The Country of the Blind, And Other Stories
H. G. Wells
Part 3 out of 9
the great Doctor Henderson.
It was Friday in Whitsun week before he came to a decision. He called me
down, quite late in the evening,--nearly nine it was,--from cramming
chemical equations for my Preliminary Scientific examination. He was
standing in the passage under the feeble gas-lamp, and his face was a
grotesque interplay of shadows. He seemed more bowed than when I had first
seen him, and his cheeks had sunk in a little.
His voice shook with emotion. "Everything is satisfactory, Mr. Eden," he
said. "Everything is quite, quite satisfactory. And this night of all
nights, you must dine with me and celebrate your--accession." He was
interrupted by a cough. "You won't have long to wait, either," he said,
wiping his handkerchief across his lips, and gripping my hand with his
long bony claw that was disengaged. "Certainly not very long to wait."
We went into the street and called a cab. I remember every incident of
that drive vividly, the swift, easy motion, the vivid contrast of gas and
oil and electric light, the crowds of people in the streets, the place in
Regent Street to which we went, and the sumptuous dinner we were served
with there. I was disconcerted at first by the well-dressed waiter's
glances at my rough clothes, bothered by the stones of the olives, but as
the champagne warmed my blood, my confidence revived. At first the old man
talked of himself. He had already told me his name in the cab; he was
Egbert Elvesham, the great philosopher, whose name I had known since I was
a lad at school. It seemed incredible to me that this man, whose
intelligence had so early dominated mine, this great abstraction, should
suddenly realise itself as this decrepit, familiar figure. I daresay every
young fellow who has suddenly fallen among celebrities has felt something
of my disappointment. He told me now of the future that the feeble streams
of his life would presently leave dry for me, houses, copyrights,
investments; I had never suspected that philosophers were so rich. He
watched me drink and eat with a touch of envy. "What a capacity for living
you have!" he said; and then with a sigh, a sigh of relief I could have
thought it, "it will not be long."
"Ay," said I, my head swimming now with champagne; "I have a future
perhaps--of a passing agreeable sort, thanks to you. I shall now have the
honour of your name. But you have a past. Such a past as is worth all my
He shook his head and smiled, as I thought, with half sad appreciation of
my flattering admiration. "That future," he said, "would you in truth
change it?" The waiter came with liqueurs. "You will not perhaps mind
taking my name, taking my position, but would you indeed--willingly--take
"With your achievements," said I gallantly.
He smiled again. "Kummel--both," he said to the waiter, and turned his
attention to a little paper packet he had taken from his pocket. "This
hour," said he, "this after-dinner hour is the hour of small things. Here
is a scrap of my unpublished wisdom." He opened the packet with his
shaking yellow fingers, and showed a little pinkish powder on the paper.
"This," said he--"well, you must guess what it is. But Kummel--put but a
dash of this powder in it--is Himmel."
His large greyish eyes watched mine with an inscrutable expression.
It was a bit of a shock to me to find this great teacher gave his mind to
the flavour of liqueurs. However, I feigned an interest in his weakness,
for I was drunk enough for such small sycophancy.
He parted the powder between the little glasses, and, rising suddenly,
with a strange unexpected dignity, held out his hand towards me. I
imitated his action, and the glasses rang. "To a quick succession," said
he, and raised his glass towards his lips.
"Not that," I said hastily. "Not that."
He paused with the liqueur at the level of his chin, and his eyes blazing
"To a long life," said I.
He hesitated. "To a long life," said he, with a sudden bark of laughter,
and with eyes fixed on one another we tilted the little glasses. His eyes
looked straight into mine, and as I drained the stuff off, I felt a
curiously intense sensation. The first touch of it set my brain in a
furious tumult; I seemed to feel an actual physical stirring in my skull,
and a seething humming filled my ears. I did not notice the flavour in my
mouth, the aroma that filled my throat; I saw only the grey intensity of
his gaze that burnt into mine. The draught, the mental confusion, the
noise and stirring in my head, seemed to last an interminable time.
Curious vague impressions of half-forgotten things danced and vanished on
the edge of my consciousness. At last he broke the spell. With a sudden
explosive sigh he put down his glass.
"Well?" he said.
"It's glorious," said I, though I had not tasted the stuff.
My head was spinning. I sat down. My brain was chaos. Then my perception
grew clear and minute as though I saw things in a concave mirror. His
manner seemed to have changed into something nervous and hasty. He pulled
out his watch and grimaced at it. "Eleven-seven! And to-night I must--
Seven-twenty-five. Waterloo! I must go at once." He called for the bill,
and struggled with his coat. Officious waiters came to our assistance. In
another moment I was wishing him good-bye, over the apron of a cab, and
still with an absurd feeling of minute distinctness, as though--how can I
express it?--I not only saw but _felt_ through an inverted
"That stuff," he said. He put his hand to his forehead. "I ought not to
have given it to you. It will make your head split to-morrow. Wait a
minute. Here." He handed me out a little flat thing like a seidlitz-powder.
"Take that in water as you are going to bed. The other thing was a
drug. Not till you're ready to go to bed, mind. It will clear your head.
That's all. One more shake--Futurus!"
I gripped his shrivelled claw. "Good-bye," he said, and by the droop of
his eyelids I judged he too was a little under the influence of that
He recollected something else with a start, felt in his breast-pocket, and
produced another packet, this time a cylinder the size and shape of a
shaving-stick. "Here," said he. "I'd almost forgotten. Don't open this
until I come to-morrow--but take it now."
It was so heavy that I wellnigh dropped it. "All ri'!" said I, and he
grinned at me through the cab window as the cabman flicked his horse into
wakefulness. It was a white packet he had given me, with red seals at
either end and along its edge. "If this isn't money," said I, "it's
platinum or lead."
I stuck it with elaborate care into my pocket, and with a whirling brain
walked home through the Regent Street loiterers and the dark back streets
beyond Portland Road. I remember the sensations of that walk very vividly,
strange as they were. I was still so far myself that I could notice my
strange mental state, and wonder whether this stuff I had had was opium--a
drug beyond my experience. It is hard now to describe the peculiarity of
my mental strangeness--mental doubling vaguely expresses it. As I was
walking up Regent Street I found in my mind a queer persuasion that it
was Waterloo Station, and had an odd impulse to get into the Polytechnic
as a man might get into a train. I put a knuckle in my eye, and it was
Regent Street. How can I express it? You see a skilful actor looking
quietly at you, he pulls a grimace, and lo!--another person. Is it too
extravagant if I tell you that it seemed to me as if Regent Street had,
for the moment, done that? Then, being persuaded it was Regent Street
again, I was oddly muddled about some fantastic reminiscences that cropped
up. "Thirty years ago," thought I, "it was here that I quarrelled with my
brother." Then I burst out laughing, to the astonishment and encouragement
of a group of night prowlers. Thirty years ago I did not exist, and never
in my life had I boasted a brother. The stuff was surely liquid folly, for
the poignant regret for that lost brother still clung to me. Along
Portland Road the madness took another turn. I began to recall vanished
shops, and to compare the street with what it used to be. Confused,
troubled thinking is comprehensible enough after the drink I had taken,
but what puzzled me were these curiously vivid phantasm memories that had
crept into my mind, and not only the memories that had crept in, but also
the memories that had slipped out. I stopped opposite Stevens', the
natural history dealer's, and cudgelled my brains to think what he had to
do with me. A 'bus went by, and sounded exactly like the rumbling of a
train. I seemed to be dipping into some dark, remote pit for the
recollection. "Of course," said I, at last, "he has promised me three
frogs to-morrow. Odd I should have forgotten."
Do they still show children dissolving views? In those I remember one view
would begin like a faint ghost, and grow and oust another. In just that
way it seemed to me that a ghostly set of new sensations was struggling
with those of my ordinary self.
I went on through Euston Road to Tottenham Court Road, puzzled, and a
little frightened, and scarcely noticed the unusual way I was taking, for
commonly I used to cut through the intervening network of back streets. I
turned into University Street, to discover that I had forgotten my number.
Only by a strong effort did I recall 11A, and even then it seemed to me
that it was a thing some forgotten person had told me. I tried to steady
my mind by recalling the incidents of the dinner, and for the life of me I
could conjure up no picture of my host's face; I saw him only as a shadowy
outline, as one might see oneself reflected in a window through which one
was looking. In his place, however, I had a curious exterior vision of
myself, sitting at a table, flushed, bright-eyed, and talkative.
"I must take this other powder," said I. "This is getting impossible."
I tried the wrong side of the hall for my candle and the matches, and had
a doubt of which landing my room might be on. "I'm drunk," I said, "that's
certain," and blundered needlessly on the staircase to sustain the
At the first glance my room seemed unfamiliar. "What rot!" I said, and
stared about me. I seemed to bring myself back by the effort, and the odd
phantasmal quality passed into the concrete familiar. There was the old
glass still, with my notes on the albumens stuck in the corner of the
frame, my old everyday suit of clothes pitched about the floor. And yet it
was not so real after all. I felt an idiotic persuasion trying to creep
into my mind, as it were, that I was in a railway carriage in a train just
stopping, that I was peering out of the window at some unknown station. I
gripped the bed-rail firmly to reassure myself. "It's clairvoyance,
perhaps," I said. "I must write to the Psychical Research Society."
I put the rouleau on my dressing-table, sat on my bed, and began to take
off my boots. It was as if the picture of my present sensations was
painted over some other picture that was trying to show through. "Curse
it!" said I; "my wits are going, or am I in two places at once?"
Half-undressed, I tossed the powder into a glass and drank it off. It
effervesced, and became a fluorescent amber colour. Before I was in bed
my mind was already tranquillised. I felt the pillow at my cheek, and
thereupon I must have fallen asleep.
* * * * *
I awoke abruptly out of a dream of strange beasts, and found myself lying
on my back. Probably every one knows that dismal, emotional dream from
which one escapes, awake indeed, but strangely cowed. There was a curious
taste in my mouth, a tired feeling in my limbs, a sense of cutaneous
discomfort. I lay with my head motionless on my pillow, expecting that my
feeling of strangeness and terror would pass away, and that I should then
doze off again to sleep. But instead of that, my uncanny sensations
increased. At first I could perceive nothing wrong about me. There was a
faint light in the room, so faint that it was the very next thing to
darkness, and the furniture stood out in it as vague blots of absolute
darkness. I stared with my eyes just over the bedclothes.
It came into my mind that some one had entered the room to rob me of my
rouleau of money, but after lying for some moments, breathing regularly to
simulate sleep, I realised this was mere fancy. Nevertheless, the uneasy
assurance of something wrong kept fast hold of me. With an effort I raised
my head from the pillow, and peered about me at the dark. What it was I
could not conceive. I looked at the dim shapes around me, the greater and
lesser darknesses that indicated curtains, table, fireplace, bookshelves,
and so forth. Then I began to perceive something unfamiliar in the forms
of the darkness. Had the bed turned round? Yonder should be the
bookshelves, and something shrouded and pallid rose there, something that
would not answer to the bookshelves, however I looked at it. It was far
too big to be my shirt thrown on a chair.
Overcoming a childish terror, I threw back the bedclothes and thrust my
leg out of bed. Instead of coming out of my truckle-bed upon the floor, I
found my foot scarcely reached the edge of the mattress. I made another
step, as it were, and sat up on the edge of the bed. By the side of my bed
should be the candle, and the matches upon the broken chair. I put out my
hand and touched--nothing. I waved my hand in the darkness, and it came
against some heavy hanging, soft and thick in texture, which gave a
rustling noise at my touch. I grasped this and pulled it; it appeared to
be a curtain suspended over the head of my bed.
I was now thoroughly awake, and beginning to realise that I was in a
strange room. I was puzzled. I tried to recall the overnight
circumstances, and I found them now, curiously enough, vivid in my memory:
the supper, my reception of the little packages, my wonder whether I was
intoxicated, my slow undressing, the coolness to my flushed face of my
pillow. I felt a sudden distrust. Was that last night, or the night
before? At any rate, this room was strange to me, and I could not imagine
how I had got into it. The dim, pallid outline was growing paler, and I
perceived it was a window, with the dark shape of an oval toilet-glass
against the weak intimation of the dawn that filtered through the blind. I
stood up, and was surprised by a curious feeling of weakness and
unsteadiness. With trembling hands outstretched, I walked slowly towards
the window, getting, nevertheless, a bruise on the knee from a chair by
the way. I fumbled round the glass, which was large, with handsome brass
sconces, to find the blind cord. I could not find any. By chance I took
hold of the tassel, and with the click of a spring the blind ran up.
I found myself looking out upon a scene that was altogether strange to me.
The night was overcast, and through the flocculent grey of the heaped
clouds there filtered a faint half-light of dawn. Just at the edge of the
sky the cloud-canopy had a blood-red rim. Below, everything was dark and
indistinct, dim hills in the distance, a vague mass of buildings running
up into pinnacles, trees like spilt ink, and below the window a tracery of
black bushes and pale grey paths. It was so unfamiliar that for the moment
I thought myself still dreaming. I felt the toilet-table; it appeared to
be made of some polished wood, and was rather elaborately furnished--there
were little cut-glass bottles and a brush upon it. There was also a queer
little object, horse-shoe shape it felt, with smooth, hard projections,
lying in a saucer. I could find no matches nor candlestick.
I turned my eyes to the room again. Now the blind was up, faint spectres
of its furnishing came out of the darkness. There was a huge curtained
bed, and the fireplace at its foot had a large white mantel with something
of the shimmer of marble.
I leant against the toilet-table, shut my eyes and opened them again, and
tried to think. The whole thing was far too real for dreaming. I was
inclined to imagine there was still some hiatus in my memory, as a
consequence of my draught of that strange liqueur; that I had come into my
inheritance perhaps, and suddenly lost my recollection of everything since
my good fortune had been announced. Perhaps if I waited a little, things
would be clearer to me again. Yet my dinner with old Elvesham was now
singularly vivid and recent. The champagne, the observant waiters, the
powder, and the liqueurs--I could have staked my soul it all happened a
few hours ago.
And then occurred a thing so trivial and yet so terrible to me that I
shiver now to think of that moment. I spoke aloud. I said, "How the devil
did I get here?" ... _And the voice was not my own_.
It was not my own, it was thin, the articulation was slurred, the
resonance of my facial bones was different. Then, to reassure myself I ran
one hand over the other, and felt loose folds of skin, the bony laxity of
age. "Surely," I said, in that horrible voice that had somehow established
itself in my throat, "surely this thing is a dream!" Almost as quickly as
if I did it involuntarily, I thrust my fingers into my mouth. My teeth
had gone. My finger-tips ran on the flaccid surface of an even row of
shrivelled gums. I was sick with dismay and disgust.
I felt then a passionate desire to see myself, to realise at once in its
full horror the ghastly change that had come upon me. I tottered to the
mantel, and felt along it for matches. As I did so, a barking cough sprang
up in my throat, and I clutched the thick flannel nightdress I found about
me. There were no matches there, and I suddenly realised that my
extremities were cold. Sniffing and coughing, whimpering a little,
perhaps, I fumbled back to bed. "It is surely a dream," I whispered to
myself as I clambered back, "surely a dream." It was a senile repetition.
I pulled the bedclothes over my shoulders, over my ears, I thrust my
withered hand under the pillow, and determined to compose myself to sleep.
Of course it was a dream. In the morning the dream would be over, and I
should wake up strong and vigorous again to my youth and studies. I shut
my eyes, breathed regularly, and, finding myself wakeful, began to count
slowly through the powers of three.
But the thing I desired would not come. I could not get to sleep. And the
persuasion of the inexorable reality of the change that had happened to me
grew steadily. Presently I found myself with my eyes wide open, the powers
of three forgotten, and my skinny fingers upon my shrivelled gums, I was,
indeed, suddenly and abruptly, an old man. I had in some unaccountable
manner fallen through my life and come to old age, in some way I had been
cheated of all the best of my life, of love, of struggle, of strength, and
hope. I grovelled into the pillow and tried to persuade myself that such
hallucination was possible. Imperceptibly, steadily, the dawn grew
At last, despairing of further sleep, I sat up in bed and looked about me.
A chill twilight rendered the whole chamber visible. It was spacious and
well-furnished, better furnished than any room I had ever slept in before.
A candle and matches became dimly visible upon a little pedestal in a
recess. I threw back the bedclothes, and, shivering with the rawness of
the early morning, albeit it was summer-time, I got out and lit the
candle. Then, trembling horribly, so that the extinguisher rattled on its
spike, I tottered to the glass and saw--_Elvesham's face_! It was
none the less horrible because I had already dimly feared as much. He had
already seemed physically weak and pitiful to me, but seen now, dressed
only in a coarse flannel nightdress, that fell apart and showed the
stringy neck, seen now as my own body, I cannot describe its desolate
decrepitude. The hollow cheeks, the straggling tail of dirty grey hair,
the rheumy bleared eyes, the quivering, shrivelled lips, the lower
displaying a gleam of the pink interior lining, and those horrible dark
gums showing. You who are mind and body together, at your natural years,
cannot imagine what this fiendish imprisonment meant to me. To be young
and full of the desire and energy of youth, and to be caught, and
presently to be crushed in this tottering ruin of a body...
But I wander from the course of my story. For some time I must have been
stunned at this change that had come upon me. It was daylight when I did
so far gather myself together as to think. In some inexplicable way I had
been changed, though how, short of magic, the thing had been done, I could
not say. And as I thought, the diabolical ingenuity of Elvesham came home
to me. It seemed plain to me that as I found myself in his, so he must be
in possession of _my_ body, of my strength, that is, and my future.
But how to prove it? Then, as I thought, the thing became so incredible,
even to me, that my mind reeled, and I had to pinch myself, to feel my
toothless gums, to see myself in the glass, and touch the things about me,
before I could steady myself to face the facts again. Was all life
hallucination? Was I indeed Elvesham, and he me? Had I been dreaming of
Eden overnight? Was there any Eden? But if I was Elvesham, I should
remember where I was on the previous morning, the name of the town in
which I lived, what happened before the dream began. I struggled with my
thoughts. I recalled the queer doubleness of my memories overnight. But
now my mind was clear. Not the ghost of any memories but those proper to
Eden could I raise.
"This way lies insanity!" I cried in my piping voice. I staggered to my
feet, dragged my feeble, heavy limbs to the washhand-stand, and plunged my
grey head into a basin of cold water. Then, towelling myself, I tried
again. It was no good. I felt beyond all question that I was indeed Eden,
not Elvesham. But Eden in Elvesham's body!
Had I been a man of any other age, I might have given myself up to my fate
as one enchanted. But in these sceptical days miracles do not pass
current. Here was some trick of psychology. What a drug and a steady stare
could do, a drug and a steady stare, or some similar treatment, could
surely undo. Men have lost their memories before. But to exchange memories
as one does umbrellas! I laughed. Alas! not a healthy laugh, but a
wheezing, senile titter. I could have fancied old Elvesham laughing at my
plight, and a gust of petulant anger, unusual to me, swept across my
feelings. I began dressing eagerly in the clothes I found lying about on
the floor, and only realised when I was dressed that it was an evening
suit I had assumed. I opened the wardrobe and found some more ordinary
clothes, a pair of plaid trousers, and an old-fashioned dressing-gown. I
put a venerable smoking-cap on my venerable head, and, coughing a little
from my exertions, tottered out upon the landing.
It was then, perhaps, a quarter to six, and the blinds were closely drawn
and the house quite silent. The landing was a spacious one, a broad,
richly-carpeted staircase went down into the darkness of the hall below,
and before me a door ajar showed me a writing-desk, a revolving bookcase,
the back of a study chair, and a fine array of bound books, shelf upon
"My study," I mumbled, and walked across the landing. Then at the sound of
my voice a thought struck me, and I went back to the bedroom and put in
the set of false teeth. They slipped in with the ease of old, habit.
"That's better," said I, gnashing them, and so returned to the study.
The drawers of the writing-desk were locked. Its revolving top was also
locked. I could see no indications of the keys, and there were none in the
pockets of my trousers. I shuffled back at once to the bedroom, and went
through the dress suit, and afterwards the pockets of all the garments I
could find. I was very eager, and one might have imagined that burglars
had been at work, to see my room when I had done. Not only were there no
keys to be found, but not a coin, nor a scrap of paper--save only the
receipted bill of the overnight dinner.
A curious weariness asserted itself. I sat down and stared at the garments
flung here and there, their pockets turned inside out. My first frenzy had
already flickered out. Every moment I was beginning to realise the immense
intelligence of the plans of my enemy, to see more and more clearly the
hopelessness of my position. With an effort I rose and hurried hobbling
into the study again. On the staircase was a housemaid pulling up the
blinds. She stared, I think, at the expression of my face. I shut the door
of the study behind me, and, seizing a poker, began an attack upon the
desk. That is how they found me. The cover of the desk was split, the lock
smashed, the letters torn out of the pigeon-holes, and tossed about the
room. In my senile rage I had flung about the pens and other such light
stationery, and overturned the ink. Moreover, a large vase upon the mantel
had got broken--I do not know how. I could find no cheque-book, no money,
no indications of the slightest use for the recovery of my body. I was
battering madly at the drawers, when the butler, backed by two
women-servants, intruded upon me.
* * * * *
That simply is the story of my change. No one will believe my frantic
assertions. I am treated as one demented, and even at this moment I am
under restraint. But I am sane, absolutely sane, and to prove it I have
sat down to write this story minutely as the things happened to me. I
appeal to the reader, whether there is any trace of insanity in the style
or method, of the story he has been reading. I am a young man locked away
in an old man's body. But the clear fact is incredible to everyone.
Naturally I appear demented to those who will not believe this, naturally
I do not know the names of my secretaries, of the doctors who come to see
me, of my servants and neighbours, of this town (wherever it is) where I
find myself. Naturally I lose myself in my own house, and suffer
inconveniences of every sort. Naturally I ask the oddest questions.
Naturally I weep and cry out, and have paroxysms of despair. I have no
money and no cheque-book. The bank will not recognise my signature, for I
suppose that, allowing for the feeble muscles I now have, my handwriting
is still Eden's. These people about me will not let me go to the bank
personally. It seems, indeed, that there is no bank in this town, and that
I have an account in some part of London. It seems that Elvesham kept the
name of his solicitor secret from all his household. I can ascertain
nothing. Elvesham was, of course, a profound student of mental science,
and all my declarations of the facts of the case merely confirm the theory
that my insanity is the outcome of overmuch brooding upon psychology.
Dreams of the personal identity indeed! Two days ago I was a healthy
youngster, with all life before me; now I am a furious old man, unkempt,
and desperate, and miserable, prowling about a great, luxurious, strange
house, watched, feared, and avoided as a lunatic by everyone about me. And
in London is Elvesham beginning life again in a vigorous body, and with
all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of threescore and ten. He has
stolen my life.
What has happened I do not clearly know. In the study are volumes of
manuscript notes referring chiefly to the psychology of memory, and parts
of what may be either calculations or ciphers in symbols absolutely
strange to me. In some passages there are indications that he was also
occupied with the philosophy of mathematics. I take it he has transferred
the whole of his memories, the accumulation that makes up his personality,
from this old withered brain of his to mine, and, similarly, that he has
transferred mine to his discarded tenement. Practically, that is, he has
changed bodies. But how such a change may be possible is without the range
of my philosophy. I have been a materialist for all my thinking life, but
here, suddenly, is a clear case of man's detachability from matter.
One desperate experiment I am about to try. I sit writing here before
putting the matter to issue. This morning, with the help of a table-knife
that I had secreted at breakfast, I succeeded in breaking open a fairly
obvious secret drawer in this wrecked writing-desk. I discovered nothing
save a little green glass phial containing a white powder. Round the neck
of the phial was a label, and thereon was written this one word,
"_Release_." This may be--is most probably--poison. I can understand
Elvesham placing poison in my way, and I should be sure that it was his
intention so to get rid of the only living witness against him, were it
not for this careful concealment. The man has practically solved the
problem of immortality. Save for the spite of chance, he will live in my
body until it has aged, and then, again, throwing that aside, he will
assume some other victim's youth and strength. When one remembers his
heartlessness, it is terrible to think of the ever-growing experience
that... How long has he been leaping from body to body?... But I tire of
writing. The powder appears to be soluble in water. The taste is not
* * * * *
There the narrative found upon Mr. Elvesham's desk ends. His dead body lay
between the desk and the chair. The latter had been pushed back, probably
by his last convulsions. The story was written in pencil and in a crazy
hand, quite unlike his usual minute characters. There remain only two
curious facts to record. Indisputably there was some connection between
Eden and Elvesham, since the whole of Elvesham's property was bequeathed
to the young man. But he never inherited. When Elvesham committed suicide,
Eden was, strangely enough, already dead. Twenty-four hours before, he had
been knocked down by a cab and killed instantly, at the crowded crossing
at the intersection of Gower Street and Euston Road. So that the only
human being who could have thrown light upon this fantastic narrative is
beyond the reach of questions. Without further comment I leave this
extraordinary matter to the reader's individual judgment.
