide between them. In acknowledgment of their services, however, I request that the fortunate candidate, when chosen, shall present to each member of the council a handsome diamond ring.“
“Sept. 17, 188—.”
The names of two witnesses were appended.
That was all.
The huge assembly dispersed, greatly excited, and agreeing loudly that the will was ridiculous, such a question could never be decided; each individual, meanwhile, deeply pondering as to what action of his life he could found a claim upon.
The council, on the whole, were not dissatisfied. The members were all modest men, and, while appreciating the delicate compliment of their deceased friend as to their merits, felt that it was just possible that none of them might have gained the prize had they competed. As matters stood, each would be presented with a diamond ring, to say nothing of the prestige to be gained by acting as judges in a competition destined, doubtless, to be as famous as the world-renowned contest for the golden apple.
They had many meetings to discuss the best way of setting to work, and, it being found that the discussions were more satisfactory when the members had been refreshed with meat and wine, each meeting was prefaced by a dinner, the cost of which was defrayed out of a sum placed in the lawyer's hands for the incidental expenses incurred in carrying out the will.page 71
At length all was in train. A date three months later was fixed for the closing of the entries. Each candidate was to send in his name in writing. Each entry as it was received was to be dated and put away till the end of the three months, when no more applications would be admitted. Then the council would hold a grand public meeting, which all might attend, and the claim of each competitor would be heard separately, in the order in which the entries had been received.
As the time drew near the excitement became intense. The city was overflowing with strangers, each claiming to be the greatest benefactor of the human race. Everyone thoroughly believed in himself, and as thoroughly discredited his neighbour's pretensions, so that there was a most charming uncertainty as to the winner of the prize.
But at last the three months had expired, the last entry had been received and dated, and all things were in readiness.
So many had at the last moment been seized with an unwonted access of modesty, preferring to assume the more humble rôle of spectators, that no building was capable of holding them, so it was decided that the contest should take place, weather permitting, in the open air. A large enclosure was selected, having on three sides a bank, raised some feet, which would enable a large concourse to witness the interesting spectacle.
The eventful day dawned.
It was glorious summer weather, and the scene was most animated. Thousands of people stood or sat on the grassy bank. In the centre of the enclosure was spread a huge Japanese umbrella, under whose grateful shade sat the august council in easy chairs. At the elbow of each member stood a small table laden with refreshments of a liquid nature, and cigars of the choicest brand. It was hoped that these little comforts would enable the judges to bear up under the great fatigue of their arduous task, and would also tend to produce in their minds that mellow glow of self-satisfaction which is necessary for an impartial judgment. On the fourth side of the field was a row of page 72 spacious marquees, whence occasionally proceeded sounds suggestive of the Zoological Gardens at feeding time. These tents contained the competitors, whose excited feelings at times led them to give vent to groans and howls. Each was provided with a numbered ticket, and, as the numbers were called in rotation, every man answered to the one inscribed on his ticket.
All was prepared, and the business of the day began.
Number one was a gentleman who had hit upon the happy idea of inducing the whole human race to wear rose-coloured spectacles. He argued that, seen through this cheerful medium, life would appear so much brighter, that the most bilious misanthrope would be beguiled into happier views on every subject, and, consequently, business would proceed on a far pleasanter footing than at present. He was rejected, and his disappointment was not much mitigated by the suggestion of the council that he should try the effect of the spectacles himself, and see if that would lighten his grief.
Of course, every genius who had ever patented an invention, appeared with a specimen of his skill. Every article that could possibly be of use to mankind was shown, from flying machines to automatic blacking brushes. All were, however, put aside, in spite of the protests of the proud proprietors. The inventor of the flying machine kindly offered any or all of the council a trial of his patent. They thanked him, but unanimously declined his obliging proposal, stating that they were all married men, and they did not think their wives would approve of such experiments.
The automatic blacking brushes were also refused, the President of the council saying that though no doubt they were very useful, still, as a large proportion of humanity dispensed with the luxury of boots and shoes, and had therefore no need of blacking brushes, he was not justified in accepting them.
The next to appear was a gentleman from the Emerald Isle. He had invented an efficacious method of blowing up the reigning sovereigns of the world, for which method page 73 he claimed the invaluable and hitherto unattained qualities of secrecy and certainty. This invention was also rejected, the council considering that, however pleasing the result might be to the world at large, the process would be decidedly uncomfortable to the reigning sovereigns themselves. The patentee seemed annoyed at his failure, and wanted to fight the President, but was removed by the police, together with his infernal machine.
By this time it was growing dark, so the meeting was postponed to the following day.
Punctually at 10 o'clock the next morning, the council re-established themselves under the Japanese umbrella. A yet larger crowd than on the preceding day was present.
Soon after beginning work, the proprietor of a world-renowned unguent presented himself. He brought as witnesses two lovely damsels, in whose faces the roses and lilies of Nature were justly blended, claiming that this most desirable effect was gained by using his soap, which was found to be invaluable for the complexion. The members of the council wavered. They were but men, and might have awarded the prize to him who held such beauty at his command, had it not been for one of their number who had several daughters, and was, besides, colour-blind. He said he “didn't see anything in the girls to make such a fuss about,” so the plea was reluctantly dismissed.
At a later stage of the proceedings a slight hitch occurred.
