Nikki to Nikola Tesla

On January 9, 1861, many events occurred which were to reshape the history of the world. In America, the opening gun of the Civil War sounded the warning of the bloody years to follow. In Germany, young Bismarck, who was to be Germany’s first Chancellor, and responsible for the militarization of the Fatherland, received his first decoration. In England, Queen Victoria was forging into a unified whole the far-flung British Empire and casting knowing eyes upon the Suez Canal, which had been started the previous year. 

In the little town of Smiljan in the Serbian province of Lika, then known as Croatia, a seemingly unimportant event took place which, too, was destined to shape the future. Nikola Tesla, scarcely five years old, found the family’s pet poodle Trixie dying. The little black poodle was lying under a bush at the side of the road, whimpering, and the small boy picked her up and carried her home to his twelve-year-old brother Dane. Strangely, the death of that pet dog was to be the first of several events that would determine the course of Nikki Tesla’s life. 

Trixie had been given to Dane by one of their father’s con gregation. Everyone in Smiljan liked the Tesla family. The Reverend Milutin Tesla was a tall, handsome man with a fine speaking voice and a prodigious memory. He knew the Bible  by heart and could quote it word for word in proof of a point he might be trying to make. Djouka, his wife, a charming, attractive woman, also had an amazing memory. She had learned to speak German, French, and Italian, as well as her native Serbian, even though she never learned to read or write. 

Milka, Angelina, and Dane were the three oldest children; Nikola and little Marica were the youngest; and all pleasant, well mannered, and charming to be with. Neighbors often visited the Tesla home for an evening of music or conversation, but it was Dane they talked about at their dinner tables or in their living rooms. Some said he was a genius; others were sure that he was not long for this world. Everyone agreed that, at twelve, Dane knew more than most of the grownups in Smiljan.

No one was surprised when he was given a present of a thor oughbred French poodle, even though he already owned a big white and tan dog, part Spitz and part Collie, which he had found in the woods behind the rectory. The family had accepted Keno, but no one thought him very smart. Certainly he was not beautiful. 

Trixie was both and Dane spent every minute of his spare time teaching her tricks. She learned quickly and soon the evening visits to the Tesla home were even more enlivened by a “show” that Dane often put on. Trixie would walk on her hind legs, sit up and beg, fetch, and “speak,” performing all her tricks with such relish and obvious enjoyment that the guests could not fail to praise the young boy for his kindness and patience as a trainer. 

When Nikki brought the dying Trixie home, the whole family gathered around anxiously. Dane turned angrily on his little brother. “What did you do to her?” he cried. 

“Danel” The Reverend Tesla spoke sharply. “Nikki didn’t do anything. Why should he?” 

“Because he hates her,” Dane answered. “He’s angry because no one pays any attention to him since we got Trixie.”

“Stop such talk at once, Dane!” Mrs. Tesla ordered, putting  her arm around the bewildered little boy. “Nikki loves the  dog as much as you do.” She knelt beside the little dog. "Get me the white of an egg, Angelina. Quickly!” 

They did everything that could be done, but it was no use. Nikki, seeing the little dog’s eyes glaze over and close, felt very sorry for her, but even sorrier for his older brother. As he reached out to take Dane’s hand, Keno arrived, late as usual, and pushed his big, bumbling way between them. He walked over to where the little black dog lay, nuzzled her, and licked her nose. Getting no response, he raised troubled eyes to his master’s face. Dane looked down at him and cried out more in grief than in anger: 
“Why did it have to happen to Trixie? Why did Trixie have 
to die?” 

Keno’s long, plumed tail drooped and he slunk away. 

“You shouldn’t have said that,” Nikki protested. “He thinks you’re angry at him.” 

Dane stared at his brother a few moments before answering, then said, “I didn’t mean it the way you think. I only meant that, when there are so many dogs in the village, why did it have to be Trixie?” 

Nikki silently accepted this explanation, but he knew that, for a moment, his brother had wished that Keno had died instead of Trixie.

After that, Nikki seemed to change. He became shy and  withdrawn, as if afraid to call attention to himself, and this was especially noticeable whenever Dane was present. Perhaps, in time, he would have forgotten the unhappy episode of the dog and his brother’s harsh accusations had not unexpected tragedy stricken the Tesla household. 

No one knew exactly how it happened. All five of the chil dren were playing in the back yard when suddenly there was a loud scream. Mrs. Tesla found Dane, writhing in pain, at the foot of the stone cellar steps. He lost consciousness when they carried him to the upstairs room he shared with Nikki, but he soon came to and began to talk excitedly, saying that Nikki had pushed him. The Reverend and Mrs. Tesla did not for one moment believe that their youngest had deliberately set out to hurt his older brother, but they didn’t want him to hear Dane’s delirious accusations and become upset, so it was decided that Nikola should spend a week or two with some friends who lived nearby, and little Marica went with him to Mr. and Mrs. Mark Wentzlas’ to keep him company.

Every morning Mrs. Wentzlas got Nikki his breakfast and hustled him off to school. And every day, when he returned at noontime, she was watching for him from the great bay window at the front of the little farmhouse. She would wave at him and little Marica would come bouncing out the front door, while Keno galumphed from somewhere at the back of the house to stand with his forepaws on the white gate waiting for Nikki to pat him. 

But one day Nikki came home to find only Mrs. Wentzlas waiting at the gate, with Keno standing quietly at her side. 

“I have sad news for you, Nikki,” she said. “You must be a big, brave boy.” 

He looked up at her worn, kind face and saw that her eyes were red, as if she had been crying. Even before she spoke he guessed what she was going to say. 

“Dane has gone away,” she said solemnly and Nikki nodded. He had known she was going to say that. Why was it, he wondered, that grownups so often said someone had “gone away” or “passed on” when they meant “died”? When an animal died, they said so, but it seemed as if people didn’t ever die — they just “went away.” 

“I knew you wouldn’t cry.” Mrs. Wentzlas went on. “I knew you’d be a fine, brave boy. And now you just go into the kitchen and wash and then go upstairs. You’ll find your Sunday 
suit laid out on your bed.” 

“Do I have to wear stockings ?” Nikki asked. “Of course. All your parents’ friends and neighbors — every- 
body who loved Dane— will be there to say ‘good-by’ to him. Now hurry along. Marica is already dressed. We’ll go over to your house as soon as you’re ready.” 

Obediently Nikki washed at the pump in the kitchen, then went up the back stairs to his room and dressed quickly. As he was coming down the front stairs he suddenly heard Mrs. 
Wentzlas speaking: 

“ — didn’t cry or seem to feel anything at all. Seemed almost stupid.” 

Then a rumble. That was Mr. Wentzlas talking. 

“Oh, I know he’s only five years old," Mrs. Wentzlas an swered impatiently, “but he’s no geniui. Oh Mark, why did it have to be Dane?” 

Nikki stood frozen on the dark stairway. Suddenly he wanted his mother. He wanted her arms around him. He wanted to  hear her say that she didn’t feel that way too. But what if she did? Almost as if in answer to his thoughts, Mrs. Wentzlas continued: 

“Oh, I know I shouldn’t have said that, or even thought it, but I can’t help it. Dane would have grown up to be a great man. He would have brought honor to his parents and to Smiljan . . .” 

Nikki forgot his own hurt and felt suddenly very sorry for his mother and father. And then, right there on the dark stairway, he made his decision. He would be a greater, more important man than Dane would have been!

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