UNDER THE KNIFE.
"What if I die under it?" The thought recurred again and again, as I
walked home from Haddon's. It was a purely personal question. I was spared
the deep anxieties of a married man, and I knew there were few of my
intimate friends but would find my death troublesome chiefly on account of
their duty of regret. I was surprised indeed, and perhaps a little
humiliated, as I turned the matter over, to think how few could possibly
exceed the conventional requirement. Things came before me stripped of
glamour, in a clear dry light, during that walk from Haddon's house over
Primrose Hill. There were the friends of my youth: I perceived now that
our affection was a tradition, which we foregathered rather laboriously to
maintain. There were the rivals and helpers of my later career: I suppose
I had been cold-blooded or undemonstrative--one perhaps implies the other.
It may be that even the capacity for friendship is a question of physique.
There had been a time in my own life when I had grieved bitterly enough at
the loss of a friend; but as I walked home that afternoon the emotional
side of my imagination was dormant. I could not pity myself, nor feel
sorry for my friends, nor conceive of them as grieving for me.
I was interested in this deadness of my emotional nature--no doubt a
concomitant of my stagnating physiology; and my thoughts wandered off
along the line it suggested. Once before, in my hot youth, I had suffered
a sudden loss of blood, and had been within an ace of death. I remembered
now that my affections as well as my passions had drained out of me,
leaving scarce anything but a tranquil resignation, a dreg of self-pity.
It had been weeks before the old ambitions and tendernesses and all the
complex moral interplay of a man had reasserted themselves. It occurred to
me that the real meaning of this numbness might be a gradual slipping away
from the pleasure-pain guidance of the animal man. It has been proven, I
take it, as thoroughly as anything can be proven in this world, that the
higher emotions, the moral feelings, even the subtle unselfishness of
love, are evolved from the elemental desires and fears of the simple
animal: they are the harness in which man's mental freedom goes. And it
may be that as death overshadows us, as our possibility of acting
diminishes, this complex growth of balanced impulse, propensity and
aversion, whose interplay inspires our acts, goes with it. Leaving what?
I was suddenly brought back to reality by an imminent collision with the
butcher-boy's tray. I found that I was crossing the bridge over the
Regent's Park Canal, which runs parallel with that in the Zoological
Gardens. The boy in blue had been looking over his shoulder at a black
barge advancing slowly, towed by a gaunt white horse. In the Gardens a
nurse was leading three happy little children over the bridge. The trees
were bright green; the spring hopefulness was still unstained by the dusts
of summer; the sky in the water was bright and clear, but broken by long
waves, by quivering bands of black, as the barge drove through. The breeze
was stirring; but it did not stir me as the spring breeze used to do.
Was this dulness of feeling in itself an anticipation? It was curious that
I could reason and follow out a network of suggestion as clearly as ever:
so, at least, it seemed to me. It was calmness rather than dulness that
was coming upon me. Was there any ground for the relief in the
presentiment of death? Did a man near to death begin instinctively to
withdraw himself from the meshes of matter and sense, even before the
cold hand was laid upon his? I felt strangely isolated--isolated without
regret--from the life and existence about me. The children playing in the
sun and gathering strength and experience for the business of life,
the park-keeper gossiping with a nursemaid, the nursing mother, the young
couple intent upon each other as they passed me, the trees by the wayside
spreading new pleading leaves to the sunlight, the stir in their
branches--I had been part of it all, but I had nearly done with it now.
Some way down the Broad Walk I perceived that I was tired, and that my
feet were heavy. It was hot that afternoon, and I turned aside and sat
down on one of the green chairs that line the way. In a minute I had dozed
into a dream, and the tide of my thoughts washed up a vision of the
resurrection. I was still sitting in the chair, but I thought myself
actually dead, withered, tattered, dried, one eye (I saw) pecked out by
birds. "Awake!" cried a voice; and incontinently the dust of the path and
the mould under the grass became insurgent. I had never before thought of
Regent's Park as a cemetery, but now, through the trees, stretching as far
as eye could see, I beheld a flat plain of writhing graves and heeling
tombstones. There seemed to be some trouble: the rising dead appeared to
stifle as they struggled upward, they bled in their struggles, the red
flesh was torn away from the white bones. "Awake!" cried a voice; but I
determined I would not rise to such horrors. "Awake!" They would not let
me alone. "Wake up!" said an angry voice. A cockney angel! The man who
sells the tickets was shaking me, demanding my penny.
I paid my penny, pocketed my ticket, yawned, stretched my legs, and,
feeling now rather less torpid, got up and walked on towards Langham
Place. I speedily lost myself again in a shifting maze of thoughts about
death. Going across Marylebone Road into that crescent at the end of
Langham Place, I had the narrowest escape from the shaft of a cab, and
went on my way with a palpitating heart and a bruised shoulder. It struck
me that it would have been curious if my meditations on my death on the
morrow had led to my death that day.
But I will not weary you with more of my experiences that day and the
next. I knew more and more certainly that I should die under the
operation; at times I think I was inclined to pose to myself. The doctors
were coming at eleven, and I did not get up. It seemed scarce worth while
to trouble about washing and dressing, and though I read my newspapers and
the letters that came by the first post, I did not find them very
interesting. There was a friendly note from Addison, my old school-friend,
calling my attention to two discrepancies and a printer's error in my new
book, with one from Langridge venting some vexation over Minton. The rest
were business communications. I breakfasted in bed. The glow of pain at my
side seemed more massive. I knew it was pain, and yet, if you can
understand, I did not find it very painful. I had been awake and hot and
thirsty in the night, but in the morning bed felt comfortable. In the
night-time I had lain thinking of things that were past; in the morning I
dozed over the question of immortality. Haddon came, punctual to the
minute, with a neat black bag; and Mowbray soon followed. Their arrival
stirred me up a little. I began to take a more personal interest in the
proceedings. Haddon moved the little octagonal table close to the bedside,
and, with his broad back to me, began taking things out of his bag. I
heard the light click of steel upon steel. My imagination, I found, was
not altogether stagnant. "Will you hurt me much?" I said in an off-hand
"Not a bit," Haddon answered over his shoulder. "We shall chloroform you.
Your heart's as sound as a bell." And as he spoke, I had a whiff of the
pungent sweetness of the anaesthetic.
They stretched me out, with a convenient exposure of my side, and, almost
before I realised what was happening, the chloroform was being
administered. It stings the nostrils, and there is a suffocating sensation
at first. I knew I should die--that this was the end of consciousness for
me. And suddenly I felt that I was not prepared for death: I had a vague
sense of a duty overlooked--I knew not what. What was it I had not done? I
could think of nothing more to do, nothing desirable left in life; and yet
I had the strangest disinclination to death. And the physical sensation
was painfully oppressive. Of course the doctors did not know they were
going to kill me. Possibly I struggled. Then I fell motionless, and
a great silence, a monstrous silence, and an impenetrable blackness came
There must have been an interval of absolute unconsciousness, seconds or
minutes. Then with a chilly, unemotional clearness, I perceived that I was
not yet dead. I was still in my body; but all the multitudinous sensations
that come sweeping from it to make up the background of consciousness had
gone, leaving me free of it all. No, not free of it all; for as yet
something still held me to the poor stark flesh upon the bed--held me, yet
not so closely that I did not feel myself external to it, independent of
it, straining away from it. I do not think I saw, I do not think I heard;
but I perceived all that was going on, and it was as if I both heard and
saw. Haddon was bending over me, Mowbray behind me; the scalpel--it was a
large scalpel--was cutting my flesh at the side under the flying ribs. It
was interesting to see myself cut like cheese, without a pang, without
even a qualm. The interest was much of a quality with that one might feel
in a game of chess between strangers. Haddon's face was firm and his hand
steady; but I was surprised to perceive (_how_ I know not) that he
was feeling the gravest doubt as to his own wisdom in the conduct of the
Mowbray's thoughts, too, I could see. He was thinking that Haddon's manner
showed too much of the specialist. New suggestions came up like bubbles
through a stream of frothing meditation, and burst one after another in
the little bright spot of his consciousness. He could not help noticing
and admiring Haddon's swift dexterity, in spite of his envious quality and
his disposition to detract. I saw my liver exposed. I was puzzled at my
own condition. I did not feel that I was dead, but I was different in some
way from my living self. The grey depression, that had weighed on me for a
year or more and coloured all my thoughts, was gone. I perceived and
thought without any emotional tint at all. I wondered if everyone
perceived things in this way under chloroform, and forgot it again when he
came out of it. It would be inconvenient to look into some heads, and not
Although I did not think that I was dead, I still perceived quite clearly
that I was soon to die. This brought me back to the consideration of
Haddon's proceedings. I looked into his mind, and saw that he was afraid
of cutting a branch of the portal vein. My attention was distracted from
details by the curious changes going on in his mind. His consciousness was
like the quivering little spot of light which is thrown by the mirror of a
galvanometer. His thoughts ran under it like a stream, some through the
focus bright and distinct, some shadowy in the half-light of the edge.
Just now the little glow was steady; but the least movement on Mowbray's
part, the slightest sound from outside, even a faint difference in the
slow movement of the living flesh he was cutting, set the light-spot
shivering and spinning. A new sense-impression came rushing up through the
flow of thoughts; and lo! the light-spot jerked away towards it, swifter
than a frightened fish. It was wonderful to think that upon that unstable,
fitful thing depended all the complex motions of the man; that for the
next five minutes, therefore, my life hung upon its movements. And he was
growing more and more nervous in his work. It was as if a little picture
of a cut vein grew brighter, and struggled to oust from his brain another
picture of a cut falling short of the mark. He was afraid: his dread of
cutting too little was battling with his dread of cutting too far.
Then, suddenly, like an escape of water from under a lock-gate, a great
uprush of horrible realisation set all his thoughts swirling, and
simultaneously I perceived that the vein was cut. He started back with a
hoarse exclamation, and I saw the brown-purple blood gather in a swift
bead, and run trickling. He was horrified. He pitched the red-stained
scalpel on to the octagonal table; and instantly both doctors flung
themselves upon me, making hasty and ill-conceived efforts to remedy the
disaster. "Ice!" said Mowbray, gasping. But I knew that I was killed,
though my body still clung to me.
I will not describe their belated endeavours to save me, though I
perceived every detail. My perceptions were sharper and swifter than they
had ever been in life; my thoughts rushed through my mind with incredible
swiftness, but with perfect definition. I can only compare their crowded
clarity to the effects of a reasonable dose of opium. In a moment it would
all be over, and I should be free. I knew I was immortal, but what would
happen I did not know. Should I drift off presently, like a puff of smoke
from a gun, in some kind of half-material body, an attenuated version of
my material self? Should I find myself suddenly among the innumerable
hosts of the dead, and know the world about me for the phantasmagoria it
had always seemed? Should I drift to some spiritualistic _seance_,
and there make foolish, incomprehensible attempts to affect a purblind
medium? It was a state of unemotional curiosity, of colourless
expectation. And then I realised a growing stress upon me, a feeling as
though some huge human magnet was drawing me upward out of my body. The
stress grew and grew. I seemed an atom for which monstrous forces were
fighting. For one brief, terrible moment sensation came back to me. That
feeling of falling headlong which comes in nightmares, that feeling a
thousand times intensified, that and a black horror swept across my
thoughts in a torrent. Then the two doctors, the naked body with its cut
side, the little room, swept away from under me and vanished, as a speck
of foam vanishes down an eddy.
I was in mid-air. Far below was the West End of London, receding
rapidly,--for I seemed to be flying swiftly upward,--and as it receded,
passing westward like a panorama. I could see, through the faint haze of
smoke, the innumerable roofs chimney-set, the narrow roadways, stippled
with people and conveyances, the little specks of squares, and the church
steeples like thorns sticking out of the fabric. But it spun away as the
earth rotated on its axis, and in a few seconds (as it seemed) I was over
the scattered clumps of town about Ealing, the little Thames a thread of
blue to the south, and the Chiltern Hills and the North Downs coming up
like the rim of a basin, far away and faint with haze. Up I rushed. And at
first I had not the faintest conception what this headlong rush upward
Every moment the circle of scenery beneath me grew wider and wider, and
the details of town and field, of hill and valley, got more and more hazy
and pale and indistinct, a luminous grey was mingled more and more with
the blue of the hills and the green of the open meadows; and a little
patch of cloud, low and far to the west, shone ever more dazzlingly white.
