|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
THE WILY DERVISH
HERE are ant-hills everywhere, large or small," observed
Jules. "Even in the garden I could have counted a dozen.
From some the ants are so numerous they blacken the road
when they come out. It must take a great many plant-lice
to nourish all that little colony."
"Numerous though they be," his uncle assured him, "they will
never lack cows, as plant-lice are still more numerous.
There are so many that they often seriously menace our
harvests. The miserable louse declares war against us. To
understand it, listen to this story:
"There was once a king of India who was much bored. To
entertain him, a dervish invented the game of chess. You do
not know this game. Well, on a board something like a
checkerboard two adversaries range, in battle array, one
white, the other
 black, pieces of different values: pawns,
knights, bishops, castles, queen and king. The action
begins. The pawns, simple foot-soldiers, are destined as
always to receive the first of the glory on the battlefield.
The king looks on at their extermination, guarded by his
grandeur far from the fray. Now the cavalry charge, slashing
with their swords right and left; even the bishops fight
with hot-headed enthusiasm, and the ambulating castles go
here and there, protecting the flanks of the army. Victory
is decided. Of the blacks, the queen is a prisoner; the king
has lost his castles; one knight and one bishop do wonderful
deeds to procure his flight. They succumb. The king is
checkmated. The game is lost.
Chess-board with pieces
"This clever game, image of war, pleased the bored king very
much, and he asked the dervish what reward he desired for
" 'Light of the faithful,' answered the inventor, 'a poor
dervish is easily satisfied. You shall give me one grain of
wheat for the first square of the chessboard, two for the
second, four for the third, eight for the fourth, and you
will double thus the number of grains, to the last square,
which is the sixty-fourth. I shall be satisfied with that.
My blue pigeons will have enough grain for some days.'
" 'This man is a fool,' said the king to himself; 'he might
have had great riches and he asks me for a few handfuls of
wheat.' Then, turning to his minister:—'Count out ten
purses of a thousand sequins for this man, and have a sack
of wheat given him. He will have a hundred times the amount
of grain he asks of me.'
 " 'Commander of the faithful,' answered the dervish, 'keep
the purses of sequins, useless to my blue pigeons, and give
me the wheat as I wish.'
" 'Very well. Instead of one sack, you shall have a
" 'It is not enough, Sun of Justice.'
" 'You shall have a thousand.'
" 'Not enough, Terror of the unfaithful. The squares of my
chessboard would not have their proper amount.'
"In the meantime the courtiers whispered among themselves,
astonished at the singular pretensions of the dervish, who,
in the contents of a thousand sacks, would not find his
grain of wheat doubled sixty-four times. Out of patience,
the king convoked the learned men to hold a meeting and
calculate the grains of wheat demanded. The dervish smiled
maliciously in his beard, and modestly moved aside while
awaiting the end of the calculation.
"And behold, under the pen of the calculators, the figure
grew larger and larger. The work finished, the head one
" 'Sublime Commander,' said he, 'arithmetic has decided. To
satisfy the dervish's demand, there is not enough wheat in
your granaries. There is not enough in the town, in the
kingdom, or in the whole world. For the quantity of grain
demanded, the whole earth, sea and continents together,
would be covered with a continuous bed to the depth of a
"The king angrily bit his mustache and, unable to count out
to him his grains of wheat, named the
 inventor of chess
prime vizier. That is what the wily dervish wanted."
"Like the king, I should have fallen into the dervish's
snare," said Jules. "I should have thought that doubling a
grain sixty-four times would only give a few handfuls of
"Henceforth," returned Uncle Paul, "you will know that a
number, even very small, when multiplied a number of times
by the same figure, is like a snow-ball which grows in
rolling, and soon becomes an enormous ball which all our
efforts cannot move."
"Your dervish was very crafty," remarked Emile. "He modestly
contented himself with one grain of wheat for his blue
pigeons, on condition that they doubled the number on each
square. Apparently, he asked next to nothing; in reality, he
asked more than the king possessed. What is a dervish,
"In the religions of the East they call by that name those
who renounce the world to give themselves up to prayer and
"You say the king made him prime vizier. Is that a high
"Prime vizier means prime minister. The dervish then became
the greatest dignitary of the State, after the king."
"I am no longer surprised that he refused the ten purses of
a thousand sequins. He was waiting for something better. The
ten purses, however, would make a good sum?"
"A sequin is a gold piece worth about twelve francs. At
that rate, the king offered the dervish a
 sum of one hundred
and twenty thousand francs, besides the sacks of wheat."
"And the dervish preferred the grain sixty-four times
"In comparison what was offered him was nothing."
"And the plant-lice?" asked Jules.
"The story of the dervish is bringing us to that directly,"
his uncle assured him.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics