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"What a magnificent animal!" he continued. "It is full of mystery; its eyes are provided with a sort of burnished covering, to which the Orientals attribute the powers of fascination; it has a glossier and finer coat than our handsomest horses possess, striped with more or less tawny bands, very much like the zebra's hide. There is something pliant and silky about its hair, which is sleek to the touch. Its powers of sight vie in precision and accuracy with those of man; it is rather larger than our largest domestic donkeys, and is possessed of extraordinary courage. If it is surprised by any chance, it defends itself against the most dangerous wild beasts with remarkable success; the rapidity of its movements can only be compared with the flight of birds; an onager, sir, would run the best Arab or Persian horses to death. According to the father of the conscientious Doctor Niebuhr, whose recent loss we are deploring, as you doubtless know, the ordinary average pace of one of these wonderful creatures would be seven thousand geometric feet per hour. Our own degenerate race of donkeys can give no idea of the ass in his pride and independence. He is active and spirited in his demeanor; he is cunning and sagacious; there is grace about the outlines of his head; every movement is full of attractive charm. In the East he is the king of beasts. Turkish and Persian superstition even credits him with a mysterious origin; and when stories of the prowess attributed to him are told in Thibet or in Tartary, the speakers mingle Solomon's name with that of this noble animal. A tame onager, in short, is worth an enormous amount; it is well-nigh impossible to catch them among the mountains, where they leap like roebucks, and seem as if they could fly like birds. Our myth of the winged horse, our Pegasus, had its origin doubtless in these countries, where the shepherds could see the onager springing from one rock to another. In Persia they breed asses for the saddle, a cross between a tamed onager and a she-ass, and they paint them red, following immemorial tradition. Perhaps it was this custom that gave rise to our own proverb, 'Surely as a red donkey.' At some period when natural history was much neglected in France, I think a traveler must have brought over one of these strange beasts that endures servitude with such impatience. Hence the adage. The skin that you have laid before me is the skin of an onager. Opinions differ as to the origin of the name. Some claim that Chagri is a Turkish word; others insist that Chagri must be the name of the place where this animal product underwent the chemical process of preparation so clearly described by Pallas, to which the peculiar graining that we admire is due; Martellens has written to me saying that Chaagri is a river----"
"I thank you, sir, for the information that you have given me; it would furnish an admirable footnote for some Dom Calmet or other, if such erudite hermits yet exist; but I have had the honor of pointing out to you that this scrap was in the first instance quite as large as that map," said Raphael, indicating an open atlas to Lavrille; "but it has shrunk visibly in three months' time----"
"Quite so," said the man of science. "I understand. The remains of any substance primarily organic are naturally subject to a process of decay. It is quite easy to understand, and its progress depends upon atmospherical conditions. Even metals contract and expand appreciably, for engineers have remarked somewhat considerable interstices between great blocks of stone originally clamped together with iron bars. The field of science is boundless, but human life is very short, so that we do not claim to be acquainted with all the phenomena of nature."
"Pardon the question that I am about to ask you, sir," Raphael began, half embarrassed, "but are you quite sure that this piece of skin is subject to the ordinary laws of zoology, and that it can be stretched?"
"Certainly----oh, bother!----" muttered M. Lavrille, trying to stretch the talisman. "But if you, sir, will go to see Planchette," he added, "the celebrated professor of mechanics, he will certainly discover some method of acting upon this skin, of softening and expanding it."
"Ah, sir, you are the preserver of my life," and Raphael took leave of the learned naturalist and hurried off to Planchette, leaving the worthy Lavrille in his study, all among the bottles and dried plants that filled it up.
Quite unconsciously Raphael brought away with him from this visit, all of science that man can grasp, a terminology to wit. Lavrille, the worthy man, was very much like Sancho Panza giving to Don Quixote the history of the goats; he was entertaining himself by making out a list of animals and ticking them off. Even now that his life was nearing its end, he was scarcely acquainted with a mere fraction of the countless numbers of the great tribes that God has scattered, for some unknown end, throughout the ocean of worlds.
Raphael was well pleased. "I shall keep my ass well in hand," cried he. Sterne had said before his day, "Let us take care of our ass, if we wish to live to old age." But it is such a fantastic brute!