Above, as the veil of atmosphere between myself and outer space grew
thinner, the sky, which had been a fair springtime blue at first, grew
deeper and richer in colour, passing steadily through the intervening
shades, until presently it was as dark as the blue sky of midnight, and
presently as black as the blackness of a frosty starlight, and at last as
black as no blackness I had ever beheld. And first one star, and then
many, and at last an innumerable host broke out upon the sky: more stars
than anyone has ever seen from the face of the earth. For the blueness of
the sky in the light of the sun and stars sifted and spread abroad
blindingly: there is diffused light even in the darkest skies of winter,
and we do not see the stars by day only because of the dazzling
irradiation of the sun. But now I saw things--I know not how; assuredly
with no mortal eyes--and that defect of bedazzlement blinded me no longer.
The sun was incredibly strange and wonderful. The body of it was a disc of
blinding white light: not yellowish, as it seems to those who live upon
the earth, but livid white, all streaked with scarlet streaks and rimmed
about with a fringe of writhing tongues of red fire. And shooting half-way
across the heavens from either side of it and brighter than the Milky Way,
were two pinions of silver white, making it look more like those winged
globes I have seen in Egyptian sculpture than anything else I can remember
upon earth. These I knew for the solar corona, though I had never seen
anything of it but a picture during the days of my earthly life.
When my attention came back to the earth again, I saw that it had fallen
very far away from me. Field and town were long since indistinguishable,
and all the varied hues of the country were merging into a uniform bright
grey, broken only by the brilliant white of the clouds that lay scattered
in flocculent masses over Ireland and the west of England. For now I could
see the outlines of the north of France and Ireland, and all this Island
of Britain, save where Scotland passed over the horizon to the north, or
where the coast was blurred or obliterated by cloud. The sea was a dull
grey, and darker than the land; and the whole panorama was rotating slowly
towards the east.
All this had happened so swiftly that until I was some thousand miles or
so from the earth I had no thought for myself. But now I perceived I had
neither hands nor feet, neither parts nor organs, and that I felt neither
alarm nor pain. All about me I perceived that the vacancy (for I had
already left the air behind) was cold beyond the imagination of man; but
it troubled me not. The sun's rays shot through the void, powerless to
light or heat until they should strike on matter in their course. I saw
things with a serene self-forgetfulness, even as if I were God. And down
below there, rushing away from me,--countless miles in a second,--where a
little dark spot on the grey marked the position of London, two doctors
were struggling to restore life to the poor hacked and outworn shell I had
abandoned. I felt then such release, such serenity as I can compare to no
mortal delight I have ever known.
It was only after I had perceived all these things that the meaning of
that headlong rush of the earth grew into comprehension. Yet it was so
simple, so obvious, that I was amazed at my never anticipating the thing
that was happening to me. I had suddenly been cut adrift from matter: all
that was material of me was there upon earth, whirling away through space,
held to the earth by gravitation, partaking of the earth-inertia, moving
in its wreath of epicycles round the sun, and with the sun and the planets
on their vast march through space. But the immaterial has no inertia,
feels nothing of the pull of matter for matter: where it parts from its
garment of flesh, there it remains (so far as space concerns it any
longer) immovable in space. _I_ was not leaving the earth: the earth
was leaving _me_, and not only the earth but the whole solar system
was streaming past. And about me in space, invisible to me, scattered in
the wake of the earth upon its journey, there must be an innumerable
multitude of souls, stripped like myself of the material, stripped like
myself of the passions of the individual and the generous emotions of the
gregarious brute, naked intelligences, things of new-born wonder and
thought, marvelling at the strange release that had suddenly come on them!
As I receded faster and faster from the strange white sun in the black
heavens, and from the broad and shining earth upon which my being had
begun, I seemed to grow in some incredible manner vast: vast as regards
this world I had left, vast as regards the moments and periods of a human
life. Very soon I saw the full circle of the earth, slightly gibbous, like
the moon when she nears her full, but very large; and the silvery shape of
America was now in the noonday blaze wherein (as it seemed) little England
had been basking but a few minutes ago. At first the earth was large, and
shone in the heavens, filling a great part of them; but every moment she
grew smaller and more distant. As she shrank, the broad moon in its third
quarter crept into view over the rim of her disc. I looked for the
constellations. Only that part of Aries directly behind the sun and the
Lion, which the earth covered, were hidden. I recognised the tortuous,
tattered band of the Milky Way with Vega very bright between sun and
earth; and Sirius and Orion shone splendid against the unfathomable
blackness in the opposite quarter of the heavens. The Pole Star was
overhead, and the Great Bear hung over the circle of the earth. And away
beneath and beyond the shining corona of the sun were strange groupings of
stars I had never seen in my life--notably a dagger-shaped group that I
knew for the Southern Cross. All these were no larger than when they had
shone on earth, but the little stars that one scarce sees shone now
against the setting of black vacancy as brightly as the first-magnitudes
had done, while the larger worlds were points of indescribable glory and
colour. Aldebaran was a spot of blood-red fire, and Sirius condensed to
one point the light of innumerable sapphires. And they shone steadily:
they did not scintillate, they were calmly glorious. My impressions had an
adamantine hardness and brightness: there was no blurring softness, no
atmosphere, nothing but infinite darkness set with the myriads of these
acute and brilliant points and specks of light. Presently, when I looked
again, the little earth seemed no bigger than the sun, and it dwindled and
turned as I looked, until in a second's space (as it seemed to me), it was
halved; and so it went on swiftly dwindling. Far away in the opposite
direction, a little pinkish pin's head of light, shining steadily, was the
planet Mars. I swam motionless in vacancy, and, without a trace of terror
or astonishment, watched the speck of cosmic dust we call the world fall
away from me.
Presently it dawned upon me that my sense of duration had changed; that my
mind was moving not faster but infinitely slower, that between each
separate impression there was a period of many days. The moon spun once
round the earth as I noted this; and I perceived clearly the motion of
Mars in his orbit. Moreover, it appeared as if the time between thought
and thought grew steadily greater, until at last a thousand years was but
a moment in my perception.
At first the constellations had shone motionless against the black
background of infinite space; but presently it seemed as though the group
of stars about Hercules and the Scorpion was contracting, while Orion and
Aldebaran and their neighbours were scattering apart. Flashing suddenly
out of the darkness there came a flying multitude of particles of rock,
glittering like dust-specks in a sunbeam, and encompassed in a faintly
luminous cloud. They swirled all about me, and vanished again in a
twinkling far behind. And then I saw that a bright spot of light, that
shone a little to one side of my path, was growing very rapidly larger,
and perceived that it was the planet Saturn rushing towards me. Larger and
larger it grew, swallowing up the heavens behind it, and hiding every
moment a fresh multitude, of stars. I perceived its flattened, whirling
body, its disc-like belt, and seven of its little satellites. It grew and
grew, till it towered enormous; and then I plunged amid a streaming
multitude of clashing stones and dancing dust-particles and gas-eddies,
and saw for a moment the mighty triple belt like three concentric arches
of moonlight above me, its shadow black on the boiling tumult below. These
things happened in one-tenth of the time it takes to tell them. The planet
went by like a flash of lightning; for a few seconds it blotted out the
sun, and there and then became a mere black, dwindling, winged patch
against the light. The earth, the mother mote of my being, I could no
So with a stately swiftness, in the profoundest silence, the solar system
fell from me as it had been a garment, until the sun was a mere star amid
the multitude of stars, with its eddy of planet-specks lost in the
confused glittering of the remoter light. I was no longer a denizen of the
solar system: I had come to the outer Universe, I seemed to grasp and
comprehend the whole world of matter. Ever more swiftly the stars closed
in about the spot where Antares and Vega had vanished in a phosphorescent
haze, until that part of the sky had the semblance of a whirling mass of
nebulae, and ever before me yawned vaster gaps of vacant blackness, and
the stars shone fewer and fewer. It seemed as if I moved towards a point
between Orion's belt and sword; and the void about that region opened
vaster and vaster every second, an incredible gulf of nothingness into
which I was falling. Faster and ever faster the universe rushed by, a
hurry of whirling motes at last, speeding silently into the void. Stars
glowing brighter and brighter, with their circling planets catching the
light in a ghostly fashion as I neared them, shone out and vanished again
into inexistence; faint comets, clusters of meteorites, winking specks of
matter, eddying light-points, whizzed past, some perhaps a hundred
millions of miles or so from me at most, few nearer, travelling with
unimaginable rapidity, shooting constellations, momentary darts of fire,
through that black, enormous night. More than anything else it was like a
dusty draught, sunbeam-lit. Broader and wider and deeper grew the starless
space, the vacant Beyond, into which I was being drawn. At last a quarter
of the heavens was black and blank, and the whole headlong rush of stellar
universe closed in behind me like a veil of light that is gathered
together. It drove away from me like a monstrous jack-o'-lantern driven by
the wind. I had come out into the wilderness of space. Ever the vacant
blackness grew broader, until the hosts of the stars seemed only like a
swarm of fiery specks hurrying away from me, inconceivably remote, and the
darkness, the nothingness and emptiness, was about me on every side. Soon
the little universe of matter, the cage of points in which I had begun to
be, was dwindling, now to a whirling disc of luminous glittering, and now
to one minute disc of hazy light. In a little while it would shrink to a
point, and at last would vanish altogether.
Suddenly feeling came back to me--feeling in the shape of overwhelming
terror; such a dread of those dark vastitudes as no words can describe, a
passionate resurgence of sympathy and social desire. Were there other
souls, invisible to me as I to them, about me in the blackness? or was I
indeed, even as I felt, alone? Had I passed out of being into something
that was neither being nor not-being? The covering of the body, the
covering of matter, had been torn from me, and the hallucinations of
companionship and security. Everything was black and silent. I had ceased
to be. I was nothing. There was nothing, save only that infinitesimal dot
of light that dwindled in the gulf. I strained myself to hear and see, and
for a while there was naught but infinite silence, intolerable darkness,
horror, and despair.
Then I saw that about the spot of light into which the whole world of
matter had shrunk there was a faint glow. And in a band on either side of
that the darkness was not absolute. I watched it for ages, as it seemed to
me, and through the long waiting the haze grew imperceptibly more
distinct. And then about the band appeared an irregular cloud of the
faintest, palest brown. I felt a passionate impatience; but the things
grew brighter so slowly that they scarce seemed to change. What was
unfolding itself? What was this strange reddish dawn in the interminable
night of space?
The cloud's shape was grotesque. It seemed to be looped along its lower
side into four projecting masses, and, above, it ended in a straight line.
What phantom was it? I felt assured I had seen that figure before; but I
could not think what, nor where, nor when it was. Then the realisation
rushed upon me. _It was a clenched Hand._ I was alone in space, alone
with this huge, shadowy Hand, upon which the whole Universe of Matter lay
like an unconsidered speck of dust. It seemed as though I watched it
through vast periods of time. On the forefinger glittered a ring; and the
universe from which I had come was but a spot of light upon the ring's
curvature. And the thing that the hand gripped had the likeness of a black
rod. Through a long eternity I watched this Hand, with the ring and the
rod, marvelling and fearing and waiting helplessly on what might follow.
It seemed as though nothing could follow: that I should watch for ever,
seeing only the Hand and the thing it held, and understanding nothing of
its import. Was the whole universe but a refracting speck upon some
greater Being? Were our worlds but the atoms of another universe, and
those again of another, and so on through an endless progression? And what
was I? Was I indeed immaterial? A vague persuasion of a body gathering
about me came into my suspense. The abysmal darkness about the Hand filled
with impalpable suggestions, with uncertain, fluctuating shapes.
Then, suddenly, came a sound, like the sound of a tolling bell: faint, as
if infinitely far; muffled, as though heard through thick swathings of
darkness: a deep, vibrating resonance, with vast gulfs of silence between
each stroke. And the Hand appeared to tighten on the rod. And I saw far
above the Hand, towards the apex of the darkness, a circle of dim
phosphorescence, a ghostly sphere whence these sounds came throbbing; and
at the last stroke the Hand vanished, for the hour had come, and I heard a
noise of many waters. But the black rod remained as a great band across
the sky. And then a voice, which seemed to run to the uttermost parts of
space, spoke, saying, "There will be no more pain."
At that an almost intolerable gladness and radiance rushed in upon me, and
I saw the circle shining white and bright, and the rod black and shining,
and many things else distinct and clear. And the circle was the face of
the clock, and the rod the rail of my bed. Haddon was standing at the
foot, against the rail, with a small pair of scissors on his fingers; and
the hands of my clock on the mantel over his shoulder were clasped
together over the hour of twelve. Mowbray was washing something in a basin
at the octagonal table, and at my side I felt a subdued feeling that could
scarce be spoken of as pain.
