Jim said he reckoned a balloon was a good deal the fastest thing in the world, unless it might be some kinds of birds—a wild pigeon, maybe, or a railroad.
But Tom said he had read about railroads in England going nearly a hundred miles an hour for a little ways, and there never was a bird in the world that could do that—except one, and that was a flea.
“A flea? Why, Mars Tom, in de fust place he ain’t a bird, strickly speakin’—”
“He ain’t a bird, eh? Well, then, what is he?”
“I don’t rightly know, Mars Tom, but I speck he’s only jist a’ animal. No, I reckon dat won’t do, nuther, he ain’t big enough for a’ animal. He mus’ be a bug. Yassir, dat’s what he is, he’s a bug.”
“I bet he ain’t, but let it go. What’s your second place?”
“Well, in de second place, birds is creturs dat goes a long ways, but a flea don’t.”
“He don’t, don’t he? Come, now, what is a long distance, if you know?”
“Why, it’s miles, and lots of ’em—anybody knows dat.”
“Can’t a man walk miles?”
“Yassir, he kin.”
“As many as a railroad?”
“Yassir, if you give him time.”
“Can’t a flea?”
“Well—I s’pose so—ef you gives him heaps of time.”
“Now you begin to see, don’t you, that distance ain’t the thing to judge by, at all; it’s the time it takes to go the distance in that counts, ain’t it?”
“Well, hit do look sorter so, but I wouldn’t ’a’ b’lieved it, Mars Tom.”
“It’s a matter of proportion, that’s what it is; and when you come to gauge a thing’s speed by its size, where’s your bird and your man and your railroad, alongside of a flea? The fastest man can’t run more than about ten miles in an hour—not much over ten thousand times his own length. But all the books says any common ordinary third-class flea can jump a hundred and fifty times his own length; yes, and he can make five jumps a second too—seven hundred and fifty times his own length, in one little second—for he don’t fool away any time stopping and starting—he does them both at the same time; you’ll see, if you try to put your finger on him. Now that’s a common, ordinary, third-class flea’s gait; but you take an Eyetalian first-class, that’s been the pet of the nobility all his life, and hasn’t ever knowed what want or sickness or exposure was, and he can jump more than three hundred times his own length, and keep it up all day, five such jumps every second, which is fifteen hundred times his own length. Well, suppose a man could go fifteen hundred times his own length in a second—say, a mile and a half. It’s ninety miles a minute; it’s considerable more than five thousand miles an hour. Where’s your man now?—yes, and your bird, and your railroad, and your balloon? Laws, they don’t amount to shucks ’longside of a flea. A flea is just a comet b’iled down small.”
Jim was a good deal astonished, and so was I. Jim said:
“Is dem figgers jist edjackly true, en no jokin’ en no lies, Mars Tom?”
“Yes, they are; they’re perfectly true.”
“Well, den, honey, a body’s got to respec’ a flea. I ain’t had no respec’ for um befo’, sca’sely, but dey ain’t no gittin’ roun’ it, dey do deserve it, dat’s certain.”
“Well, I bet they do. They’ve got ever so much more sense, and brains, and brightness, in proportion to their size, than any other cretur in the world. A person can learn them ’most anything; and they learn it quicker than any other cretur, too. They’ve been learnt to haul little carriages in harness, and go this way and that way and t’other way according to their orders; yes, and to march and drill like soldiers, doing it as exact, according to orders, as soldiers does it. They’ve been learnt to do all sorts of hard and troublesome things. S’pose you could cultivate a flea up to the size of a man, and keep his natural smartness a-growing and a-growing right along up, bigger and bigger, and keener and keener, in the same proportion—where’d the human race be, do you reckon? That flea would be President of the United States, and you couldn’t any more prevent it than you can prevent lightning.”
“My lan’, Mars Tom, I never knowed dey was so much to de beas’. No, sir, I never had no idea of it, and dat’s de fac’.”
“There’s more to him, by a long sight, than there is to any other cretur, man or beast, in proportion to size. He’s the interestingest of them all. People have so much to say about an ant’s strength, and an elephant’s, and a locomotive’s. Shucks, they don’t begin with a flea. He can lift two or three hundred times his own weight. And none of them can come anywhere near it. And, moreover, he has got notions of his own, and is very particular, and you can’t fool him; his instinct, or his judgment, or whatever it is, is perfectly sound and clear, and don’t ever make a mistake. People think all humans are alike to a flea. It ain’t so. There’s folks that he won’t go near, hungry or not hungry, and I’m one of them. I’ve never had one of them on me in my life.”
“It’s so; I ain’t joking.”
“Well, sah, I hain’t ever heard de likes o’ dat befo’.” Jim couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t; so we had to drop down to the sand and git a supply and see. Tom was right. They went for me and Jim by the thousand, but not a one of them lit on Tom. There warn’t no explaining it, but there it was and there warn’t no getting around it. He said it had always been just so, and he’d just as soon be where there was a million of them as not; they’d never touch him nor bother him.
