« IndietroContinua »
away from the windows, looked further around him. In striking contrast to the undisturbed disorder, so redolent of middle-age alchemy, was the big table that flanked the laboratory through its whole length. It began with a powerful galvanic battery, succeeded by a wiry labyrinth of coils and helices, with little keys in front of them like a telegraph-office retired from business; these gave place to many-necked jars wired together by twos and threes, like oath-bound patriots plotting treson; beyond them stood a great glass globe, connected with a sizable airpump, and filled with a complexity of shiny wires and glassware; next loomed up a huge induction-magnet, carefully insulated on solid glass supports; and at the further extremity of the table lay -a corpse.
Ronald Wyde, in spite of his manysided experience of dissection-rooms, and morgues, and other ghastlinesses to which he had long since accustomed himself from principle, drew back at the sight-perhaps because he had come to this strange place to clutch the world-old mystery of the life-essence, and found himself, instead, confronted on its threshold by the equal mystery of death.
Herr Lebensfunke smiled feebly at this movement.
"A subject received this morning from Berlin," he said, in answer Wyde's look of inquiry. "A sad piece of extravagance, mein Herr-a luxury to which I can rarely afford to treat myself."
Ronald Wyde bent over the body and looked into its face. A rough, red face, that had seemingly seen forty years of low-lived dissipation. The blotched skin and bleary eyes told of debauchery and drunkenness, and a slight alcoholic fœtidness was unpleasantly perceptible, as from the breath of one who sleeps away the effects of a carouse.
"I hope you don't think of restoring this soaked specimen to life?" said Ronald.
"That is still beyond me," answered the old man, mournfully. "As yet I
have not created life of a higher grade than that of the lowest zoöphytes."
"Do you claim to have done as much as that?"
"It is not an idle claim," said Herr Lebensfunke, solemnly. "Look at this, if you doubt."
"This" was the great crystal globe that rose from the middle of the long table, and dominated its lesser accessories, as some great dome swells above the clustered houses of a town. Tubes passing through its walls met in a smaller central globe half filled with a coloress liquid. Beneath this, and half encircling it, was an intricate maze of bright wire; and two other wires dipped into it, touching the surface of the liquid with their platinum tips. Within the liquid pulsed a shapeless mass of almost transparent spongy tissue.
"You see an aggregation of cells possessed of life-of a low order, it is true, but none the less life," said the philosopher, proudly. "These were created from water chemically pure, with the exception of a trace of ammonia, and impregnated with liquid carbon, by the combined action of heat and induced electricity, in vacuo. Look!"
He pressed one of the keys before him. Presently the wire began to glow with a faint light, which increased in intensity till the coil flamed into pure whiteness. Removing his finger, the current ceased to flow, and the wire grew rapidly cool.
"I passed the whole strength of sixty cups through it to show you its action. Ordinarily, with one or two carbon cells, and refining the current by triple induction, the temperature is barely blood-warm."
"Pardon an interruption," said Ronald. "You spoke of liquid carbon; does it exist? "
"Yes; here is some in this phial. See it-how pure, how transparent ! how it loves and hoards the light!" The old man held the phial up as he spoke, and turned it round and round. "See how it flashes! No wonder, for it is the diamond, liquid and uncrystallized. Think how these fools of men
have called diamonds precious above all gems through these many weary years, and showered them on their kings, or tossed them to their mistresses' feet, never dreaming that the silly stone they lauded was inert, crystallized life!"
"Can't you crystallize diamonds yourself?" asked Wyde, "and make Freiberg a Golconda and yourself a Crosus?"
"It could be done, after the lapse of thousands of years," replied Herr Lebensfunke. "Place undiluted liquid carbon in that inner globe, keep the coil at a white heat, and if Adam had started the process, his heir-at-law would have a koh-i-noor to-day, and a nice lawsuit for its possession."
Ronald Wyde bent toward the globe once more and examined the throbbing mass closely, whistling softly meanwhile.
"If you can create this cellular life, why not develop it still higher into an organism?"