The operation had not killed me. And I perceived, suddenly, that the dull
melancholy of half a year was lifted from my mind.
THE SEA RAIDERS.
Until the extraordinary affair at Sidmouth, the peculiar species
_Haploteuthis ferox_ was known to science only generically, on the
strength of a half-digested tentacle obtained near the Azores, and a
decaying body pecked by birds and nibbled by fish, found early in 1896 by
Mr. Jennings, near Land's End.
In no department of zoological science, indeed, are we quite so much in
the dark as with regard to the deep-sea cephalopods. A mere accident, for
instance, it was that led to the Prince of Monaco's discovery of nearly a
dozen new forms in the summer of 1895, a discovery in which the
before-mentioned tentacle was included. It chanced that a cachalot was
killed off Terceira by some sperm whalers, and in its last struggles
charged almost to the Prince's yacht, missed it, rolled under, and died
within twenty yards of his rudder. And in its agony it threw up a number
of large objects, which the Prince, dimly perceiving they were strange and
important, was, by a happy expedient, able to secure before they sank. He
set his screws in motion, and kept them circling in the vortices thus
created until a boat could be lowered. And these specimens were whole
cephalopods and fragments of cephalopods, some of gigantic proportions,
and almost all of them unknown to science!
It would seem, indeed, that these large and agile creatures, living in the
middle depths of the sea, must, to a large extent, for ever remain unknown
to us, since under water they are too nimble for nets, and it is only by
such rare, unlooked-for accidents that specimens can be obtained. In the
case of _Haploteuthis ferox_, for instance, we are still altogether
ignorant of its habitat, as ignorant as we are of the breeding-ground of
the herring or the sea-ways of the salmon. And zoologists are altogether
at a loss to account for its sudden appearance on our coast. Possibly it
was the stress of a hunger migration that drove it hither out of the deep.
But it will be, perhaps, better to avoid necessarily inconclusive
discussion, and to proceed at once with our narrative.
The first human being to set eyes upon a living _Haploteuthis_--the
first human being to survive, that is, for there can be little doubt now
that the wave of bathing fatalities and boating accidents that travelled
along the coast of Cornwall and Devon in early May was due to this
cause--was a retired tea-dealer of the name of Fison, who was stopping at
a Sidmouth boarding-house. It was in the afternoon, and he was walking
along the cliff path between Sidmouth and Ladram Bay. The cliffs in this
direction are very high, but down the red face of them in one place a kind
of ladder staircase has been made. He was near this when his attention was
attracted by what at first he thought to be a cluster of birds struggling
over a fragment of food that caught the sunlight, and glistened
pinkish-white. The tide was right out, and this object was not only far
below him, but remote across a broad waste of rock reefs covered with
dark seaweed and interspersed with silvery shining tidal pools. And he
was, moreover, dazzled by the brightness of the further water.
In a minute, regarding this again, he perceived that his judgment was in
fault, for over this struggle circled a number of birds, jackdaws and
gulls for the most part, the latter gleaming blindingly when the sunlight
smote their wings, and they seemed minute in comparison with it. And his
curiosity was, perhaps, aroused all the more strongly because of his first
As he had nothing better to do than amuse himself, he decided to make this
object, whatever it was, the goal of his afternoon walk, instead of Ladram
Bay, conceiving it might perhaps be a great fish of some sort, stranded by
some chance, and flapping about in its distress. And so he hurried down
the long steep ladder, stopping at intervals of thirty feet or so to take
breath and scan the mysterious movement.
At the foot of the cliff he was, of course, nearer his object than he had
been; but, on the other hand, it now came up against the incandescent sky,
beneath the sun, so as to seem dark and indistinct. Whatever was pinkish
of it was now hidden by a skerry of weedy boulders. But he perceived that
it was made up of seven rounded bodies distinct or connected, and that the
birds kept up a constant croaking and screaming, but seemed afraid to
approach it too closely.
Mr. Fison, torn by curiosity, began picking his way across the wave-worn
rocks, and finding the wet seaweed that covered them thickly rendered them
extremely slippery, he stopped, removed his shoes and socks, and rolled
his trousers above his knees. His object was, of course, merely to avoid
stumbling into the rocky pools about him, and perhaps he was rather glad,
as all men are, of an excuse to resume, even for a moment, the sensations
of his boyhood. At any rate, it is to this, no doubt, that he owes his
He approached his mark with all the assurance which the absolute security
of this country against all forms of animal life gives its inhabitants.
The round bodies moved to and fro, but it was only when he surmounted the
skerry of boulders I have mentioned that he realised the horrible nature
of the discovery. It came upon him with some suddenness.
The rounded bodies fell apart as he came into sight over the ridge, and
displayed the pinkish object to be the partially devoured body of a human
being, but whether of a man or woman he was unable to say. And the rounded
bodies were new and ghastly-looking creatures, in shape somewhat
resembling an octopus, with huge and very long and flexible tentacles,
coiled copiously on the ground. The skin had a glistening texture,
unpleasant to see, like shiny leather. The downward bend of the
tentacle-surrounded mouth, the curious excrescence at the bend, the
tentacles, and the large intelligent eyes, gave the creatures a grotesque
suggestion of a face. They were the size of a fair-sized swine about the
body, and the tentacles seemed to him to be many feet in length. There
were, he thinks, seven or eight at least of the creatures. Twenty yards
beyond them, amid the surf of the now returning tide, two others were
emerging from the sea.
Their bodies lay flatly on the rocks, and their eyes regarded him with
evil interest; but it does not appear that Mr. Fison was afraid, or that
he realised that he was in any danger. Possibly his confidence is to be
ascribed to the limpness of their attitudes. But he was horrified, of
course, and intensely excited and indignant, at such revolting creatures
preying upon human flesh. He thought they had chanced upon a drowned body.
He shouted to them, with the idea of driving them off, and finding they
did not budge, cast about him, picked up a big rounded lump of rock, and
flung it at one.
And then, slowly uncoiling their tentacles, they all began moving towards
him--creeping at first deliberately, and making a soft purring sound to
In a moment Mr. Fison realised that he was in danger. He shouted again,
threw both his boots, and started off, with a leap, forthwith. Twenty
yards off he stopped and faced about, judging them slow, and behold! the
tentacles of their leader were already pouring over the rocky ridge on
which he had just been standing!
At that he shouted again, but this time not threatening, but a cry of
dismay, and began jumping, striding, slipping, wading across the uneven
expanse between him and the beach. The tall red cliffs seemed suddenly at
a vast distance, and he saw, as though they were creatures in another
world, two minute workmen engaged in the repair of the ladder-way, and
little suspecting the race for life that was beginning below them. At one
time he could hear the creatures splashing in the pools not a dozen feet
behind him, and once he slipped and almost fell.
They chased him to the very foot of the cliffs, and desisted only when he
had been joined by the workmen at the foot of the ladder-way up the cliff.
All three of the men pelted them with stones for a time, and then hurried
to the cliff top and along the path towards Sidmouth, to secure assistance
and a boat, and to rescue the desecrated body from the clutches of these
And, as if he had not already been in sufficient peril that day, Mr. Fison
went with the boat to point out the exact spot of his adventure.
As the tide was down, it required a considerable detour to reach the spot,
and when at last they came off the ladder-way, the mangled body had
disappeared. The water was now running in, submerging first one slab of
slimy rock and then another, and the four men in the boat--the workmen,
that is, the boatman, and Mr. Fison--now turned their attention from the
bearings off shore to the water beneath the keel.
At first they could see little below them, save a dark jungle of
laminaria, with an occasional darting fish. Their minds were set on
adventure, and they expressed their disappointment freely. But presently
they saw one of the monsters swimming through the water seaward, with a
curious rolling motion that suggested to Mr. Fison the spinning roll of a
captive balloon. Almost immediately after, the waving streamers of
laminaria were extraordinarily perturbed, parted for a moment, and three
of these beasts became darkly visible, struggling for what was probably
some fragment of the drowned man. In a moment the copious olive-green
ribbons had poured again over this writhing group.
At that all four men, greatly excited, began beating the water with oars
and shouting, and immediately they saw a tumultuous movement among the
weeds. They desisted to see more clearly, and as soon as the water was
smooth, they saw, as it seemed to them, the whole sea bottom among the
weeds set with eyes.
"Ugly swine!" cried one of the men. "Why, there's dozens!"
And forthwith the things began to rise through the water about them. Mr.
Fison has since described to the writer this startling eruption out of the
waving laminaria meadows. To him it seemed to occupy a considerable time,
but it is probable that really it was an affair of a few seconds only. For
a time nothing but eyes, and then he speaks of tentacles streaming out and
parting the weed fronds this way and that. Then these things, growing
larger, until at last the bottom was hidden by their intercoiling forms,
and the tips of tentacles rose darkly here and there into the air above
the swell of the waters.
One came up boldly to the side of the boat, and clinging to this with
three of its sucker-set tentacles, threw four others over the gunwale, as
if with an intention either of oversetting the boat or of clambering into
it. Mr. Fison at once caught up the boat-hook, and, jabbing furiously at
the soft tentacles, forced it to desist. He was struck in the back and
almost pitched overboard by the boatman, who was using his oar to resist a
similar attack on the other side of the boat. But the tentacles on either
side at once relaxed their hold, slid out of sight, and splashed into the
"We'd better get out of this," said Mr. Fison, who was trembling
violently. He went to the tiller, while the boatman and one of the workmen
seated themselves and began rowing. The other workman stood up in the fore
part of the boat, with the boat-hook, ready to strike any more tentacles
that might appear. Nothing else seems to have been said. Mr. Fison had
expressed the common feeling beyond amendment. In a hushed, scared mood,
with faces white and drawn, they set about escaping from the position into
which they had so recklessly blundered.
But the oars had scarcely dropped into the water before dark, tapering,
serpentine ropes had bound them, and were about the rudder; and creeping
up the sides of the boat with a looping motion came the suckers again. The
men gripped their oars and pulled, but it was like trying to move a boat
in a floating raft of weeds. "Help here!" cried the boatman, and Mr. Fison
and the second workman rushed to help lug at the oar.
Then the man with the boat-hook--his name was Ewan, or Ewen--sprang up
with a curse and began striking downward over the side, as far as he could
reach, at the bank of tentacles that now clustered along the boat's
bottom. And, at the same time, the two rowers stood up to get a better
purchase for the recovery of their oars. The boatman handed his to Mr.
Fison, who lugged desperately, and, meanwhile, the boatman opened a big
clasp-knife, and leaning over the side of the boat, began hacking at the
spiring arms upon the oar shaft.
Mr. Fison, staggering with the quivering rocking of the boat, his teeth
set, his breath coming short, and the veins starting on his hands as he
pulled at his oar, suddenly cast his eyes seaward. And there, not fifty
yards off, across the long rollers of the incoming tide, was a large boat
standing in towards them, with three women and a little child in it. A
boatman was rowing, and a little man in a pink-ribboned straw hat and
whites stood in the stern hailing them. For a moment, of course, Mr. Fison
thought of help, and then he thought of the child. He abandoned his oar
forthwith, threw up his arms in a frantic gesture, and screamed to the
party in the boat to keep away "for God's sake!" It says much for the
modesty and courage of Mr. Fison that he does not seem to be aware that
there was any quality of heroism in his action at this juncture. The oar
he had abandoned was at once drawn under, and presently reappeared
floating about twenty yards away.
At the same moment Mr. Fison felt the boat under him lurch violently, and
a hoarse scream, a prolonged cry of terror from Hill, the boatman, caused
him to forget the party of excursionists altogether. He turned, and saw
Hill crouching by the forward row-lock, his face convulsed with terror,
and his right arm over the side and drawn tightly down. He gave now a
succession of short, sharp cries, "Oh! oh! oh!--oh!" Mr. Fison believes
that he must have been hacking at the tentacles below the water-line, and
have been grasped by them, but, of course, it is quite impossible to say
now certainly what had happened. The boat was heeling over, so that the
gunwale was within ten inches of the water, and both Ewan and the other
labourer were striking down into the water, with oar and boat-hook, on
either side of Hill's arm. Mr. Fison instinctively placed himself to
Then Hill, who was a burly, powerful man, made a strenuous effort, and
rose almost to a standing position. He lifted his arm, indeed, clean out
of the water. Hanging to it was a complicated tangle of brown ropes, and
the eyes of one of the brutes that had hold of him, glaring straight and
resolute, showed momentarily above the surface. The boat heeled more and
more, and the green-brown water came pouring in a cascade over the side.
