The Magic Table

THE man in the train looked pale, haggard, and unhappy, and his face kept twitching in a pitiful and miserable way when he told me his story.

‘You must know,’ he said, ‘that even as a very young man I felt a deep and profound love for order, rule, and measure, for logic and rationality. Mathematics was my favorite study, and the idea that two and two always and under all circumstances make four was to me a thought of strange spiritual consolation and of a real intellectual joy. I found in this and in similar ideas all the inner support and all the sustaining help that other men derive from religion, philosophy, and poetry. My world was a sensible, logical, rational world, a world where cause and effect, corresponded with each other, where one fitness was capped by another fitness, and where discipline and order were paramount virtues. So I lived happy and satisfied, until I made the fatal resolve to purchase the Magic Table.’

‘The Magic Table?’ I exclaimed, surprised.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said impatienlly, ‘the Magic Table. Have you never heard of it? Every child would know it at once. It is the old Wonder-Table to which you say, “Table, spread,” and then it spreads for you and serves magic dishes. I bought the table from a brown, ragged, and dirty-looking Armenian or Syrian whose outlandish gibberish I only half understood, and who, with a wailing and singing voice, always repeated, “ Dah-mahs-koos, Dah-mahskoos,” like an incantation or a prayer. As far as I could gather from his words, the table had been since the most ancient times in the possession of his family, and he wanted to sell it only to send his consumptive sister to the south. And then he wailed again and looked miserable and unhappy, and touched me pleadingly with his brown and snake-like hands, and sobbed out queer and fantastic Syrian words; and at last — out of impatience and disgust, and simply to get rid of him — I bought the accursed table for the price he named.’

‘Of course,’ I said, ‘it was all a swindle, and the table was quite a commonplace one?’

‘Oh, it was the Magic Table right enough,’ he replied wearily; ‘only its magic was somehow spoiled, and this almost drove me crazy. Well, as I said, I bought the table, had it dusted, put it somewhere in a dark corner of my apartment, and then, not because I believed in it, but as a silly joke, I said to it, “Table, spread.” I had wished for a brown and succulently roasted fowl, and the next moment a bottle of wine stood on the table. I was delighted; I had never seriously thought that there could be any magic in this old brown piece of wood; and to my further surprise, I found the wine quite excellent. Only, the pity was I had no appetite for wine; what I really wanted was roasted fowl. Therefore I said to the table, “Old top, you are quite marvelous and you are worth your weight in gold, but you did not understand me properly. Your wine is good, but I ordered a roasted chicken. Spread again, table, and serve me what I want.” This time the table spread, and a big sugar-encrusted fruit-cake stood before me.

‘As these mischances happened again and again, I presumed that the table understood only Syrian or Arabic. I then bought some dictionaries and studied assiduously the names of the things I wished for; but all my efforts were in vain. Whatever I asked of my table, I always received something else. The things I demanded, the things I was really longing for, I could never get; and only those for which I did not care in the least were given to me. When I was almost famished with hunger, drink appeared; when I was thirsting for something cool and sweet and refreshing, hot and spiced dishes steamed on the table; and by-and-by it seemed to me that there was some malevolent power hidden in the table which consciously and in pursuance of its own wicked purpose thus thwarted my every desire.

‘After a while the table absolutely haunted me; it affected my nerves — and yet I was helpless. If some machinery, some spring, some motor had regulated the table, I could simply have taken the whole thing apart and repaired it; but it was a Magic Table, its property was all a Wonder, and before a Wonder that does not work properly we are helpless, we can do nothing.

‘At last I tried to conquer the table with the weapons of sense and reason. To find the rule of his ruleless whims, I made long charts and lists, wrote on one side what I had asked for and on the other side what I received; but even this plan proved a failure: I could demand the same thing twenty times, but I always got something else. Yet it was always another something else, and I recognized, to my despair, that the laws of reason did not govern my table; that I stood before something absolutely irrational, and that its whole existence was an anomaly in a world of rule and order.

Other people might have suffered less, but I, who had always delighted in clearness, fitness, and rule, who was enamored of logic and who worshiped reason and sense — I could not stand this lawless force in my house, I could not stand it in the world. I hated the table with a bitter and consuming hate, and I tried to destroy it. Every evening I hammered it to pieces, but my weapons did not prevail against it, and every new morning I found it again wholeand sound. Sometimes it even seems with a triumphant, malevolency to mock me and my useless efforts. Do you now understand what I went through, and what I suffer?’

He looked so excited and threatening that my only thought was to calm him.

‘Of course,’ I said as consolingly as I could, ‘of course I understand you. Do we not all suffer in the same way, and do we not all carry the same burden? Is not Life itself a spoiled Magic Table that does not work properly? Do we not all receive only those things for which we have hardly any use, and do we not always pray in vain for the gifts we really demand? Are we not just as powerless and helpless as you are, because Life also is not regulated by a motor, or a machine, or a spring? Life, too, is a Wonder and a Marvel, and before the Wonder our reason can do nothing. After we have tried a thousand lists and charts, and used one formula after the other, do we not all come at last to the bitter insight that Life is senseless and without proper rule, and a constant contradiction to all logic and rationality? And in the end, in spite of our disillusionment and disenchantment, and in spite of the constant consciousness of being fooled, we yet have to confess that Life is stronger than we are and more powerful; that we cannot destroy it and cannot thwart it; that it is strange, and wonderful, and eternal.’

I had spoken as quietly as possible, and by-and-by the excitement of the stranger abated. He looked now very old, very tired, very unhappy, and extremely weary; and after a while he fell sound asleep in his seat. Later, in came his physician, who had been, for a while, in the smoking-car, and began to gather their luggage together.

‘A hopeless case,’ he said, looking at the sleeping man. ‘Fortunately he is harmless. I suppose he has been tellyou his Magic-Table story. That is one of his fixed ideas. He is really quite incurable.’

‘How sad! ’ I said, ‘and yet his trend of thought is absolutely logical and rational.’

‘Well,’ said the physician, ‘don’t you understand that anyone who thinks absolutely logically and rationally is simply bound to become insane; and that only those who are willing to admit some irrationality into their scheme of things can hope to keep sane? It seems a kind of intellectual vaccination. He who is a little insane can keep most of his sense intact; but he who insists on an absolute and merciless saneness quite loses his mind.’

With this mystical and rather unmedical statement, he woke his patient, gripped his bags, nodded to me, and left the train. But the face of the haunted man and his story of the Wonder-Table hovers still like a dark and ominous cloud on the far horizon of my memory.