"Because I can only create life-not soul. Years ago I was a freethinker, now my discoveries have made me a deist; for I found that my cells, living as they were, and possessing undoubted parietal circulation, were not germs; and though they might cluster into a bulk like this, as bubbles do to form froth, to evolve an animal or plant from them was far beyond me; that needs what we call soul. But, in searching blindly for this higher power, I grasped a greater discovery than any I had hoped for-the power to isolate life from its bodily organism."
"You have to keep the bottle carefully corked, I should imagine," laughed Ronald.
"Not quite," said Herr Lebensfunke, joining in the laugh. "Life is not glue. My grand discovery is the lifemagnet."
"Which has the post of honor on your table here, has it not?" inquired Ronald, drawing his hand from his pocket and pointing to the insulated coil.
The old man glanced keenly at his
hand as he did so; at which Ronald seemed confused, and pocketed it again abruptly.
"Yes, that is the life-magnet. You see this bent glass tube surrounded by the helix? That tube contains liquid carbon. I pass through the helix a current of induced electricity, generated by the action of these sixty Bunsen cups upon a succession of coils with carbon cores, and the magnet becomes charged with soulless life. I reverse the stream-what was positive now is negative, and the same magnet will absorb life from a living being to an extent only to be measured by thousands of millions."
Then, what effect is produced on the body you pump the life from?" "Death."
"And what becomes of the soul?" "I don't quite know. I fancy, however, that the magnet absorbs that too." "Can it give it back?"
"Certainly; otherwise my life-magnet would belie its name, and be simply an ingenious and expensive instrument of death. By reversing the conditions, I can restore both soul and life to the body from which I drew them, or to another body, even after the lapse of several days."
"Have you ever done so?"
Ronald looked reflectively downward to his boot-toe, but seemed to find nothing there-except a boot-toe.
"I say, my friend," he spoke at last, "haven't you got a pin you can stick in me? I'd like to know if I'm dreaming."
"I can convince you better than by pins," replied Herr Lebensfunke. "Let me see that hand you hide so carefully."
Ronald Wyde slowly drew it from his pocket, as reluctantly as though it were a grudged charity dole, and extended it to the old man. Its little finger was gone.
"A defect that I am foolishly sensitive about," said he. "A childish freak -playing with edged tools, you know. A boy-playmate chopped it off by accident: I cut his head open with his own
hatchet, and made an idiot of him for life-that's all."
"I could do this," said Herr Lebensfunke, pausing on each word as if it were somewhat heavy, and had to be lifted out of his cramped chest by force; "I could draw your entity into that magnet, leaving you side by side with this corpse. I could dissect a finger from that same corpse, attach it to your own dead hand by a little of that palpitating life-mass you have seen, pass an electric stream through it, and a junction would be effected in three or four days. I could then restore you to existence, whole, and not maimed as now." "I don't quite like the idea of dying, even for a day," answered Wyde. "Couldn't you contrive to lend me a body while you are mending my own?" "You can take that one, if you like." Ronald Wyde looked once more at the sodden features of the corpse, and smiled lugubriously.
"Birdling is not too young, she's almost fourteen," said the girl, proudly. "And she likes it, too; it makes her think of mother. Mother went to sleep on that table, mein Herr."
"Poor thing! she's half-witted," thought Wyde as he passed into the street. "By-by, birdie."
Home he walked briskly, to be met under his flaming balcony by Lottchen's kindly afternoon greeting. How had mein Herr passed his Sabbath? she asked.
"Quietly enough, Lottchen. I met an old philosopher in the God's-Acre, and went home with him to his shop. Have you ever heard of Herr Doctor Lebensfunke?"
"Yes, mein Herr. Wrong here, they say; "and she tapped her wide, round German forehead, and lifted her eyes expressively heavenward.
"Sold himself to the devil, eh?" asked Wyde.
Lottchen was not quite sure on that point. Some said one thing, and some another. There was undoubtedly a devil, else how could good Doctor Luther have thrown his inkstand at him? But
"A mighty shabby old customer," he said, "and I doubt if I could feel at home in his skin; but I'm willing to risk it for the sake of the novelty of the thing." The old philosopher's thin face lit up he had never been seen in Doctor Lewith pleasure. bensfunke's neighborhood; and, on the
"You consent, then?" he chuckled whole, Lottchen was inclined to attribin his womanish treble.