Then Hill slipped and fell with his ribs across the side, and his arm and
the mass of tentacles about it splashed back into the water. He rolled
over; his boot kicked Mr. Fison's knee as that gentleman rushed forward to
seize him, and in another moment fresh tentacles had whipped about his
waist and neck, and after a brief, convulsive struggle, in which the boat
was nearly capsized, Hill was lugged overboard. The boat righted with a
violent jerk that all but sent Mr. Fison over the other side, and hid the
struggle in the water from his eyes.
He stood staggering to recover his balance for a moment, and as he did so
he became aware that the struggle and the inflowing tide had carried them
close upon the weedy rocks again. Not four yards off a table of rock still
rose in rhythmic movements above the in-wash of the tide. In a moment Mr.
Fison seized the oar from Ewan, gave one vigorous stroke, then dropping
it, ran to the bows and leapt. He felt his feet slide over the rock, and,
by a frantic effort, leapt again towards a further mass. He stumbled over
this, came to his knees, and rose again.
"Look out!" cried someone, and a large drab body struck him. He was
knocked flat into a tidal pool by one of the workmen, and as he went down
he heard smothered, choking cries, that he believed at the time came from
Hill. Then he found himself marvelling at the shrillness and variety of
Hill's voice. Someone jumped over him, and a curving rush of foamy water
poured over him, and passed. He scrambled to his feet dripping, and
without looking seaward, ran as fast as his terror would let him
shoreward. Before him, over the flat space of scattered rocks, stumbled
the two work-men--one a dozen yards in front of the other.
He looked over his shoulder at last, and seeing that he was not pursued,
faced about. He was astonished. From the moment of the rising of the
cephalopods out of the water he had been acting too swiftly to fully
comprehend his actions. Now it seemed to him as if he had suddenly jumped
out of an evil dream.
For there were the sky, cloudless and blazing with the afternoon sun, the
sea weltering under its pitiless brightness, the soft creamy foam of the
breaking water, and the low, long, dark ridges of rock. The righted boat
floated, rising and falling gently on the swell about a dozen yards from
shore. Hill and the monsters, all the stress and tumult of that fierce
fight for life, had vanished as though they had never been.
Mr. Fison's heart was beating violently; he was throbbing to the
finger-tips, and his breath came deep.
There was something missing. For some seconds he could not think clearly
enough what this might be. Sun, sky, sea, rocks--what was it? Then he
remembered the boat-load of excursionists. It had vanished. He wondered
whether he had imagined it. He turned, and saw the two workmen standing
side by side under the projecting masses of the tall pink cliffs. He
hesitated whether he should make one last attempt to save the man Hill.
His physical excitement seemed to desert him suddenly, and leave him
aimless and helpless. He turned shoreward, stumbling and wading towards
his two companions.
He looked back again, and there were now two boats floating, and the one
farthest out at sea pitched clumsily, bottom upward.
So it was _Haploteuthis ferox_ made its appearance upon the
Devonshire coast. So far, this has been its most serious aggression. Mr.
Fison's account, taken together with the wave of boating and bathing
casualties to which I have already alluded, and the absence of fish from
the Cornish coasts that year, points clearly to a shoal of these voracious
deep-sea monsters prowling slowly along the sub-tidal coast-line. Hunger
migration has, I know, been suggested as the force that drove them hither;
but, for my own part, I prefer to believe the alternative theory of
Hemsley. Hemsley holds that a pack or shoal of these creatures may have
become enamoured of human flesh by the accident of a foundered ship
sinking among them, and have wandered in search of it out of their
accustomed zone; first waylaying and following ships, and so coming to our
shores in the wake of the Atlantic traffic. But to discuss Hemsley's
cogent and admirably-stated arguments would be out of place here.
It would seem that the appetites of the shoal were satisfied by the catch
of eleven people--for, so far as can be ascertained, there were ten people
in the second boat, and certainly these creatures gave no further signs of
their presence off Sidmouth that day. The coast between Seaton and
Budleigh Salterton was patrolled all that evening and night by four
Preventive Service boats, the men in which were armed with harpoons and
cutlasses, and as the evening advanced, a number of more or less similarly
equipped expeditions, organised by private individuals, joined them. Mr.
Fison took no part in any of these expeditions.
About midnight excited hails were heard from a boat about a couple of
miles out at sea to the south-east of Sidmouth, and a lantern was seen
waving in a strange manner to and fro and up and down. The nearer boats at
once hurried towards the alarm. The venturesome occupants of the boat--a
seaman, a curate, and two schoolboys--had actually seen the monsters
passing under their boat. The creatures, it seems, like most deep-sea
organisms, were phosphorescent, and they had been floating, five fathoms
deep or so, like creatures of moonshine through the blackness of the
water, their tentacles retracted and as if asleep, rolling over and over,
and moving slowly in a wedge-like formation towards the south-east.
These people told their story in gesticulated fragments, as first one boat
drew alongside and then another. At last there was a little fleet of eight
or nine boats collected together, and from them a tumult, like the chatter
of a market-place, rose into the stillness of the night. There was little
or no disposition to pursue the shoal, the people had neither weapons nor
experience for such a dubious chase, and presently--even with a certain
relief, it may be--the boats turned shoreward.
And now to tell what is perhaps the most astonishing fact in this whole
astonishing raid. We have not the slightest knowledge of the subsequent
movements of the shoal, although the whole south-west coast was now alert
for it. But it may, perhaps, be significant that a cachalot was stranded
off Sark on June 3. Two weeks and three days after this Sidmouth affair, a
living _Haploteuthis_ came ashore on Calais sands. It was alive,
because several witnesses saw its tentacles moving in a convulsive way.
But it is probable that it was dying. A gentleman named Pouchet obtained a
rifle and shot it.
That was the last appearance of a living _Haploteuthis_. No others
were seen on the French coast. On the 15th of June a dead carcass, almost
complete, was washed ashore near Torquay, and a few days later a boat from
the Marine Biological station, engaged in dredging off Plymouth, picked up
a rotting specimen, slashed deeply with a cutlass wound. How the former
had come by its death it is impossible to say. And on the last day of
June, Mr. Egbert Caine, an artist, bathing near Newlyn, threw up his arms,
shrieked, and was drawn under. A friend bathing with him made no attempt
to save him, but swam at once for the shore. This is the last fact to tell
of this extraordinary raid from the deeper sea. Whether it is really the
last of these horrible creatures it is, as yet, premature to say. But it
is believed, and certainly it is to be hoped, that they have returned now,
and returned for good, to the sunless depths of the middle seas, out of
which they have so strangely and so mysteriously arisen.
THE OBLITERATED MAN.
I was--you shall hear immediately why I am not now--Egbert Craddock
Cummins. The name remains. I am still (Heaven help me!) Dramatic Critic to
the _Fiery Cross_. What I shall be in a little while I do not know. I
write in great trouble and confusion of mind. I will do what I can to make
myself clear in the face of terrible difficulties. You must bear with me a
little. When a man is rapidly losing his own identity, he naturally finds
a difficulty in expressing himself. I will make it perfectly plain in a
minute, when once I get my grip upon the story. Let me see--where
_am_ I? I wish I knew. Ah, I have it! Dead self! Egbert Craddock
In the past I should have disliked writing anything quite so full of "I"
as this story must be. It is full of "I's" before and behind, like the
beast in Revelation--the one with a head like a calf, I am afraid. But my
tastes have changed since I became a Dramatic Critic and studied the
masters--G.A.S., G.B.S., G.R.S., and the others. Everything has changed
since then. At least the story is about myself--so that there is some
excuse for me. And it is really not egotism, because, as I say, since
those days my identity has undergone an entire alteration.
That past!... I was--in those days--rather a nice fellow, rather shy--
taste for grey in my clothes, weedy little moustache, face "interesting,"
slight stutter which I had caught in my early life from a schoolfellow.
Engaged to a very nice girl, named Delia. Fairly new, she was--
cigarettes--liked me because I was human and original. Considered I was
like Lamb--on the strength of the stutter, I believe. Father, an eminent
authority on postage stamps. She read a great deal in the British Museum.
(A perfect pairing ground for literary people, that British Museum--you
should read George Egerton and Justin Huntly M'Carthy and Gissing and the
rest of them.) We loved in our intellectual way, and shared the brightest
hopes. (All gone now.) And her father liked me because I seemed honestly
eager to hear about stamps. She had no mother. Indeed, I had the happiest
prospects a young man could have. I never went to theatres in those days.
My Aunt Charlotte before she died had told me not to.
Then Barnaby, the editor of the _Fiery Cross_, made me--in spite of
my spasmodic efforts to escape--Dramatic Critic. He is a fine, healthy
man, Barnaby, with an enormous head of frizzy black hair and a convincing
manner, and he caught me on the staircase going to see Wembly. He had been
dining, and was more than usually buoyant. "Hullo, Cummins!" he said. "The
very man I want!" He caught me by the shoulder or the collar or something,
ran me up the little passage, and flung me over the waste-paper basket
into the arm-chair in his office. "Pray be seated," he said, as he did so.
Then he ran across the room and came back with some pink and yellow
tickets and pushed them into my hand. "Opera Comique," he said, "Thursday;
Friday, the Surrey; Saturday, the Frivolity. That's all, I think."
"But--" I began.
"Glad you're free," he said, snatching some proofs off the desk and
beginning to read.
"I don't quite understand," I said.
"_Eigh_?" he said, at the top of his voice, as though he thought I
had gone and was startled at my remark.
"Do you want me to criticise these plays?"
"Do something with 'em... Did you think it was a treat?"
"But I can't."
"Did you call me a fool?"
"Well, I've never been to a theatre in my life."
"But I don't know anything about it, you know."
"That's just it. New view. No habits. No _cliches_ in stock. Ours is
a live paper, not a bag of tricks. None of your clockwork professional
journalism in this office. And I can rely on your integrity----"
"But I've conscientious scruples----"
He caught me up suddenly and put me outside his door. "Go and talk to
Wembly about that," he said. "He'll explain."
As I stood perplexed, he opened the door again, said, "I forgot this,"
thrust a fourth ticket into my hand (it was for that night--in twenty
minutes' time) and slammed the door upon me. His expression was quite
calm, but I caught his eye.
I hate arguments. I decided that I would take his hint and become (to my
own destruction) a Dramatic Critic. I walked slowly down the passage to
Wembly. That Barnaby has a remarkable persuasive way. He has made few
suggestions during our very pleasant intercourse of four years that he has
not ultimately won me round to adopting. It may be, of course, that I am
of a yielding disposition; certainly I am too apt to take my colour from
my circumstances. It is, indeed, to my unfortunate susceptibility to vivid
impressions that all my misfortunes are due. I have already alluded to the
slight stammer I had acquired from a schoolfellow in my youth. However,
this is a digression... I went home in a cab to dress.
I will not trouble the reader with my thoughts about the first-night
audience, strange assembly as it is,--those I reserve for my Memoirs,--nor
the humiliating story of how I got lost during the _entr'acte_ in a
lot of red plush passages, and saw the third act from the gallery. The
only point upon which I wish to lay stress was the remarkable effect of
the acting upon me. You must remember I had lived a quiet and retired
life, and had never been to the theatre before, and that I am extremely
sensitive to vivid impressions. At the risk of repetition I must insist
upon these points.
The first effect was a profound amazement, not untinctured by alarm. The
phenomenal unnaturalness of acting is a thing discounted in the minds of
most people by early visits to the theatre. They get used to the fantastic
gestures, the flamboyant emotions, the weird mouthings, melodious
snortings, agonising yelps, lip-gnawings, glaring horrors, and other
emotional symbolism of the stage. It becomes at last a mere deaf-and-dumb
language to them, which they read intelligently _pari passu_ with the
hearing of the dialogue. But all this was new to me. The thing was called
a modern comedy, the people were supposed to be English and were dressed
like fashionable Americans of the current epoch, and I fell into the
natural error of supposing that the actors were trying to represent human
beings. I looked round on my first-night audience with a kind of wonder,
discovered--as all new Dramatic Critics do--that it rested with me to
reform the Drama, and, after a supper choked with emotion, went off to the
office to write a column, piebald with "new paragraphs" (as all my stuff
is--it fills out so) and purple with indignation. Barnaby was delighted.
But I could not sleep that night. I dreamt of actors--actors glaring,
actors smiting their chests, actors flinging out a handful of extended
fingers, actors smiling bitterly, laughing despairingly, falling
hopelessly, dying idiotically. I got up at eleven with a slight headache,
read my notice in the _Fiery Cross_, breakfasted, and went back to my
room to shave, (It's my habit to do so.) Then an odd thing happened. I
could not find my razor. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had not
unpacked it the day before.
