Stories for children by Arkady Averchenko.
Translated by Alina Moseykina.
When the teacher had dictated the problem out loud, everyone had written it down and the teacher, pulling out his watches, had announced that twenty minutes are granted for solving the problem, Simon Pantaliky scratched his round little head with his hand speckled with ink and told himself:
– If I won’t solve this problem, I’m dead…
Our dreamer Simon Pantaliky had this tendency to exaggerate all events and all everyday happenings and, in general, had quite a gloomy outlook.
If he came across a boy taller that him that placed forward his right leg, leaned forward with his body and, after checking no one was around, narrowed his eyes and asked: “Who do you think you are, you loser beef?” — then Simon Pantaliky, seeing with his very eyes the spirit of death whirling around him, would grow pale and whisper quietly: “I’m dead.”
If a teacher told him to come to the blackboard or if Simon spilled his tea on a clean tablecloth at home, he would always say this grave phrase: “I’m dead.”
In the first case this death would result in getting a couple of smacks, in the second case — getting D mark, and in the latter — getting sent out from the table party.
But this phrase “I’m dead” had such a solemn and gloomy sound to it, that Simon Pantaliky couldn’t help using it in all kinds of occasions.
By the way, this phrase was actually borrowed from some novel by Mayne Reid. Even though the main characters climbed a tree in order to escape flooding and an attack by native Indians, they were in danger from sharp nails of a jaguar awaiting in the dense tree branches. That’s when they unanimously said: “We’re dead.”
Just to be more precise in describing their condition it’s worth noting that the flood waters under the tree were full of caimans and a part of the tree was on fire caused by a powerful lightning.
That’s about the kind of condition that Simon Pantaliky felt he was in, when he was suddenly given an enormously hard problem, and in addition to that he was only given some twenty minutes for solving it.
The problem was as follows:
“Two men have set off for point B from point A. One of them walked with a speed of four km per hour and the other one with a speed of five km per hour. The question is: if the second one began his journey fifteen minutes after the first one and the distance between points A and B is so many kilometres, then who will come first to point B and with what advantage in time?”
After reading the problem Pantaliky told himself: “Such a problem to solve in just twenty minutes? I’m dead.”
He first wasted three minutes on sharpening his pencil and on finding the right angle for bending his piece of ruled paper on which he was about to express his mathematical abilities. Then Simon Pantaliky made a conscious effort and dived into analysing the problem.
The first thought that came into his mind was: “Who are these men with such names: “the first one” and “the second one”?” This dry terminology didn’t say anything neither to his mind nor to his heart. Why don’t they have real human names? Of course, they don’t have to be called John and William (he instinctively felt that those names are too simplistic and prosaic). Why not assign one of them a name Harold and the other one — Rudolf.
As soon as Pantaliky had christened “the first one” and “the second one” as Harold and Rudolf, the two men immediately became so close and familiar to him. With his mind’s eyes he could see Harold’s face tanned by the burning sun and a hat on his head with a white strip on it standing out. And he imagined Rudolf to be a big courageous man with broad shoulders, dressed in blue trousers made of canvas and a leather jacket made from beavers’ fur.
And here they are walking, one quarter of an hour ahead of the other.
Another thought crossed Pantaliky’s mind: “Do these two brave adventurers know one another? They probably do since they are in the same problem. If they do know one another, then why didn’t they arrange to make this journey together? Sure, walking together is more fun. And the fact that one of them is walking one km per hour faster than the other does not make any sense. The faster one could display some tact and understanding by restraining the tempo of his huge steps, and the slower one on his side could as well speed up a little bit. Moreover, walking together is more safe, because they can be attacked by robbers or by some wild animal…”
And one more interesting question came up: “Do they have rifles with them or not? When you start a journey you better take rifles with you, they may be also of use in the point B in case of an attack by the local bandits from the city’s slums…
Here we go again, it’s written: point A and point B. What kind of titles are these?” Simon Pantaliky could not imagine that these dry soulless letters represent towns and villages that are populated by people who live, struggle and suffer in these locations. Why not call one of the towns Santa Fe and the other one — Melbourne?