"Of course I do. Begin at once, and have done with it."
"Not now, mein Herr; some modifications must be made in the connections-mere matters of detail. Come again to-night."
"At what hour?"
"At ten. Mein Vögelein, show the Herr the way out."
The girl, who had been moving restlessly about the room all this time, with her wild brown eyes fixed now on Ronald, now on the old man, and oftener in a shy, inquisitive stare on the corpse, lit a dusty chemical lamp and led the way down the awkward passages and stairs. Ronald tried to start a conversation with her as he followed.
"You are too young, my birdling, to be accustomed to such sights as this upstairs."
ute the Herr Doctor's trouble to an indefinable something whose nature was broadly hinted at by more tapping of the forehead.
Ronald Wyde mounted the stairs, locked himself in his room, and wished himself out of the scrape he was getting into. But, being in for it now, he lit a cigar, and tried to fancy the processes he would have to go through, and how he, a natty and respectable young fellow, would look and feel in a drunkard's skin. His conjectures being too foggily outlined to please him, he put them aside, and waited impatiently enough for ten o'clock.
A moonlight walk through the low streets, transfigured by the silver gleam into fairy vistas-all but the odor— brought him to Herr Lebensfunke's house. Simple birdling, on the lookout for him, piloted him through the
unsafe channel, and brought him to anchor in the dimly-lit room.
"All is ready," said the philosopher, as he trembled forward and shook Ronald's hand. "See here." Zig-zags of silk-bound wire squirmed hither and thither from the life-magnet. Two of them ended in carbon points. "And here, too, my young friend, is your new finger."
It lay, detached, in the central globe, and on its severed end atoms of protoplasm were already clustered. "Literally a second-hand article," thought Ronald; but, not venturing to translate the idiom, he only bowed and said, "Ach so!" which means any thing and every thing in German.
It was not without a very natural sinking of the heart that Ronald Wyde divested himself of his clothing, and took his position, by the old man's direction, on the stout table, side by side with the dead. A flat brass plate pressed between his shoulders, and one of the carbon points, clamped in a little insulated stand, rested on his bosom and quivered with the quickened motion of the heart beneath it. The other point touched the dead man's breast.
"Are you ready?” "Yes."
The old man pressed a key, and as he did so a sharp sting, hardly worse than a leech's bite, pricked Ronald Wyde's breast. A sense of languor crept slowly upon him, his feet tingled, his breath came slowly, and waves of light and shade pulsed in indistinct al ternation before his sight; but through them the old man's eyes peered into his, like a dream. Presently Ronald would have started if he could, for two old philosophers were craning over him instead of one. But as he looked more steadily, one face softly dimmed into nothing, and the other grew brighter and stronger in its lines, while the room flushed with an unaccountable light. The little key clicked once more; a vague sensation that the current had somehow ceased to flow, roused him, and he raised himself on his elbow and ooked in blank bewilderment at his
own dead self lying by his side in the daylight, while the sunrise tried to peer through the webbed panes.
"Is it over?" he asked, with a puzzled glance around him; and added, "Which am I?"
"Either, or both," answered Herr Lebensfunke. "Your identity will be something of a problem to you for a day or two."
Aided by the old man, Ronald awkwardly got into the sleazy clothes that went with the exchange-growing less and less at home each minute. He felt weak and sore; his head ached, and the wound left by the fresh amputation of his little finger throbbed angrily.
I suppose I may as well go now," he said. "When can I get my own self there back again?"
"On Thursday night, if all works well," said the old man. "Till then, good-day."