"Ah!" said I, in front of the looking-glass. Then "Hullo!"
Quite involuntarily, when I had thought of my portmanteau, I had flung up
the left arm (fingers fully extended) and clutched at my diaphragm with my
right hand. I am an acutely self-conscious man at all times. The gesture
struck me as absolutely novel for me. I repeated it, for my own
satisfaction. "Odd!" Then (rather puzzled) I turned to my portmanteau.
After shaving, my mind reverted to the acting I had seen, and I
entertained myself before the cheval glass with some imitations of
Jafferay's more exaggerated gestures. "Really, one might think it a
disease," I said--"Stage-Walkitis!" (There's many a truth spoken in jest.)
Then, if I remember rightly, I went off to see Wembly, and afterwards
lunched at the British Museum with Delia. We actually spoke about our
prospects, in the light of my new appointment.
But that appointment was the beginning of my downfall. From that day I
necessarily became a persistent theatre-goer, and almost insensibly I
began to change. The next thing I noticed after the gesture about the
razor was to catch myself bowing ineffably when I met Delia, and stooping
in an old-fashioned, courtly way over her hand. Directly I caught myself,
I straightened myself up and became very uncomfortable. I remember she
looked at me curiously. Then, in the office, I found myself doing "nervous
business," fingers on teeth, when Barnaby asked me a question I could not
very well answer. Then, in some trifling difference with Delia, I clasped
my hand to my brow. And I pranced through my social transactions at times
singularly like an actor! I tried not to--no one could be more keenly
alive to the arrant absurdity of the histrionic bearing. And I did!
It began to dawn on me what it all meant. The acting, I saw, was too much
for my delicately-strung nervous system. I have always, I know, been too
amenable to the suggestions of my circumstances. Night after night of
concentrated attention to the conventional attitudes and intonation of the
English stage was gradually affecting my speech and carriage. I was giving
way to the infection of sympathetic imitation. Night after night my
plastic nervous system took the print of some new amazing gesture, some
new emotional exaggeration--and retained it. A kind of theatrical veneer
threatened to plate over and obliterate my private individuality
altogether. I saw myself in a kind of vision. Sitting by myself one night,
my new self seemed to me to glide, posing and gesticulating, across the
room. He clutched his throat, he opened his fingers, he opened his legs in
walking like a high-class marionette. He went from attitude to attitude.
He might have been clockwork. Directly after this I made an ineffectual
attempt to resign my theatrical work. But Barnaby persisted in talking
about the Polywhiddle Divorce all the time I was with him, and I could get
no opportunity of saying what I wished.
And then Delia's manner began to change towards me. The ease of our
intercourse vanished. I felt she was learning to dislike me. I grinned,
and capered, and scowled, and posed at her in a thousand ways, and
knew--with what a voiceless agony!--that I did it all the time. I tried to
resign again, and Barnaby talked about "X" and "Z" and "Y" in the _New
Review,_ and gave me a strong cigar to smoke, and so routed me. And
then I walked up the Assyrian Gallery in the manner of Irving to meet
Delia, and so precipitated the crisis.
"Ah!--_Dear_!" I said, with more sprightliness and emotion in my
voice than had ever been in all my life before I became (to my own
undoing) a Dramatic Critic.
She held out her hand rather coldly, scrutinising my face as she did so. I
prepared, with a new-won grace, to walk by her side. "Egbert," she said,
standing still, and thought. Then she looked at me.
I said nothing. I felt what was coming. I tried to be the old Egbert
Craddock Cummins of shambling gait and stammering sincerity, whom she
loved, but I felt even as I did so that I was a new thing, a thing of
surging emotions and mysterious fixity--like no human being that ever
lived, except upon the stage. "Egbert," she said, "you are not yourself."
"Ah!" Involuntarily I clutched my diaphragm and averted my head (as is the
way with them).
"There!" she said.
"_What do you mean_?" I said, whispering in vocal italics--you know
how they do it--turning on her, perplexity on face, right hand down, left
on brow. I knew quite well what she meant. I knew quite well the dramatic
unreality of my behaviour. But I struggled against it in vain. "What do
you mean?" I said, and, in a kind of hoarse whisper, "I don't understand!"
She really looked as though she disliked me. "What do you keep on posing
for?" she said. "I don't like it. You didn't use to."
"Didn't use to!" I said slowly, repeating this twice. I glared up and down
the gallery with short, sharp glances. "We are alone," I said swiftly.
"_Listen!_" I poked my forefinger towards her, and glared at her.
"I am under a curse."
I saw her hand tighten upon her sunshade. "You are under some bad
influence or other," said Delia. "You should give it up. I never knew
anyone change as you have done."
"Delia!" I said, lapsing into the pathetic. "Pity me, Augh! Delia!
She eyed me critically. "_Why_ you keep playing the fool like this I
don't know," she said. "Anyhow, I really cannot go about with a man who
behaves as you do. You made us both ridiculous on Wednesday. Frankly, I
dislike you, as you are now. I met you here to tell you so--as it's about
the only place where we can be sure of being alone together----"
"Delia!" said I, with intensity, knuckles of clenched hands white. "You
"I do," said Delia. "A woman's lot is sad enough at the best of times. But
I clapped my hand on my brow.
"So, good-bye," said Delia, without emotion.
"Oh, Delia!" I said. "Not _this_?"
"Good-bye, Mr. Cummins," she said.
By a violent effort I controlled myself and touched her hand. I tried to
say some word of explanation to her. She looked into my working face and
winced. "I _must_ do it," she said hopelessly. Then she turned from
me and began walking rapidly down the gallery.
Heavens! How the human agony cried within me! I loved Delia. But nothing
found expression--I was already too deeply crusted with my acquired self.
"Good-baye!" I said at last, watching her retreating figure. How I hated
myself for doing it! After she had vanished, I repeated in a dreamy way,
"Good-baye!" looking hopelessly round me. Then, with a kind of
heart-broken cry, I shook my clenched fists in the air, staggered to the
pedestal of a winged figure, buried my face in my arms, and made my
shoulders heave. Something within me said "Ass!" as I did so. (I had the
greatest difficulty in persuading the Museum policeman, who was attracted
by my cry of agony, that I was not intoxicated, but merely suffering from
a transient indisposition.)
But even this great sorrow has not availed to save me from my fate. I see
it; everyone sees it: I grow more "theatrical" every day. And no one could
be more painfully aware of the pungent silliness of theatrical ways. The
quiet, nervous, but pleasing E.C. Cummins vanishes. I cannot save him. I
am driven like a dead leaf before the winds of March. My tailor even
enters into the spirit of my disorder. He has a peculiar sense of what is
fitting. I tried to get a dull grey suit from him this spring, and he
foisted a brilliant blue upon me, and I see he has put braid down the
sides of my new dress trousers. My hairdresser insists upon giving me a
I am beginning to associate with actors. I detest them, but it is only in
their company that I can feel I am not glaringly conspicuous. Their talk
infects me. I notice a growing tendency to dramatic brevity, to dashes and
pauses in my style, to a punctuation of bows and attitudes. Barnaby has
remarked it too. I offended Wembly by calling him "Dear Boy" yesterday. I
dread the end, but I cannot escape from it.
The fact is, I am being obliterated. Living a grey, retired life all my
youth, I came to the theatre a delicate sketch of a man, a thing of tints
and faint lines. Their gorgeous colouring has effaced me altogether.
People forget how much mode of expression, method of movement, are a
matter of contagion. I have heard of stage-struck people before, and
thought it a figure of speech. I spoke of it jestingly, as a disease. It
is no jest. It is a disease. And I have got it badly! Deep down within me
I protest against the wrong done to my personality--unavailingly. For
three hours or more a week I have to go and concentrate my attention on
some fresh play, and the suggestions of the drama strengthen their awful
hold upon me. My manners grow so flamboyant, my passions so professional,
that I doubt, as I said at the outset, whether it is really myself that
behaves in such a manner. I feel merely the core to this dramatic casing,
that grows thicker and presses upon me--me and mine. I feel like King
John's abbot in his cope of lead.
I doubt, indeed, whether I should not abandon the struggle altogether--
leave this sad world of ordinary life for which I am so ill fitted,
abandon the name of Cummins for some professional pseudonym, complete my
self-effacement, and--a thing of tricks and tatters, of posing and
pretence--go upon the stage. It seems my only resort--"to hold the mirror
up to Nature." For in the ordinary life, I will confess, no one now seems
to regard me as both sane and sober. Only upon the stage, I feel
convinced, will people take me seriously. That will be the end of it. I
_know_ that will be the end of it. And yet ... I will frankly confess
... all that marks off your actor from your common man ... I
_detest_. I am still largely of my Aunt Charlotte's opinion, that
play-acting is unworthy of a pure-minded man's attention, much more
participation. Even now I would resign my dramatic criticism and try a
rest. Only I can't get hold of Barnaby. Letters of resignation he never
notices. He says it is against the etiquette of journalism to write to
your Editor. And when I go to see him, he gives me another big cigar and
some strong whisky and soda, and then something always turns up to prevent
THE PLATTNER STORY.
Whether the story of Gottfried Plattner is to be credited or not is a
pretty question in the value of evidence. On the one hand, we have seven
witnesses--to be perfectly exact, we have six and a half pairs of eyes,
and one undeniable fact; and on the other we have--what is it?--prejudice,
common-sense, the inertia of opinion. Never were there seven more
honest-seeming witnesses; never was there a more undeniable fact than the
inversion of Gottfried Plattner's anatomical structure, and--never was
there a more preposterous story than the one they have to tell! The most
preposterous part of the story is the worthy Gottfried's contribution (for
I count him as one of the seven). Heaven forbid that I should be led into
giving countenance to superstition by a passion for impartiality, and so
come to share the fate of Eusapia's patrons! Frankly, I believe there is
something crooked about this business of Gottfried Plattner; but what that
crooked factor is, I will admit as frankly, I do not know. I have been
surprised at the credit accorded to the story in the most unexpected and
authoritative quarters. The fairest way to the reader, however, will be
for me to tell it without further comment.
Gottfried Plattner is, in spite of his name, a freeborn Englishman. His
father was an Alsatian who came to England in the 'sixties, married a
respectable English girl of unexceptionable antecedents, and died, after a
wholesome and uneventful life (devoted, I understand, chiefly to the
laying of parquet flooring), in 1887. Gottfried's age is seven-and-twenty.
He is, by virtue of his heritage of three languages, Modern Languages
Master in a small private school in the south of England. To the casual
observer he is singularly like any other Modern Languages Master in any
other small private school. His costume is neither very costly nor very
fashionable, but, on the other hand, it is not markedly cheap or shabby;
his complexion, like his height and his bearing, is inconspicuous. You
would notice, perhaps, that, like the majority of people, his face was not
absolutely symmetrical, his right eye a little larger than the left, and
his jaw a trifle heavier on the right side. If you, as an ordinary
careless person, were to bare his chest and feel his heart beating, you
would probably find it quite like the heart of anyone else. But here you
and the trained observer would part company. If you found his heart quite
ordinary, the trained observer would find it quite otherwise. And once the
thing was pointed out to you, you too would perceive the peculiarity
easily enough. It is that Gottfried's heart beats on the right side of his
Now, that is not the only singularity of Gottfried's structure, although
it is the only one that would appeal to the untrained mind. Careful
sounding of Gottfried's internal arrangements by a well-known surgeon
seems to point to the fact that all the other unsymmetrical parts of his
body are similarly misplaced. The right lobe of his liver is on the left
side, the left on his right; while his lungs, too, are similarly
contraposed. What is still more singular, unless Gottfried is a consummate
actor, we must believe that his right hand has recently become his left.
Since the occurrences we are about to consider (as impartially as
possible), he has found the utmost difficulty in writing, except from
right to left across the paper with his left hand. He cannot throw with
his right hand, he is perplexed at meal-times between knife and fork, and
his ideas of the rule of the road--he is a cyclist--are still a dangerous
confusion. And there is not a scrap of evidence to show that before these
occurrences Gottfried was at all left-handed.
There is yet another wonderful fact in this preposterous business.
Gottfried produces three photographs of himself. You have him at the age
of five or six, thrusting fat legs at you from under a plaid frock, and
scowling. In that photograph his left eye is a little larger than his
right, and his jaw is a trifle heavier on the left side. This is the
reverse of his present living condition. The photograph of Gottfried at
fourteen seems to contradict these facts, but that is because it is one of
those cheap "Gem" photographs that were then in vogue, taken direct upon
metal, and therefore reversing things just as a looking-glass would. The
third photograph represents him at one-and-twenty, and confirms the record
of the others. There seems here evidence of the strongest confirmatory
character that Gottfried has exchanged his left side for his right. Yet
how a human being can be so changed, short of a fantastic and pointless
miracle, it is exceedingly hard to suggest.
