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Carol spoke only to tease me, I'm sure.
She was taking my general science course just because she needed a science credit to get her high school diploma; she didn't aspire to become another Madam Curie. Her grades were good enough, but she had more exciting goals. She was seventeen, and just discovering the dark witchcraft of sex.
That was my first year out of college, and I was only five years older. Though I was trying hard to keep the unwritten commandment that teachers shall not have love affairs with their students, she surely knew how deeply she disturbed me.
We were setting up the apparatus for a classroom experiment--a spring gun mounted to shoot a steel ball at a falling weight. I was still too serious about my own small scientific attainments, and I had announced with an unwise solemnity that we were about to demonstrate the universal force of gravitation.
"This magnet drops the weight, as the shot leaves the gun," I had explained, with far too much assurance. "The gun is level. The shot and the weight both move in the same vertical plane. They're both subject to the same gravitational acceleration, which will keep them both in the same horizontal plane. Therefore, no matter what the range is, or how hard we fire the shot, it will always hit the weight."
"Really, Mr. Guilborn?" Bright mischief was shining in Carol's eyes. "I don't believe it!"
"Do you think Newton's laws have been repealed?"
That was a rash question, and Eon Hunter seized it at once. He was a lean, gangling, ungainly youth, a year or two older than Carol. I had been feeling a little sorry for him, because he was so obviously and hopelessly in love with her.
"Why not?"he demanded. "Doesn't everything change?"
His voice was low and serious, almost as if he really meant to challenge Newton, but I saw a quiver of restrained amusement at the corner of Carol's mouth, and heard a stifled titter from the other members of the class.
"We have arranged this experiment to let the laws of nature speak for themselves," I answered hastily. "If the shot does hit the weight, we'll know that the law of gravity is still on the job."
"But it won't," Hunter said.
I looked at him sharply, wondering for the nth time what made him tick. He had been a puzzle to me, and often an exasperation, ever since the first day of school. He was easily my worst student. Yet I knew he wasn't stupid, and I had begun to feel irked at my own failure to interest him in science. He spent the class periods staring vacantly at nothing or filling his notebook with sketches of Carol Wakeman's pretty face. Even his personal appearance annoyed me. He slouched. His hair needed cutting. His shirts were seldom clean. I couldn't understand the fond glow in Carol's eyes when she looked at him--or why he now sat stubbornly shaking his head, as if he really expected the experiment to fail.
"If gravity has quit," I told the class, "you had better hold on to your seats."
Nobody smiled. Hunter straightened at his desk, staring at the suspended weight with a curious defiance in his brooding dark eyes, and I saw that the others had caught his sullen skepticism. Unbelief was vibrant in the room. Even Carol's mischievous eyes had turned grave with doubt.
For a moment I almost lost my temper.
"Hunter is trying to challenge the basic facts of science," I said, too sharply. "But we needn't talk about the question he has raised. Our experiment will pass it on to nature." I pulled back the plunger of the little spring gun. "Just watch the answer."
I released the plunger. The weight dropped. The steel ball flew toward it--and missed.
"Too bad, Mr. Guilborn." Carol was laughing at me. "It looks like Eon is actually repealing your precious laws of nature."
Her laughter made the failure look like a personal victory for Hunter. I was unreasonably upset. I felt my face turning red, and I swung quickly away from the class to replace the weight and pick up the shot.
"I don't think Hunter has really thrown any monkey wrench into the machinery of the universe," I said, when I could trust my voice again. "I imagine the failure was due to another law of science, that I had almost forgotten. It is called Casey's law. It applies to all scientific experiments. It states that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Perhaps the gun isn't quite level, or not quite in line."
I checked the position of the gun, and tried again. Another miss. A rising titter swept the class. I checked the circuit that dropped the weight. There was nothing wrong that I could discover, but the shot kept missing. I was trembling with a futile exasperation, before the bell rang.
Most of the students seemed merely amused at my misfortune, as they filed out of the room, but Hunter's gaunt face wore an awed elation. He paused silently to look at the apparatus, and then marched solemnly on as if lifted up with the secret awareness of some irresistible power.
Carol stopped at my desk.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Guilborn. I didn't intend to embarrass you."
She smiled, and I forgave her everything.
"And, please don't stay mad at Eon."
"I'm trying not to be angry," I told her. "But I certainly don't understand him."
"Nobody does." Her voice softened tenderly. "But I like him anyhow."
When she was gone, I hooked up the weight and the gun one more time in the very same way and repeated the experiment. The prompt ping of the shot against the falling weight assured me that Newton's laws were once more in force. I resolved to forget my chagrin and try to understand Eon Hunter.
That was hard to do, but he caused me no more trouble in class. Next day he sat sprawled as idly as usual in his seat, staring out of the window at the gaudy colors of fall on the hills around Picton, seeming to hear nothing I said. It seemed wiser not to disturb him.
A few weeks later, I called at his home. He had just failed the mid-term examinations in nearly all his subjects. I thought that his lack of attention and effort might be due to some personal difficulty that I could help him solve. Secretly, too, I must have been still hoping to discover how he had managed to defy the law of gravity.
My landlady told me where he lived, and supplied a gossipy history of his parents.
