All of the hubbub over the impending and, apparently potentially cataclysmic, solar eclipse is, frankly, beginning to wear a tad bit thin.
So, it is the moon and not a cloud that will briefly obscure a portion of the sun at midmorning. What possible use can that knowledge be? But it seems we mere mortals are such dolts that the newspapers, broadcasters and assorted social media must repeatedly warn us in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS with exclamation points that glancing up to see what is going on could result in permanent blindness and addlepated apoplexy. We are assured the eclipse will not cripple the power grid which incorporates a modest percent of solar power. The only difference between an eclipse and a cloud is that the cloud is less predictable.
The solar eclipse viewing glasses are sold out. The passage to and hotels along the path of totality are booked. There is no way in which to put the knowledge to profitable use.
Knowledge can be a valuable thing. Mark Twain liked to put his knowledge to good use, even if it meant stretching his grasp of that knowledge and the fortuity of the proximity of certain events to convenient circumstances beyond credulity. Stretching serves to underscore the reality and make it memorable.
How else to explain how a gentleman, if we may stretch the definition of the term to cover the rascally Hank Morgan, from 1879 who inexplicably finds himself stranded in the year 528 A.D. in the middle of June could possibly possess the astronomical charts and prodigious power of recall to precisely conclude that a total eclipse of the sun would occur minutes after noon two days hence?
As in some of the most improbable cliffhangers ever concocted, Twain’s protagonist in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” pulls it off. Somehow Morgan managed to get himself in trouble with local authorities and was about to dearly pay the consequences.
Here are the pertinent passages:
As the soldiers assisted me across the court the stillness was so profound that if I had been blindfold I should have supposed I was in a solitude instead of walled in by four thousand people. There was not a movement perceptible in those masses of humanity; they were as rigid as stone images, and as pale; and dread sat upon every countenance. This hush continued while I was being chained to the stake; it still continued while the fagots were carefully and tediously piled about my ankles, my knees, my thighs, my body. Then there was a pause, and a deeper hush, if possible, and a man knelt down at my feet with a blazing torch; the multitude strained forward, gazing, and parting slightly from their seats without knowing it; the monk raised his hands above my head, and his eyes toward the blue sky, and began some words in Latin; in this attitude he droned on and on, a little while, and then stopped. I waited two or three moments; then looked up; he was standing there petrified. With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun. It was a noble effect. You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave. Two shouts rang out, one close upon the heels of the other:
“Apply the torch!”
“I forbid it!”
The one was from Merlin, the other from the king. Merlin started from his place — to apply the torch himself, I judged. I said:
“Stay where you are. If any man moves — even the king — before I give him leave, I will blast him with thunder, I will consume him with lightnings!”
The multitude sank meekly into their seats, and I was just expecting they would. Merlin hesitated a moment or two, and I was on pins and needles during that little while. Then he sat down, and I took a good breath; for I knew I was master of the situation now. The king said:
“Be merciful, fair sir, and essay no further in this perilous matter, lest disaster follow. It was reported to us that your powers could not attain unto their full strength until the morrow; but —”
“Your Majesty thinks the report may have been a lie? It was a lie.”
That made an immense effect; up went appealing hands everywhere, and the king was assailed with a storm of supplications that I might be bought off at any price, and the calamity stayed. The king was eager to comply. He said:
“Name any terms, reverend sir, even to the halving of my kingdom; but banish this calamity, spare the sun!”
My fortune was made. I would have taken him up in a minute, but I couldn’t stop an eclipse; the thing was out of the question. So I asked time to consider. The king said:
“How long — ah, how long, good sir? Be merciful; look, it groweth darker, moment by moment. Prithee how long?”
“Not long. Half an hour — maybe an hour.”
There were a thousand pathetic protests, but I couldn’t shorten up any, for I couldn’t remember how long a total eclipse lasts. [Someone who remembered the time and date of a sixth century solar eclipse does not know how long one lasts?] I was in a puzzled condition, anyway, and wanted to think. Something was wrong about that eclipse, and the fact was very unsettling. If this wasn’t the one I was after, how was I to tell whether this was the sixth century, or nothing but a dream? Dear me, if I could only prove it was the latter! Here was a glad new hope. If the boy was right about the date, and this was surely the 20th, it wasn’t the sixth century. I reached for the monk’s sleeve, in considerable excitement, and asked him what day of the month it was.
Hang him, he said it was the twenty-first ! It made me turn cold to hear him. I begged him not to make any mistake about it; but he was sure; he knew it was the 21st. So, that feather-headed boy had botched things again! The time of the day was right for the eclipse; I had seen that for myself, in the beginning, by the dial that was near by. Yes, I was in King Arthur’s court, and I might as well make the most out of it I could.
The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and more distressed. I now said:
“I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out the sun for good, or restore it, shall rest with you. These are the terms, to wit: You shall remain king over all your dominions, and receive all the glories and honors that belong to the kingship; but you shall appoint me your perpetual minister and executive, and give me for my services one per cent of such actual increase of revenue over and above its present amount as I may succeed in creating for the state. If I can’t live on that, I sha’n’t ask anybody to give me a lift. Is it satisfactory?”
There was a prodigious roar of applause, and out of the midst of it the king’s voice rose, saying:
“Away with his bonds, and set him free! and do him homage, high and low, rich and poor, for he is become the king’s right hand, is clothed with power and authority, and his seat is upon the highest step of the throne! Now sweep away this creeping night, and bring the light and cheer again, that all the world may bless thee.”
But I said:
“That a common man should be shamed before the world, is nothing; but it were dishonor to the king if any that saw his minister naked should not also see him delivered from his shame. If I might ask that my clothes be brought again —”
“They are not meet,” the king broke in. “Fetch raiment of another sort; clothe him like a prince!”
My idea worked.
Twain already used that plot twist. What is left? How to make a buck off this thing? By selling newspapers? Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. Flinging blogs into the ether doesn’t quite have the same return on investment. Though perhaps these days the margins are considerably narrower.