In one way, of course, these facts might be explicable on the supposition
that Plattner has undertaken an elaborate mystification, on the strength
of his heart's displacement. Photographs may be faked, and left-handedness
imitated. But the character of the man does not lend itself to any such
theory. He is quiet, practical, unobtrusive, and thoroughly sane, from the
Nordau standpoint. He likes beer, and smokes moderately, takes walking
exercise daily, and has a healthily high estimate of the value of his
teaching. He has a good but untrained tenor voice, and takes a pleasure in
singing airs of a popular and cheerful character. He is fond, but not
morbidly fond, of reading,--chiefly fiction pervaded with a vaguely pious
optimism,--sleeps well, and rarely dreams. He is, in fact, the very last
person to evolve a fantastic fable. Indeed, so far from forcing this story
upon the world, he has been singularly reticent on the matter. He meets
enquirers with a certain engaging--bashfulness is almost the word, that
disarms the most suspicious. He seems genuinely ashamed that anything so
unusual has occurred to him.
It is to be regretted that Plattner's aversion to the idea of post-mortem
dissection may postpone, perhaps for ever, the positive proof that his
entire body has had its left and right sides transposed. Upon that fact
mainly the credibility of his story hangs. There is no way of taking a man
and moving him about in space as ordinary people understand space, that
will result in our changing his sides. Whatever you do, his right is still
his right, his left his left. You can do that with a perfectly thin and
flat thing, of course. If you were to cut a figure out of paper, any
figure with a right and left side, you could change its sides simply by
lifting it up and turning it over. But with a solid it is different.
Mathematical theorists tell us that the only way in which the right and
left sides of a solid body can be changed is by taking that body clean out
of space as we know it,--taking it out of ordinary existence, that is, and
turning it somewhere outside space. This is a little abstruse, no doubt,
but anyone with any knowledge of mathematical theory will assure the
reader of its truth. To put the thing in technical language, the curious
inversion of Plattner's right and left sides is proof that he has moved
out of our space into what is called the Fourth Dimension, and that he has
returned again to our world. Unless we choose to consider ourselves the
victims of an elaborate and motiveless fabrication, we are almost bound to
believe that this has occurred.
So much for the tangible facts. We come now to the account of the
phenomena that attended his temporary disappearance from the world. It
appears that in the Sussexville Proprietary School, Plattner not only
discharged the duties of Modern Languages Master, but also taught
chemistry, commercial geography, bookkeeping, shorthand, drawing, and any
other additional subject to which the changing fancies of the boys'
parents might direct attention. He knew little or nothing of these various
subjects, but in secondary as distinguished from Board or elementary
schools, knowledge in the teacher is, very properly, by no means so
necessary as high moral character and gentlemanly tone. In chemistry he
was particularly deficient, knowing, he says, nothing beyond the Three
Gases (whatever the three gases may be). As, however, his pupils began by
knowing nothing, and derived all their information from him, this caused
him (or anyone) but little inconvenience for several terms. Then a little
boy named Whibble joined the school, who had been educated (it seems) by
some mischievous relative into an inquiring habit of mind. This little boy
followed Plattner's lessons with marked and sustained interest, and in
order to exhibit his zeal on the subject, brought, at various times,
substances for Plattner to analyse. Plattner, flattered by this evidence
of his power of awakening interest, and trusting to the boy's ignorance,
analysed these, and even, made general statements as to their composition.
Indeed, he was so far stimulated by his pupil as to obtain a work upon
analytical chemistry, and study it during his supervision of the evening's
preparation. He was surprised to find chemistry quite an interesting
So far the story is absolutely commonplace. But now the greenish powder
comes upon the scene. The source of that greenish powder seems,
unfortunately, lost. Master Whibble tells a tortuous story of finding it
done up in a packet in a disused limekiln near the Downs. It would have
been an excellent thing for Plattner, and possibly for Master Whibble's
family, if a match could have been applied to that powder there and then.
The young gentleman certainly did not bring it to school in a packet, but
in a common eight-ounce graduated medicine bottle, plugged with masticated
newspaper. He gave it to Plattner at the end of the afternoon school. Four
boys had been detained after school prayers in order to complete some
neglected tasks, and Plattner was supervising these in the small class-room
in which the chemical teaching was conducted. The appliances for the
practical teaching of chemistry in the Sussexville Proprietary School, as
in most small schools in this country, are characterised by a severe
simplicity. They are kept in a small cupboard standing in a recess, and
having about the same capacity as a common travelling trunk. Plattner,
being bored with his passive superintendence, seems to have welcomed the
intervention of Whibble with his green powder as an agreeable diversion,
and, unlocking this cupboard, proceeded at once with his analytical
experiments. Whibble sat, luckily for himself, at a safe distance,
regarding him. The four malefactors, feigning a profound absorption in
their work, watched him furtively with the keenest interest. For even
within the limits of the Three Gases, Plattner's practical chemistry was,
I understand, temerarious.
They are practically unanimous in their account of Plattner's proceedings.
He poured a little of the green powder into a test-tube, and tried the
substance with water, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, and sulphuric acid
in succession. Getting no result, he emptied out a little heap--nearly
half the bottleful, in fact--upon a slate and tried a match. He held the
medicine bottle in his left hand. The stuff began to smoke and melt, and
then exploded with deafening violence and a blinding flash.
The five boys, seeing the flash and being prepared for catastrophes,
ducked below their desks, and were none of them seriously hurt. The window
was blown out into the playground, and the blackboard on its easel was
upset. The slate was smashed to atoms. Some plaster fell from the ceiling.
No other damage was done to the school edifice or appliances, and the boys
at first, seeing nothing of Plattner, fancied he was knocked down and
lying out of their sight below the desks. They jumped out of their places
to go to his assistance, and were amazed to find the space empty. Being
still confused by the sudden violence of the report, they hurried to the
open door, under the impression that he must have been hurt, and have
rushed out of the room. But Carson, the foremost, nearly collided in the
doorway with the principal, Mr. Lidgett.
Mr. Lidgett is a corpulent, excitable man with one eye. The boys describe
him as stumbling into the room mouthing some of those tempered expletives
irritable schoolmasters accustom themselves to use--lest worse befall.
"Wretched mumchancer!" he said. "Where's Mr. Plattner?" The boys are
agreed on the very words. ("Wobbler," "snivelling puppy," and "mumchancer"
are, it seems, among the ordinary small change of Mr. Lidgett's scholastic
Where's Mr. Plattner? That was a question that was to be repeated many
times in the next few days. It really seemed as though that frantic
hyperbole, "blown to atoms," had for once realised itself. There was not a
visible particle of Plattner to be seen; not a drop of blood nor a stitch
of clothing to be found. Apparently he had been blown clean out of
existence and left not a wrack behind. Not so much as would cover a
sixpenny piece, to quote a proverbial expression! The evidence of his
absolute disappearance as a consequence of that explosion is indubitable.
It is not necessary to enlarge here upon the commotion excited in the
Sussexville Proprietary School, and in Sussexville and elsewhere, by this
event. It is quite possible, indeed, that some of the readers of these
pages may recall the hearing of some remote and dying version of that
excitement during the last summer holidays. Lidgett, it would seem, did
everything in his power to suppress and minimise the story. He instituted
a penalty of twenty-five lines for any mention of Plattner's name among
the boys, and stated in the schoolroom that he was clearly aware of his
assistant's whereabouts. He was afraid, he explains, that the possibility
of an explosion happening, in spite of the elaborate precautions taken to
minimise the practical teaching of chemistry, might injure the reputation
of the school; and so might any mysterious quality in Plattner's
departure. Indeed, he did everything in his power to make the occurrence
seem as ordinary as possible. In particular, he cross-examined the five
eye-witnesses of the occurrence so searchingly that they began to doubt
the plain evidence of their senses. But, in spite of these efforts, the
tale, in a magnified and distorted state, made a nine days' wonder in the
district, and several parents withdrew their sons on colourable pretexts.
Not the least remarkable point in the matter is the fact that a large
number of people in the neighbourhood dreamed singularly vivid dreams of
Plattner during the period of excitement before his return, and that these
dreams had a curious uniformity. In almost all of them Plattner was seen,
sometimes singly, sometimes in company, wandering about through a
coruscating iridescence. In all cases his face was pale and distressed,
and in some he gesticulated towards the dreamer. One or two of the boys,
evidently under the influence of nightmare, fancied that Plattner
approached them with remarkable swiftness, and seemed to look closely into
their very eyes. Others fled with Plattner from the pursuit of vague and
extraordinary creatures of a globular shape. But all these fancies were
forgotten in inquiries and speculations when on the Wednesday next but one
after the Monday of the explosion, Plattner returned.
The circumstances of his return were as singular as those of his
departure. So far as Mr. Lidgett's somewhat choleric outline can be filled
in from Plattner's hesitating statements, it would appear that on
Wednesday evening, towards the hour of sunset, the former gentleman,
having dismissed evening preparation, was engaged in his garden, picking
and eating strawberries, a fruit of which he is inordinately fond. It is a
large old-fashioned garden, secured from observation, fortunately, by a
high and ivy-covered red-brick wall. Just as he was stooping over a
particularly prolific plant, there was a flash in the air and a heavy
thud, and before he could look round, some heavy body struck him violently
from behind. He was pitched forward, crushing the strawberries he held in
his hand, and that so roughly, that his silk hat--Mr. Lidgett adheres to
the older ideas of scholastic costume--was driven violently down upon his
forehead, and almost over one eye. This heavy missile, which slid over him
sideways and collapsed into a sitting posture among the strawberry plants,
proved to be our long-lost Mr. Gottfried Plattner, in an extremely
dishevelled condition. He was collarless and hatless, his linen was dirty,
and there was blood upon his hands. Mr. Lidgett was so indignant and
surprised that he remained on all-fours, and with his hat jammed down on
his eye, while he expostulated vehemently with Plattner for his
disrespectful and unaccountable conduct.
This scarcely idyllic scene completes what I may call the exterior version
of the Plattner story--its exoteric aspect. It is quite unnecessary to
enter here into all the details of his dismissal by Mr. Lidgett. Such
details, with the full names and dates and references, will be found in
the larger report of these occurrences that was laid before the Society
for the Investigation of Abnormal Phenomena. The singular transposition of
Plattner's right and left sides was scarcely observed for the first day or
so, and then first in connection with his disposition to write from right
to left across the blackboard. He concealed rather than ostended this
curious confirmatory circumstance, as he considered it would unfavourably
affect his prospects in a new situation. The displacement of his heart was
discovered some months after, when he was having a tooth extracted under
anaesthetics. He then, very unwillingly, allowed a cursory surgical
examination to be made of himself, with a view to a brief account in the
_Journal of Anatomy_. That exhausts the statement of the material
facts; and we may now go on to consider Plattner's account of the matter.
But first let us clearly differentiate between the preceding portion of
this story and what is to follow. All I have told thus far is established
by such evidence as even a criminal lawyer would approve. Every one of the
witnesses is still alive; the reader, if he have the leisure, may hunt the
lads out to-morrow, or even brave the terrors of the redoubtable Lidgett,
and cross-examine and trap and test to his heart's content; Gottfried
Plattner himself, and his twisted heart and his three photographs, are
producible. It may be taken as proved that he did disappear for nine days
as the consequence of an explosion; that he returned almost as violently,
under circumstances in their nature annoying to Mr. Lidgett, whatever the
details of those circumstances may be; and that he returned inverted, just
as a reflection returns from a mirror. From the last fact, as I have
already stated, it follows almost inevitably that Plattner, during those
nine days, must have been in some state of existence altogether out of
space. The evidence to these statements is, indeed, far stronger than that
upon which most murderers are hanged. But for his own particular account
of where he had been, with its confused explanations and wellnigh
self-contradictory details, we have only Mr. Gottfried Plattner's word. I
do not wish to discredit that, but I must point out--what so many writers
upon obscure psychic phenomena fail to do--that we are passing here from
the practically undeniable to that kind of matter which any reasonable man
is entitled to believe or reject as he thinks proper. The previous
statements render it plausible; its discordance with common experience
tilts it towards the incredible. I would prefer not to sway the beam of
the reader's judgment either way, but simply to tell the story as Plattner
told it me.
He gave me his narrative, I may state, at my house at Chislehurst, and so
soon as he had left me that evening, I went into my study and wrote down
everything as I remembered it. Subsequently he was good enough to read
Back to Full Books