Negligible Tales, by Ambrose Bierce

Perry Chumly’s Eclipse

The spectroscope is a singularly beautiful and delicate instrument, consisting, essentially, of a prism of glass, which, decomposing the light of any heavenly body to which the instrument is directed, presents a spectrum, or long bar of color. Crossing this are narrow, dark and bright lines produced by the gases of metals in combustion, whereby the celestial orb’s light is generated. From these dark and bright lines, therefore, we ascertain all that is worth knowing about the composition of the sun and stars.

Now Ben had made some striking discoveries in spectroscopic analysis at his private garden observatory, and had also an instrument of superior power and capacity, invented, or at least much improved, by himself; and this instrument it was that he and I were arranging for an examination of the comet then flaming in the heavens. William sat by apparently uninterested. Finally we had our arrangements for an observation completed, and Ben said: “Now turn her on.”

“That reminds me,” said William, “of a little story about Perry Chumly, who —”

“For the sake of science, William,” I interrupted, laying a hand on his arm, “I must beg you not to relate it. The comet will in a few minutes be behind the roof of yonder lodging house. We really have no time for the story.”

“No,” said Ben, “time presses; and, anyhow, I’ve heard it before.”

“This Perry Chumly,” resumed William, “believed himself a born astronomer, and always kept a bit of smoked glass. He was particularly great on solar eclipses. I have known him to sit up all night looking out for one.”

Ben had now got the spectroscope trained skyward to suit him, and in order to exclude all irrelevant light had let down the window-blind on the tube of it. The spectrum of the comet came out beautifully — a long bar of color crossed with a lovely ruling of thin dark and bright lines, the sight of which elicited from us an exclamation of satisfaction.

“One day,” continued William from his seat at another window, “some one told Perry Chumly there would be an eclipse of the sun that afternoon at three o’clock. Now Perry had recently read a story about some men who in exploring a deep cañon in the mountains had looked up from the bottom and seen the stars shining at midday. It occurred to him that this knowledge might be so utilized as to give him a fine view of the eclipse, and enable him at the same time to see what the stars would appear to think about it.”

This,” said Ben, pointing to one of the dark lines in the cometic spectrum, ”this is produced by the vapor of carbon in the nucleus of the heavenly visitant. You will observe that it differs but slightly from the lines that come of volatilized iron. Examined with this magnifying glass”— adjusting that instrument to his eye —“it will probably show — by Jove!” he ejaculated, after a nearer view, “it isn’t carbon at all. It is MEAT!”

“Of course,” proceeded William, “of course Perry Chumly did not have any cañon, so what did the fellow do but let himself down with his arms and legs to the bottom of an old well, about thirty feet deep! And, with the cold water up to his middle, and the frogs, pollywogs and aquatic lizards quarreling for the cosy corners of his pockets, there he stood, waiting for the sun to appear in the field of his ‘instrument’ and be eclipsed.”

“Ben, you are joking,” I remarked with some asperity; “you are taking liberties with science, Benjamin. It can’t be meat, you know.”

“I tell you it is though,” was his excited reply; “it is just meat, I tell you! And this other line, which at first I took for sodium, is bone— bone, sir, or I’m an asteroid! I never saw the like; that comet must be densely peopled with butchers and horse-knackers!”

“When Perry Chumly had waited a long time,” William went on to say, “looking up and expecting every minute to see the sun, it began to get into his mind, somehow, that the bright, circular opening above his head — the mouth of the well —was the sun, and that the black disk of the moon was all that was needed to complete the expected phenomenon. The notion soon took complete possession of his brain, so that he forgot where he was and imagined himself standing on the surface of the earth.”

I was now scrutinizing the cometic spectrum very closely, being particularly attracted by a thin, faint line, which I thought Ben had overlooked.

“Oh, that is nothing,” he explained; “that’s a mere local fault arising from conditions peculiar to the medium through which the light is transmitted — the atmosphere of this neighborhood. It is whisky. This other line, though, shows the faintest imaginable trace of soap; and these uncertain, wavering ones are caused by some effluvium not in the comet itself, but in the region beyond it. I am compelled to pronounce it tobacco smoke. I will now tilt the instrument so as to get the spectrum of the celestial wanderer’s tail. Ah! there we have it. Splendid!”

“Now this old well,” said William, “was near a road, along which was traveling a big and particularly hideous nigger.”

“See here, Thomas,” exclaimed Ben, removing the magnifying glass from his eye and looking me earnestly in the face, “if I were to tell you that the coma of this eccentric heavenly body is really hair, as its name implies, would you believe it?”

“No, Ben, I certainly should not.”

“Well, I won’t argue the matter; there are the lines — they speak for themselves. But now that I look again, you are not entirely wrong: there is a considerable admixture of jute, moss, and I think tallow. It certainly is most remarkable! Sir Isaac Newton —”

“That big nigger,” drawled William, “felt thirsty, and seeing the mouth of the well thought there was perhaps a bucket in it. So he ventured to creep forward on his hands and knees and look in over the edge.”

Suddenly our spectrum vanished, and a very singular one of a quite different appearance presented itself in the same place. It was a dim spectrum, crossed by a single broad bar of pale yellow.

“Ah!” said Ben, “our waif of the upper deep is obscured by a cloud; let us see what the misty veil is made of.”

He took a look at the spectrum with his magnifying glass, started back, and muttered: “Brown linen, by thunder!”

“You can imagine the rapture of Perry Chumly,” pursued the indefatigable William, “when he saw, as he supposed, the moon’s black disk encroaching upon the body of the luminary that had so long riveted his gaze. But when that obscuring satellite had thrust herself so far forward that the eclipse became almost annular, and he saw her staring down upon a darkened world with glittering white eyes and a double row of flashing teeth, it is perhaps not surprising that he vented a scream of terror, fainted and collapsed among his frogs! As for the big nigger, almost equally terrified by this shriek from the abyss, he executed a precipitate movement which only the breaking of his neck prevented from being a double back-somersault, and lay dead in the weeds with his tongue out and his face the color of a cometic spectrum. We laid them in the same grave, poor fellows, and on many a still summer evening afterward I strayed to the lonely little church-yard to listen to the smothered requiem chanted by the frogs that we had neglected to remove from the pockets of the lamented astronomer.

“And, now,” added William, taking his heels from the window, “as you can not immediately resume your spectroscopic observations on that red-haired chamber-maid in the dormer-window, who pulled down the blind when I made a mouth at her, I move that we adjourn.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31