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White Lightning

188 pages
Library of Alexandria
An auburn-haired boy of twelve stood looking in at the door of a blacksmith shop and wondering why the smith sprinkled water on the fire. He stood with two girls and had an arm around each, but for the moment he had forgotten them both. There have always been smithies, and children coming home from school have loved to look in at the open door, and doubtless there has been many a lad of whom the girls were so fond that they were willing to stand like tame fillies while he gazed into the shop like a wondering colt. In such cases the young spectators were fascinated by the brawny courage of the smith, and by the danger of the sparks, but few would conclude that water will burn. This boy however did. He noticed that the sprinkling made the red flame sink back into the coals and then emerge whiter and brighter. The fire was certainly feeding on water. Presently the dazzling bar of iron was withdrawn, and the sparks began to fall at his feet. The girls shrank back, and he laughingly drew them away. Now this did not happen in a village but in the city of Chicago, and in the year 1905. Marvin Mahan was the third son of Chase Mahan, a mining engineer who was oftener away from home than at home. On this May afternoon, however, he happened not only to be in Chicago but to be engaged in writing letters in his den, which held minerals and chemicals and included most of the top story of an old house on the north side. There the small boy easily found him. The afternoon sun was pouring through an open window on many a mineral of which Marvin already knew the name, but off in a corner a beam of it was running along a table on which lay a sieve of phosphor bronze. The boy stopped and gazed at that sieve. “Well, son?” “I’m looking at your rainbows.” Marvin went over and slowly tilted the sieve toward the beam of light. The wires were pretty close together, about three hundred to the inch, and at an angle of thirty degrees the space between them was less than the diameter of the wire. Marvin raised and lowered the slope till suddenly a perfect spectrum of solar light appeared, and he turned grinningly toward his father. Chase nodded and smiled. “Some day, when I’m not making so much useless money, I’ll write a little paper about that. You have put your finger on a new way of measuring light-waves. But what the devil are you doing up here when you ought to be out with your nine?” “I want to know what part of water burns?” “Do you mean is burned?” “Yes, dad.” “Hydrogen.” “Can I make some?” “You can’t make anything. All you can do is to discover things that God Almighty put in the earth, and you are damned lucky if you can do that. I ought not to teach you to swear, but this letter I’m writing is to a self-made man who rather needs to be sworn at.” “Aren’t you a self-made man, dad?” “No! I came to this town bare-footed, but it’s only by the grace of God that I’m not in jail. You’ll be doing well if you keep out of jail yourself.” “I will, dad, but can I turn some hydrogen loose?” “Do you want to blow a hand off?” “I don’t mind, if I can see how the meat looks.” “Then go and ask Norah for a marmalade jar. Get a glass one, and wash the cork.” Marvin was off like a flash. Chase rose and paced the room, thinking about his children and thanking God they were no worse than they were. Every one of them except Helen was likely to pay dearly for the energy inherited from his own restless self. Augustus however was safely married without any serious explosion so far. Charles had not yet been expelled from college. Helen—sweet flower—was safe in her grave. Baby Anita was for the moment safe down stairs in her mother’s arms. But Marvin—this lovable twelve-year-old dare-devil—this imp of bottled lightning—what of him?