Planchette was a tall, thin man, a poet of a surety, lost in one continual thought, and always employed in gazing into the bottomless abyss of Motion. Commonplace minds accuse these lofty intellects of madness; they form a misinterpreted race apart that lives in a wonderful carelessness of luxuries or other people's notions. They will spend whole days at a stretch, smoking a cigar that has gone out, and enter a drawing-room with the buttons on their garments not in every case formally wedded to the button-holes. Some day or other, after a long time spent in measuring space, or in accumulating Xs under Aa-Gg, they succeed in analyzing some natural law, and resolve it into its elemental principles, and all on a sudden the crowd gapes at a new machine; or it is a handcart perhaps that overwhelms us with astonishment by the apt simplicity of its construction. The modest man of science smiles at his admirers, and remarks, "What is that invention of mine? Nothing whatever. Man cannot create a force; he can but direct it; and science consists in learning from nature."
The mechanician was standing bolt upright, planted on both feet, like some victim dropped straight from the gibbet, when Raphael broke in upon him. He was intently watching an agate ball that rolled over a sun-dial, and awaited its final settlement. The worthy man had received neither pension nor decoration; he had not known how to make the right use of his ability for calculation. He was happy in his life spent on the watch for a discovery; he had no thought either of reputation, of the outer world, nor even of himself, and led the life of science for the sake of science.
"It is inexplicable," he exclaimed. "Ah, your servant, sir," he went on, becoming aware of Raphael's existence. "How is your mother? You must go and see my wife."
"And I also could have lived thus," thought Raphael, as he recalled the learned man from his meditations by asking of him how to produce any effect on the talisman, which he placed before him.
"Although my credulity must amuse you, sir," so the Marquis ended, "I will conceal nothing from you. That skin seems to me to be endowed with an insuperable power of resistance."
"People of fashion, sir, always treat science rather superciliously," said Planchette. "They all talk to us pretty much as the incroyable did when he brought some ladies to see Lalande just after an eclipse, and remarked, 'Be so good as to begin it over again!' What effect do you want to produce? The object of the science of mechanics is either the application or the neutralization of the laws of motion. As for motion pure and simple, I tell you humbly, that we cannot possibly define it. That disposed of, unvarying phenomena have been observed which accompany the actions of solids and fluids. If we set up the conditions by which these phenomena are brought to pass, we can transport bodies or communicate locomotive power to them at a predetermined rate of speed. We can project them, divide them up in a few or an infinite number of pieces, accordingly as we break them or grind them to powder; we can twist bodies or make them rotate, modify, compress, expand, or extend them. The whole science, sir, rests upon a single fact.
"You see this ball," he went on; "here it lies upon this slab. Now, it is over there. What name shall we give to what has taken place, so natural from a physical point of view, so amazing from a moral? Movement, locomotion, changing of place? What prodigious vanity lurks underneath the words. Does a name solve the difficulty? Yet it is the whole of our science for all that. Our machines either make direct use of this agency, this fact, or they convert it. This trifling phenomenon, applied to large masses, would send Paris flying. We can increase speed by an expenditure of force, and augment the force by an increase of speed. But what are speed and force? Our science is as powerless to tell us that as to create motion. Any movement whatever is an immense power, and man does not create power of any kind. Everything is movement, thought itself is a movement, upon movement nature is based. Death is a movement whose limitations are little known. If God is eternal, be sure that He moves perpetually; perhaps God is movement. That is why movement, like God is inexplicable, unfathomable, unlimited, incomprehensible, intangible. Who has ever touched, comprehended, or measured movement? We feel its effects without seeing it; we can even deny them as we can deny the existence of a God. Where is it? Where is it not? Whence comes it? What is its source? What is its end? It surrounds us, it intrudes upon us, and yet escapes us. It is evident as a fact, obscure as an abstraction; it is at once effect and cause. It requires space, even as we, and what is space? Movement alone recalls it to us; without movement, space is but an empty meaningless word. Like space, like creation, like the infinite, movement is an insoluble problem which confounds human reason; man will never conceive it, whatever else he may be permitted to conceive.
"Between each point in space occupied in succession by that ball," continued the man of science, "there is an abyss confronting human reason, an abyss into which Pascal fell. In order to produce any effect upon an unknown substance, we ought first of all to study that substance; to know whether, in accordance with its nature, it will be broken by the force of a blow, or whether it will withstand it; if it breaks in pieces, and you have no wish to split it up, we shall not achieve the end proposed. If you want to compress it, a uniform impulse must be communicated to all the particles of the substance, so as to diminish the interval that separates them in an equal degree. If you wish to expand it, we should try to bring a uniform eccentric force to bear on every molecule; for unless we conform accurately to this law, we shall have breaches in continuity. The modes of motion, sir, are infinite, and no limit exists to combinations of movement. Upon what effect have you determined?"
"I want any kind of pressure that is strong enough to expand the skin indefinitely," began Raphael, quite of out patience.
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac