The Sums That Came Right
by Edith Nesbit

“If twenty-seven barrels of apples cost £25 13s. 3d., what would the same barrels be worth if they had been packed by a dishonest person, who only put in 7/9ths of apples in each barrel and the rest sawdust?”

This was the sum.

It does not look very hard, perhaps, to you who have studied ardently for years at a Board School, or a High School, or a Preparatory School for the sons of gentlemen; but to Edwin it looked as hard as a ship’s biscuit. But he went for it like a man, and presently produced an Answer and his Master wrote a big curly R across the sum. Perhaps you do not know that a big curly R means Right? As for the answer to the sum, I will try to get a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge (who is a very terrible person), to work it out for you, and if he can do it I will put the answer at the end of this story. I cannot work it myself.

Edwin was glad to see the large curly R. He saw it so seldom that to meet it was a real pleasure.

“But what’s the use?” he said. “Everything else leads to something else, except lessons. If you put seeds in the garden they come up flowers, unless they’re rotten seeds or you forget where you put them. And if you buy a rabbit—well, there it is, unless it dies. And if you eat your dinner—well, you’re not hungry any more for an hour or two. But lessons!”

He bit his penholder angrily and put his head into his desk to look for nibs to play Simpkins minor with. You know the game of nibs, of course? He held up the lid of the desk on his head, as I daresay you have often done, and the inside of the desk was darkish, so that the sudden light at the very back of the desk showed quite brightly and unmistakably.

“Those firework fusees, O Crikey!” was Edwin’s first thought.

But it was no firework fusee. It was like glow-worms, only a thousand times more bright and white. For it was the light of pure reason, and it glowed from the glorious eyes of the Arithmetic Fairy. You did not know that there was an Arithmetic Fairy? If you knew as much as I do, it would be simply silly for me to try to tell you stories, wouldn’t it?

Her wonderful eyes gleamed and flashed straight into the round goggling eyes of the amazed Edwin.

“Upon my word!” she said.

Edwin said nothing.

“Did no one ever tell you?” the fairy went on, shaking out her dress, which was woven of the integral calculus, and trimmed with a dazzling fringe of logarithms. “Did no one ever tell you that the things that happen when you’ve done your sums right, happen when you’re grown up?”

“I don’t care what happens then,” Edwin dared to say, for the flashing eyes were kind eyes. “I shall be a pirate, or a bushranger, or something.”

The fairy drew herself up, and her graceful garland of simple equations trembled as Edwin breathed heavily.

“A Pirate,” said she, “a nice sort of pirate who can’t calculate his men’s share of the plunder to three-seventeenths of a gold link of the dead captain’s chain! A fine bushranger who can’t arrange the forty-two bullets from the revolvers of his seven dauntless followers so that each of the fifteen enemies gets his fair share! Go along with you!” said the Arithmetic Fairy.

But Edwin’s eyes were, as I said, wide open, goggling.

“I say,” he suddenly remarked, “how jolly pretty you are.”

The Arithmetic Fairy has but one weakness—a feminine weakness. She loves a pretty speech. If blunt, so much the worse; yet even bluntness....

She looked down and played shyly with the bunch of miscellaneous examples in vulgar fractions which adorned her waistband.

“I suppose you can’t be expected to understand, yet,” she said, and she said it very gently.

Edwin took courage.

“When I do things I want something to happen at once. ‘I want a white rabbit and I want it now.’”

She did not recognise the quotation.

“Get your Master to set you a little simple multiplication sum in white rabbits,” she said. “Goodbye, my child. You’ll know me better in time, and as you know me better you’ll love me more.”

“I ... you’re lovely now,” said Edwin.

The Fairy laughed, and spread her dazzling wings glistening with all the glories of the higher mathematics.

Edwin closed dazzled eyes, and opened them as the desk lid shut down on his head, swayed by no uncertain hand. It was the mathematical master’s hand, in fact.

A new example was set. And, curiously enough, white rabbits were in it.

“If seven thousand five hundred and sixty-three white rabbits,” it began. Edwin, his brain in a whirl, worked it correctly, by a sort of inspiration, like an ancient prophet or a calculating machine.

When he returned, with his books in a strap, to the red villa whose gables meant home for him, he found an excited crowd dancing round the white-painted gates.

The whole of the front garden, as well as most of the back garden, was a seething mass of white rabbits. Seven thousand five hundred and sixty-three there were, to be exact. I alone know this. The joyous Edwin and his distracted parents were never able to count them.

“What a lot of hutches we shall want,” Edwin thought gaily. But when his father came home from the Stock Exchange, where he spent his days in considering 7s and 10s and 3/32—no doubt under the direct guidance of the Arithmetic Fairy, he said at once—

“Send for the poulterer.”

This was done. Only one pair of white rabbits remained the property of Edwin, but these, by the power of the Arithmetic Fairy, became ten by Christmas.

The rabbits disposed of, peace spread a longing wing over the villa, but was not allowed to settle.

“Oh, please ’m,” the startled cook, cap all crooked, exclaimed in the hall, “the cellar is choke-full of apples—most of ’em bad ’m—I never see no one deliver them, nor yet give no receipt.”

The cook, for once in a lurid career, spoke truth. The cellar was full of apples. Nineteen pounds nineteen and twopence and one-third of a pennyworth—to be accurate.

Edwin went to bed, feeling now quite sure that he had not dreamed the Arithmetic Fairy, and anxiously wondering what to-morrow’s sums would be about. Not, he trusted, about snakes, or Sunday School teachers.

The next day’s sum was about oranges. Edwin did it correctly, and went home a prey to the most golden apprehensions. Nor were these unfounded. The whole of the dining-room and most of the hall—up to the seventh step of the neatly carpeted stairs, was golden with oranges. Edwin’s father said some severe things about practical jokers, and sent for the greengrocer. Edwin ate nine 3/7th oranges, and went to bed yellow, but not absolutely unhappy.

But now he was quite sure.

On the following day his sum dealt with elephants, and in such numbers that his father, on returning from business, yielded to a very natural annoyance, and gave notice to his landlord that he should, at Lady Day, leave a villa where elephants and oranges occurred to such an extent.

No one suspected Edwin of having anything to do with these happenings. And indeed, it was not his fault, so how and why could or should he have owned up to it?

I wish I had time to tell you of the events that occurred when Edwin’s sums were set in buttered muffins. Of the seventy-five pigs travelling in a circle at varying rates, I can only say that part of this circle ran through Edwin’s mother’s drawing-room. Nor can I here relate the tale of the three hundred lightning conductors which were suddenly found to be attached to the once happy villa-home. Edwin’s mother cried all day when she was not laughing, and people came from far and near to see the haunted house. For when it came to four thousand white owls and a church steeple every one felt that it was more than a mere accident.

Edwin’s master had a pretty taste in sums, and about once a term he used to set a sum about canes. Edwin worked that sum wrong on purpose, so I suppose it served him right that the canes should be at home before he was, just as they would have been if he had worked the sum properly, and as he had borrowed his father’s razor that morning to sharpen a slate-pencil, the fifty-seven canes were not all thrown away.

But it was the sum about the cistern that convinced Edwin of the desperate need of finding the Arithmetic Fairy, and begging her to take back the present she had made him. It is not polite to ask this, but Edwin had to do it. You see in the sum the cistern had to leak three pints in thirteen minutes and a quarter, but the cistern at home happened to have a little leak of its own already, where Edwin had tried his new drill on it, and the two leaks together managed so well that when Edwin got home he found water dripping from all the top bedroom ceilings and the staircase was a sort of Niagara. It was very exciting—but when the plumber came he let Edwin’s father know all about the little drilled hole, and Edwin got the credit of the leak in the sum, which was much larger and most unfair. His father spoke to Edwin about this matter in his study, and it was then that Edwin saw that he must put an end to the sums that came true.

So he went up to his bedroom with his candle and his arithmetic book. Directly he put the candle on the chest of drawers a big splash of water from the ceiling fell right on the flame and it went out. He had to go right down stairs to get another light. Then he put the candle on the dressing table—splash—out it went. Chair. Splash! Out! At last he got the candle to stay alight on the washhand-stand, which was, by some curious accident, the only dry place in the room.

Then he opened his book. Somewhere in the book he knew there must be something that would fetch the fairy. He said the Multiplication Table up to nine times-after that, as you know, the worst is over. But no fairy appeared.

Then he read aloud the instructions for working the different rules, including the examples given. There was no result.

Then he called to the Fairy—but she did not come.

Then he tried counting. Then counting and calling mixed with other things. Like this:

“Oh, good Fairy! One-two-three-four-five-six-seven; do come and help me! Eight-nine-ten-eleven! Beautiful, dear, kind, lovely fairy! Nine nines are eighty-one! Dear fairy, do come! Seven million two hundred thousand six hundred and fifty-nine! I will always love you if you will come to me now. Three-sevenths of five-ninths of five-twelfths of sixteen-fiftieths. You were so kind the other day. Two and two are four, and three are seven! Do come now—you’ve no idea what an awful mess you’ve got me into. Seven nines are sixty-three—though I know you meant it kindly. Dear Fairy. Thirteen from thirty-seven leaves twenty-four. Do come and see what a hole I’m in—do come—and the product will give you the desired result!”

Edwin stopped, out of breath. He looked round him for the Fairy. But his room, with the water dripping from the roof and the wet towels and basins on the floor, was not a fairy-like place. Edwin saw, with a sigh, that it was no go.

“I’ll have another go in prep to-morrow,” he said. This he did.

The Mathematical Master was pleased with himself that day because he had succeeded in preventing his best boy from yielding to the allurements of the Head-master and the Classical side.

Of course his class knew at once what kind of temper the Mathematical Master was in—you know we always know that—and Edwin ventured to ask that the examples that day might be about a model steam engine.

“Only one, sir, please,” he was careful to explain. The Master kindly consented, and by great good fortune the example did not deal with a faulty boiler, nor with any other defect—but concerned itself solely with the model engine’s speed. So Edwin knew, when he had worked his sum, exactly what pace the model engine he would find at home would be good for. He worked the sum right.

Then he put his head into his desk and began again.

“Oh, good Fairy, if a sum of £4,700 is to be divided between A, B, and C,—do, do come and help me. Three-tenths of a pound is six shillings, dear Fairy—eleven—twelve—thirteen—fourteen—oh, lovely Fairy—” and so on.

But no Fairy came. And Simpkins minor whispered—

“What are you chunnering about?” and stuck a pin into Edwin’s leg. “Can’t you do the beastly example?”

Then quite suddenly Edwin knew what he had to do. He made up an example for himself. This was it.

“If 7,535 fairies were in my desk at school and I subtracted 710 and added 1,006, and the rest flew away in 783 equal gangs, how many would be left over in the desk?”

When he had worked it the answer was one. Very quickly he opened his desk again, and there was the Arithmetic Fairy, looking more lovely than ever in a rich gown of indices, lined with surds, that fell to her feet in osculating curves. In her hand, like a sceptre, shone the starry glory of the binomial theorem. But her eyes were starrier still. She smiled, but her first words were severe.

“You careless boy,” she said. “Why can’t you learn to be accurate? It’s the merest chance you got me. You should have stated your problem more clearly, and you should have said seven thousand Arithmetic Fairies. Why suppose you had found one fairy in your desk, and it had been the Grammar Fairy, or the Football Fairy—what would you have done then?”

Is there a Football Fairy?” Edwin asked.

“Of course. There’s a fairy for everything you have to learn. There’s a Patience Fairy, and a Good-temper Fairy, and a Fairy to teach people to make bread, and another to teach them to make love. Didn’t you really know that?”

“No,” said Edwin, “but I say, look here——”

“I am looking,” she said, fixing her bright eyes on Edwin’s goggling ones, exactly as at their first meeting.

“No—I mean—oh—I say—” he said.

“So I hear,” she said.

“No, but—no kid,” said he.

“Of course there isn’t any kid,” said she.

“Dear, kind, pretty Fairy,” Edwin began again.

“That’s better,” said the Fairy.

“Didn’t you hear all I was saying to you yesterday, when the water was dripping from the ceiling all over the room?”

“From nineteen several spots. Of course I did.”

“Well then,” said Edwin.

“You mean that you’re tired of having things happen when you do your sums correctly? You prefer the old way!”

“Yes, please,” said Edwin, “if you’re sure you don’t mind? I know you meant it for kindness, but, oh, it is most beastly, when you get into the thick of it.” He was thinking of the elephants, I fancy.

“I only did it to please you,” said the Fairy pouting. “I’ll make everything as it was before. Does that please you? And there’s your third wish. You know we always give three wishes. It’s customary in the profession. What would you like?”

Edwin had not attended properly to this speech, so he had only heard “as it was before” and then “What would you like?”

So he said, “I should like to see you again some day.”

The Arithmetic Fairy smiled at him, and her beauty grew more and more radiant. She had not expected this. “I made sure you would ask for a pony or a cricket bat or a pair of white mice,” she said. “You shall see me again, Edwin. Goodbye.”

And the bright vision faded away in a dim mist of rosy permutations.

When Edwin got home he heard that a model engine had been discovered in the larder, and had been given to his younger brother. There are some wrongs, some sorrows, to which even a pen like mine cannot hope to do justice.


Edwin is now a quiet-looking grown-up person in a black frock coat; and his hair is slowly withdrawing itself from the top of his learned head. I suppose it feels itself unworthy to cover so great a brain. The fairy has been with him, unseen, this many a year. The other day he saw her.

He had been Senior Wrangler, of course; that was nothing to Edwin. And he was Astronomer Royal, but that, after all, he had a right to expect.

But it was when he took breath from his researches one day, and suddenly found that he had invented a brand new Hypernebular Hypothesis—that he thought of the Fairy, and thinking of her, he beheld her. She was lightly poised above a pile of books based on Newton’s “Principia,” and topped with his own latest work, “The Fourth and Further Dimensions.” He knew her at once, and now he appreciated, more than ever in his youth, the radiance of her eyes and of her wings, for now he understood it.

“Dear, beautiful Fairy,” he said, “how glad I am to see you again.”

“I’ve been with you all the time,” she said. “I wish I could do something more for you. Is there anything you want?”

The great Mathematician who was Edwin ran his hand over his thin hair.

“No,” he said, “no.” And then he remembered the school and Simpkins minor and the old desk he used to keep firework fusees in. “Unless,” he added, “you could make me young again.”

She dropped a little tear, clear as a solved problem.

“I can’t do that,” she said. “You can’t have everything. The only person who could do that for you is the Love Fairy. If you had found her instead of me you would have been always young, but you wouldn’t have invented the Hypernebular Hypothesis.”

“I suppose I shall never never find her now?” said Edwin, and as he spoke he looked out of the window to the garden, where a girl was gathering roses.

“I wonder!” said she. “The Love Fairy doesn’t live in schooldesks or books on Fourth Dimensions.”

“I wonder!” said Edwin. “Does the Love Fairy live in gardens?”

“I wonder!” echoed the Arithmetic Fairy, a little sadly, and she spread her bright wings and flew out of the open window and out of this story.

Edwin went out into the rose garden. And did he find the Love Fairy?

I wonder!


PS.—The Fellow of Trinity says the answer to that sum is nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and two pence and one-third of a penny.

Does the Fellow of Trinity speak the truth?

I wonder!

End of The Sums That Came Right by Edith Nesbit