We went up to the cold weather to freeze ’em out, and stayed a little spell, and then come back to the comfortable weather and went lazying along twenty or twenty-five miles an hour, the way we’d been doing for the last few hours. The reason was, that the longer we was in that solemn, peaceful desert, the more the hurry and fuss got kind of soothed down in us, and the more happier and contented and satisfied we got to feeling, and the more we got to liking the desert, and then loving it. So we had cramped the speed down, as I was saying, and was having a most noble good lazy time, sometimes watching through the glasses, sometimes stretched out on the lockers reading, sometimes taking a nap.
It didn’t seem like we was the same lot that was in such a state to find land and git ashore, but it was. But we had got over that—clean over it. We was used to the balloon now and not afraid any more, and didn’t want to be anywheres else. Why, it seemed just like home; it ’most seemed as if I had been born and raised in it, and Jim and Tom said the same. And always I had had hateful people around me, a-nagging at me, and pestering of me, and scolding, and finding fault, and fussing and bothering, and sticking to me, and keeping after me, and making me do this, and making me do that and t’other, and always selecting out the things I didn’t want to do, and then giving me Sam Hill because I shirked and done something else, and just aggravating the life out of a body all the time; but up here in the sky it was so still and sunshiny and lovely, and plenty to eat, and plenty of sleep, and strange things to see, and no nagging and no pestering, and no good people, and just holiday all the time. Land, I warn’t in no hurry to git out and buck at civilization again. Now, one of the worst things about civilization is, that anybody that gits a letter with trouble in it comes and tells you all about it and makes you feel bad, and the newspapers fetches you the troubles of everybody all over the world, and keeps you downhearted and dismal ’most all the time, and it’s such a heavy load for a person. I hate them newspapers; and I hate letters; and if I had my way I wouldn’t allow nobody to load his troubles on to other folks he ain’t acquainted with, on t’other side of the world, that way. Well, up in a balloon there ain’t any of that, and it’s the darlingest place there is.
We had supper, and that night was one of the prettiest nights I ever see. The moon made it just like daylight, only a heap softer; and once we see a lion standing all alone by himself, just all alone on the earth, it seemed like, and his shadder laid on the sand by him like a puddle of ink. That’s the kind of moonlight to have.
Mainly we laid on our backs and talked; we didn’t want to go to sleep. Tom said we was right in the midst of the Arabian Nights now. He said it was right along here that one of the cutest things in that book happened; so we looked down and watched while he told about it, because there ain’t anything that is so interesting to look at as a place that a book has talked about. It was a tale about a camel-driver that had lost his camel, and he come along in the desert and met a man, and says:
“Have you run across a stray camel to-day?”
And the man says:
“Was he blind in his left eye?”
“Had he lost an upper front tooth?”
“Was his off hind leg lame?”
“Was he loaded with millet-seed on one side and honey on the other?”
“Yes, but you needn’t go into no more details—that’s the one, and I’m in a hurry. Where did you see him?”
“I hain’t seen him at all,” the man says.
“Hain’t seen him at all? How can you describe him so close, then?”
“Because when a person knows how to use his eyes, everything has got a meaning to it; but most people’s eyes ain’t any good to them. I knowed a camel had been along, because I seen his track. I knowed he was lame in his off hind leg because he had favored that foot and trod light on it, and his track showed it. I knowed he was blind on his left side because he only nibbled the grass on the right side of the trail. I knowed he had lost an upper front tooth because where he bit into the sod his teeth-print showed it. The millet-seed sifted out on one side—the ants told me that; the honey leaked out on the other—the flies told me that. I know all about your camel, but I hain’t seen him.”
“Go on, Mars Tom, hit’s a mighty good tale, and powerful interestin’.”
“That’s all,” Tom says.
“All?” says Jim, astonished. “What ’come o’ de camel?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mars Tom, don’t de tale say?”
Jim puzzled a minute, then he says:
“Well! Ef dat ain’t de beatenes’ tale ever I struck. Jist gits to de place whah de intrust is gittin’ red-hot, en down she breaks. Why, Mars Tom, dey ain’t no sense in a tale dat acts like dat. Hain’t you got no idea whether de man got de camel back er not?”
“No, I haven’t.”
I see myself there warn’t no sense in the tale, to chop square off that way before it come to anything, but I warn’t going to say so, because I could see Tom was souring up pretty fast over the way it flatted out and the way Jim had popped on to the weak place in it, and I don’t think it’s fair for everybody to pile on to a feller when he’s down. But Tom he whirls on me and says:
“What do you think of the tale?”
Of course, then, I had to come out and make a clean breast and say it did seem to me, too, same as it did to Jim, that as long as the tale stopped square in the middle and never got to no place, it really warn’t worth the trouble of telling.
Tom’s chin dropped on his breast, and ’stead of being mad, as I reckoned he’d be, to hear me scoff at his tale that way, he seemed to be only sad; and he says:
“Some people can see, and some can’t—just as that man said. Let alone a camel, if a cyclone had gone by, you duffers wouldn’t ’a’ noticed the track.”
I don’t know what he meant by that, and he didn’t say; it was just one of his irrulevances, I reckon—he was full of them, sometimes, when he was in a close place and couldn’t see no other way out—but I didn’t mind. We’d spotted the soft place in that tale sharp enough, he couldn’t git away from that little fact. It graveled him like the nation, too, I reckon, much as he tried not to let on.