"They've come down in the world so far it nearly kills 'em," she said. "Lucinda Hunter's from somewhere in the South. Never had a penny, as far as I know, but she can't get over all the slaves and plantations her people owned a hundred years ago, before the Civil War. She thinks she's a little too good to mix with us common folks, here in Picton."
"And what about Eon's father?"
"A good enough match for her, I guess. Old Caleb Hunter's grandpa was one of the first pioneers to stake out his claim in the Picton Valley. When I first remember Caleb, his pa was still well to do, with the biggest store in town and a fine house on Broad Street. He's nothing but a bookkeeper now, in the store his daddy used to own."
Broad Street was blighted now, with the fine old homes sagging into decay. A dead tree spread its whitened limbs over a yard of dead weeds beside the old Hunter house. The rotten shutters had fallen apart, and the front porch groaned alarmingly under my feet.
Eon's father came to the door in a soiled kitchen apron, with a dish-rag in his hand. He was a tired little man, with a pinched red face and a feeble smile of false optimism. I caught a whiff of whisky on his breath. He gave me a damp, limp hand, and took me back into the gloomy old living room.
"Ma!" he called, with hollow heartiness. "Look who's here! The science teacher Eon was telling us about."
I didn't ask what Eon had told.
Lucinda Hunter sat in a wheel chair, reading tattered magazine. Her thin body was hunched with arthritis. Her hands were painfully swollen and twisted. Only her face seemed unmarked with suffering. She looked up at me with a vague fleeting smile, like that of a happy child unwilling to be drawn from some exciting private game.
I asked about Eon.
"He said he was going for a walk," she told me. "The trees are so pretty, this time of year. If I could only get out--"
She shrugged stiffly, with a faint smile of sweet resignation.
"The boy's always hiking off, all by himself," Caleb Hunter added."Sometimes out till midnight. Just walking and thinking, he says. I don't know where he goes, or what he finds to think about."
That looked like the opening I wanted.
"I'm worried about him," I said. "He's not attentive in class. I'm afraid he isn't trying--"
"Why should he try?" Hunter's voice sharpened. "What can he look forward to, in times like these?"
"These times aren't really so bad for young people who accept them realistically," I protested. "I don't think many things are actually impossible to a young man like Eon, if he's only willing to make the necessary effort. You are doing him a serious wrong, if you deny him hope."
"Hope?" The worn little bookkeeper gestured with the greasy dish-rag, as if erasing hope. "He'll be drafted next year. If he gets home all in one piece, he'll have to drudge the rest of his life away at some dull two-bit job. He hasn't got a chance."
I tried to tell him that Eon could surely find or create some opportunity to do whatever he wanted, but his black pessimism made my words sound like empty platitudes. I turned to Lucinda Hunter.
"I'm only trying to help your son find himself," I told her. "Doesn't he have some gift? Some special interest that we can help him find and cultivate?"
"Eon has many talents." Her smooth face reddened, as if I had stung her pride. "More than you can imagine." She moved her head stiffly to look at her husband. "Show Mr. Guilborn Eon's paintings."
Caleb Hunter took me upstairs to Eon's room. Books were stacked on the unmade bed. They were piled on the rickety desk, and scattered among odds and ends of soiled clothing across the dusty floor. A thin reek of turpentine and linseed oil met us at the door, and I saw a covered easel placed where it would catch the north light from the window.
I paused to glance at Eon's books. Tattered old volumes of Sir Walter Scott, that must have come down from his mother's Southern family. Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe. Shakespeare, Browning, Keats. Classics. But nothing that could have taught him how to suspend the laws of motion.
"Always got his nose buried in some moldy old book." His father sniffed. "He can't afford the new ones, but mostly he's happy enough with these. Till he gets his moody spells."
He was gathering up books and muddy shoes and tubes of drying paint, so that we could reach the easel. I asked if Eon had taken art lessons.
"Only from his mother. She used to paint, before her hands got so bad. Did illustrations for children's books. She taught him a lot, before he got so discouraged."
He reached for the cover, and suddenly paused.
"But he never showed her this one. He's--well, funny about it. He always turned it to the wall, when I came in and found him working on it. So don't let on you ever saw it." He uncovered the painting.
"Oh!" I had to catch my breath, because it was so completely unexpected. A lovely girl sat on a rock in the foreground of a fantastic prehistoric landscape, feeding flowers to a hideous reptile.
"Well?" Hunter's small bloodshot eyes were almost apprehensively intent. "What about it?"
Ordinarily, I preferred the abstract paintings that seemed to reflect the mathematical abstractions of science and the clean geometry of modern machines. Eon's fantasy seemed illogical and unscientific. The great reptiles were all extinct, I knew, many million years before the human race evolved. I thought the smiling girl should logically have been afraid of that many-fanged beast. I felt that I shouldn't like the picture at all.
Yet it caught hold of me, with its reckless mood of pure romance. My common sense struggled against the spell of fantastic gayety it cast over me, and surrendered to something stronger than fact or logic. Suddenly I wanted to deny all the uncomfortable realities I knew, and escape the drab world around me to join that happy girl in her enchanted universe.
"It's beautiful!" I told Hunter. "I don't pretend to know what it means. And of course I'm no critic. But I think it's wonderfully done. Amazing, to be the work of a high school boy. Eon certainly ought to go ahead with his painting."