Ronald Wyde's first impulse, as he shambled into the open air, was to go home; but he thought of the confusion his sadly-mixed identity would cause in Frau Spritzkrapfen's quiet household, and came to a dead stop to consider the matter. Then he decided to quit the town for the interminable four days -to go to Dresden, or anywhere. His next step was to slouch into the nearest beer-cellar and call for beer, pen, and paper. While waiting for these, he surveyed his own reflection in the dingy glass that hung above the table he sat by-a glass that gave his face a wavy look, as if seen through heated air. He felt an amused pride in his altered appearance, much as a masquerader might be pleased with a clever disguise, and caught himself wondering whether he were likely to be recognized in it. Apparently satisfied of his safety from detection, he turned to the table and wrote a beer-scented note to Frau Spritzkrapfen, explaining his sudden absence by some discreet fiction. He got along well enough till he reached the end, when, instead of his own flowing signmanual, he tipsily scrawled the unfa miliar name of Hans Kraut. Tearing the sheet angrily across, he wrote an
other, and signed his name with an effort. He was about to seek a messenger to carry his note, when it occurred to him to leave it himself, which he did; and had thereby the keen satisfaction of hearing pretty Lottchen confess, with a blush on her fair German cheek, that they would all miss Herr Wyde very much, because they all loved him. Turning away with a sigh that was very like a hiccough, he trudged to the railway-station and took a ticket to Dresden, going third-class as best befitting his clothes and appearance.
He felt ashamed enough of himself as the train rumbled over the rolling land between Freiberg and the capital, and gave him time to think connectedly over what had happened, and what he now was. His fellow-passengers cast him sidelong looks, and gave him a wide berth. Even the quaint, flat-arched windows of one pane each, that winked out of the red-tiled roofs like sleepy eyes, seemed to leer drunkenly at him as they scudded by.
Ronald Wyde's account of those days in Dresden was vague and misty. He crept along the bustling streets of that sombre, gray city, that seemed to look more natural by cloud-light than in the full sunshine, feeling continually within him a struggle between the two incompatible natures now so strangely blended. Each day he kept up the contest manfully, passing by the countless beercellars and drinking-booths with an assumption of firmness and resolution that oozed slowly away toward nightfall, when the animal body of the late Hans Kraut would contrive to get the better of the animating principle of Ronald Wyde; the refined nature would yield to the toper's brute-craving, with an awful sense of its deep degradation in so succumbing, and, before midnight, Hans was gloriously drunk, to Ronald's intense grief.
Time passed somehow. He had memories of sunny lounges on the Bruhl'sche Terrace, looking on the turbid flow of the eddied Elbe, and watching the little steamboats that buzzed up and down the city's flanks, settling now and then,
like gad-flies, to drain it of a few drops of its human life. Well-known friends, whose hands he had grasped not a week before, passed him unheedingly; all save one, who eyed him for a moment, said "Poor devil!" in an undertone, and dropped a silber-gro' into his maimed hand. He felt glad of even this lame sympathy in his lowness; but most of all he prized the moistened glance of pity that flashed upon him from the great dark eyes of a lovely girl who passed him now and then as he slouched along. Once, a being as degraded and scurvy as his own outward self, turned to him, called him "Dutzbruder," asked him how he left them all in Berlin, stared at Ronald's blank look of non-recognition, and passed on with a muttered curse on his own stupidity in mistaking a stranger, in broad daylight, for his crony Kraut.
Another memory was of the strange lassitude that seemed to almost paralyze him after even moderate exertion, and caused him to drop exhausted on a bench on the terrace when he had shuffled over less than half its length. More than once the suspicion crept upon him that only a portion of his vitality now remained to him, and that its greater part lay mysteriously coiled in Herr Lebensfunke's life-maguet. And this, in turn, broadened into a doubting distrust of the Herr himself-a dread lest the old man might in some way appropriate this stock of life to his own use, and so renew his fast-expiring lease for a score or two of years to come. last this dread grew so painfully definite, that he hurried back to Freiberg a day before his appointed time, and once more found his twofold self wandering through its devious streets.
It was long after dark, and a thin rain slanted on the slippery stones, as he again made his way through the deserted and sleepy paths of the town to the old philosopher's house. He was wet, chilled, weary, and sick enough at heart as he leaned against the cold stone doorway and waited for an answer to his knock. The plash of the heavier rain-drops from the tiled eaves was the