A zealous advocate of temperance had invented a beverage which combined all the advantages with none of the drawbacks of alcoholic liquor. Being a nervous man, he had fortified himself for the ordeal with so many sips of his own decoction, that his courage had risen to the pitch known as Dutch, and he had fallen foul of the patentee of an oleaginous fluid, warranted to remedy every ill, mental or physical, that flesh is heir to, from a cold in the head to being lost in the bush. He accused him of putting alcohol into his preparation, whence it derived its healing virtues, and bade him “come on.” In vain did the insulted page 74 individual protest his innocence and invoke the aid of his patron saint; the temperance man would not be denied, and there had been a fray.
An aged Arab sheik had been brought by the proprietor of a patent pill, as a witness to the efficacy of his medicine. So great, indeed had been the effects thereof, that the sheik, feeling his youth renewed, had joined in the scuffle with such goodwill, despite his venerable appearance, that when the combatants were separated, it was found necessary to convey them in different cabs to the hospital. Their claims were disallowed.
The next to approach was a mild young man in spectacles, who held in his hand a manuscript. Being interrogated as to his invention, he replied, in a soft bleat, “I hardly know if I may dignify my work by the name of an invention, though it is, in truth, entirely the production of my own brain. It is merely a little story I have written. It contains nothing that can call a blush to the cheek of modesty, but I claim that it will bring sleep to weary eyes when ‘not poppy nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world’ will succeed. I will read it, and you can then judge.” Here he was hastily interrupted by the council, who assured him that though his work no doubt possessed the great qualities he claimed for it, still that other books had been written which were equally beneficial in their effect on mankind, so they must decline to receive it. The young author sighed and retired. Being discovered later fast asleep in a corner of the field, it was supposed he had been reading his work to himself in default of any other audience.
The ranks of the competitors were thinning; the judges had rejected several ordinary inventions, and were looking at one another in dismay, as they realised that, after all their labour, they were no nearer finding the universal benefactor than when they began. Suddenly, in answer to a number, almost the last on the list, a tall, spare man, presented himself. There was a proud confidence in his bearing which struck the council, who felt that here was the man so eagerly looked for.page 75
“Name?” said the President sharply.
“Zachariah P. Green,” was the answer equally sharp.
“Wal, I guess the States might claim to have raised me.”
“What is your invention?”
The man paused. He looked round him; his chest heaved with emotion; there was a deathly silence.
“Wal,” he said slowly, “wal, I call it ‘Rough on Rabbits!’”
A hoarse cry came from the multitude.
The judges rose simultaneously to their feet.
“It is he!” they cried, as with one voice.
Then came a revulsion of feeling, and they seemed oppressed by a ghastly fear.
Presently the President, an aged man with snowy hair, leant forward, and in a husky whisper, murmured—
“Has it been tried before? Is it poison?”
The man shook his head disdainfully.
“Poison!” he repeated, with deep scorn.
The President fell back, and another member, with anxiety in his eye, stammered out: “Is it wire-netting?”
Another contemptuous shake of the head was the only answer.
Yet a third man pressed forward, so agitated he could scarcely speak, and gasped forth:
Zachariah P. Green turned an indignant glare on his questioner.
“Cats!” he repeated. “And do yeou reckon that Zachariah P. Green would come all the way from the States if he had no other ideas in his head than that blamed foolishness? Not much, yeou bet. No, sir!”page 76
A momentary pause; then drawing from his pocket, with a flourish, a neat document, “Read that,” he said, and placing it on the centre table, folded his arms, and calmly awaited the result, while surveying the expectant crowd.
He had not long to wait. The council gathered round the table in most undignified haste, hustling each other regardless of good manners, in their eagerness to read the important paper.
It was very short.
There was a moment's consultation, then the President, disentangling himself from his colleagues, advanced towards Zachariah P. Green, and took him by the hand.
“My friend,” he began—then stopped, overcome by his feelings. Making a violent effort, he choked down his emotion, and proceeded—“My dear friend, you have saved us.”
Then the listening people broke in with shouts and cheers. Women sobbed and fainted. Men who had not wept for years felt the softening influence of the scene, and gentle tears stole down their rugged cheeks.
But he, the hero of the hour, he alone stood immovable. Only his breast heaved, and his eagle eye flashed fire. It was the proudest moment of his life.
Meanwhile, the President, who was fond of the sound of his own voice, and was, besides, of a mathematical turn of mind, continued: “Yes! you have saved this country, which is, or will be, the greatest country in the world; therefore, in benefiting us, you benefit the whole human race.—Q.E.F.,” winding up with a happy reminiscence of his school days.
Renewed applause on the part of the crowd, then a deep silence, for Zachariah P. Green was about to speak. Said he, “Wal, folks, I'm glad to hev' done yeou a good turn. And now, Mr. President, I'll trouble yeou to hand over that fortune, as I'm wishful to catch the next steamer home.”page 77
Great protests from the council, who wished to fěte their deliverer. But he was adamant, refusing to be moved by their entreaties, so the money, which was all ready in £1 notes, stowed in carefully sealed sacks, was handed over to him.
Taking a tender farewell of the council, and bowing to the crowd, he departed in a hansom, caught the steamer, and quitted these shores for ever.
But he left his grand invention behind him, and a grateful nation is only waiting to hear of his death, and to raise the necessary funds to erect a noble statue of the universal benefactor, the man who discovered the way to eradicate the rabbits.