He had no real knowledge of the subject, and I had none of any kind, which made its ungraspable facts all the more thrilling. He was always thrown into a sort of ecstasy by the unthinkable distances of space--the supreme drama of the universe. The fact that Alpha Centauri was twenty-five trillions of miles away--two hundred and fifty thousand times the distance of our own remote sun, and that our solar system was traveling, as a whole, toward the bright star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, at the rate of forty-four miles a second, yet would be thousands upon thousands of years reaching its destination, fairly enraptured him.
The astronomical light-year--that is to say, the distance which light travels in a year--was one of the things which he loved to contemplate; but he declared that no two authorities ever figured it alike, and that he was going to figure it for himself. I came in one morning, to find that he had covered several sheets of paper with almost interminable rows of ciphers, and with a result, to him at least, entirely satisfactory. I am quite certain that he was prouder of those figures and their enormous aggregate than if he had just completed an immortal tale; and when he added that the nearest fixed star--Alpha Centauri--was between four and five light-years distant from the earth, and that there was no possible way to think that distance in miles or even any calculable fraction of it, his glasses shone and his hair was roached up as with the stimulation of these stupendous facts.
By and by he said:
"I came in with Halley's comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.' Oh! I am looking forward to that." And a little later he added:
"I've got some kind of a heart disease, and Quintard won't tell me whether it is the kind that carries a man off in an instant or keeps him lingering along and suffering for twenty years or so. I was in hopes that Quintard would tell me that I was likely to drop dead any minute; but he didn't. He only told me that my blood-pressure was too strong. He didn't give me any schedule; but I expect to go with Halley's comet."
I seem to have omitted making any entries for a few days; but among his notes I find this entry, which seems to refer to some discussion of a favorite philosophy, and has a special interest of its own:
July 14, 1909. Yesterday's dispute resumed, I still maintaining that, whereas we can think, we generally don't do it. Don't do it, & don't have to do it: we are automatic machines which act unconsciously. From morning till sleeping-time, all day long. All day long our machinery is doing things from habit & instinct, & without requiring any help or attention from our poor little 7-by-9 thinking apparatus. This reminded me of something: thirty years ago, in Hartford, the billiard-room was my study, & I wrote my letters there the first thing every morning. My table lay two points off the starboard bow of the billiard-table, & the door of exit and entrance bore northeast&-by-east-half-east from that position, consequently you could see the door across the length of the billiard-table, but you couldn't see the floor by the said table. I found I was always forgetting to ask intruders to carry my letters down-stairs for the mail, so I concluded to lay them on the floor by the door; then the intruder would have to walk over them, & that would indicate to him what they were there for. Did it? No, it didn't. He was a machine, & had habits. Habits take precedence of thought.
Now consider this: a stamped & addressed letter lying on the floor-- lying aggressively & conspicuously on the floor--is an unusual spectacle; so unusual a spectacle that you would think an intruder couldn't see it there without immediately divining that it was not there by accident, but had been deliberately placed there & for a definite purpose.