And as soon as he renamed point A to Santa Fe and point B transformed into the capital of Australia, then immediately the two cities became clear and familiar to him… Streets began quickly been build up with houses of wondrous exotic architecture, smoke began streaming up from chimneys, pavements became filled with people and horses began running up and down the road, carrying all kinds of horsemen on their backs — wild vaqueros that came in town to get more arms, and Spaniards that own faraway haciendas… For this kind of town, the two walkers, Rudolf and Harold, had set off.
It’s pity that the problem doesn’t mention anything about the purpose of their trip. What could possibly happen so as to make them leave their homes and run hastily to Santa Fe, to this awful town filled with drunks, killers and gamblers?
And another interesting point: Why did Rudolf and Harold choose to walk and not to ride on a horse? Did they want to follow the steps left by a cavalcade of guerrillas? Or maybe last night a mysterious stranger had cut their horses’ hamstrings so that they would not chase him, the keeper of a secret of Red Rhino diamonds…
Things are really strange… The fact that Rudolf began his way fifteen minutes after Harold shows that the honest herdsman did not trust Harold. In this case he may had decided to track down that daredevil, who is due to meet with a Creole in a raincoat that had already been moving towards him for three days, riding mainly in the dark of the night.
So was Simon Pantaliky sitting and floating in imagery, resting his dreamy wondering head on his little hand, dirty from chalk and ink.
And gradually the problem and its mystery became clearer and clearer in his brain.
The problem is as follows:
… The sun was just about to colour with gold the tops of tamarind trees, colourful tropical birds were still sleeping in their nests, black swans had not yet come out from the dense yellow bushes with Australian water lilies floating around them, that’s when a thug, holding in fear the whole area of Simpson creak, Harold Blocker, was quietly moving along a barely seen path in the woods. He could only walk four km per hour, he couldn’t go faster, because his leg was swollen. Yesterday a secret enemy had shot his leg while hiding behind a thick trunk of a magnolia tree.
– Damn! — Harold murmured. — If only Old Harry had his horse right now! Let the thunder strike me if I won’t find that villain that hamstrung my horse! Before three moons pass, I will surely find him…
At the same time, following him closely, a squatter Rudolf Cowters was crawling forward. His courageous face grew gloomy as he examined the clear steps Harold’s boots left on the fresh grass of Australian woods.
– I could as well do five km per hour — (why not miles or feet, by the way?) the squatter whispered — but I want to track this old fox down.
However, Blocker had already heard some noise behind his back. He jumped behind and eucalyptus tree and stood still, observing the path from his hideaway.
When he saw Rudolf crawling in the grass, he took out his pistol and fired. The honest squatter grabbed his wounded chest, turned around and fell down.
– Ha-ha! — Harold laughed. — Nice shot. At least this day was not boring and old Harry is happy about himself.
“Well, twenty minutes have passed!” — words of the Math teacher struck like thunder on a warm sunny day. “Now, has everyone solved it? Hey, Simon Pantaliky, tell us who came first to the point B?”
Our poor Pantaliky was ready to answer that, of course, coward Harold came first to Santa Fe, because squatter Cowters is lying wounded in his chest, suffering totally alone in the shadow of a poisonous snake tree…
But he didn’t say anything like that. He could only squeeze out: “I didn’t solve, I didn’t manage.”
And right away he saw how letter D like a fat treacherous snake crept into a cell against his surname. “I’m dead” — Simon whispered. “I will have to stay for second year in the same class. My dad will fix me up, I won’t get a rifle and mum will not buy “Around the world” magazine for me.”
And Pantaliky imagined that he is sitting on a branch of a snake tree… Below him are the waves of the flood waters and in there caimans are snapping their jaws, while jaguar is hiding in the tree tops and it will soon jump on him, because the fire from the other side of the tree is already getting closer to the angry beast…
– I’m dead.