The Life-Magnet by Alvey A. Adee

There was something about the wholesome sleepiness of Freiberg, in Saxony, that fitted well with the lazy nature of Ronald Wyde. So, having run down there to spend a day or two among the students and the mines, and taking a liking to the quaint, unmodernized town, he bodily changed his plans of autumn-travel, gave up a cherished scheme of Russian vagabondage, had his baggage sent from Dresden, and made ready to settle down and drowse away three or four months in idleness and not over-arduous study. And this move of his led to the happening of a very strange and seemingly unreal event in his life.

Ronald Wyde was then about twenty-five or six years old, rather above the medium height, with thick blue-black hair that he had an artist-trick of allowing to ripple down to his neck, dark hazel eyes that were almost too deeply recessed in their bony orbits, and a troublesome growth of beard that, close-shaven as he always was, showed in strong blue outline through the thin and rather sallow skin. His address was singularly pleasing, and his wide experience of life, taught him by years of varied travel, made him a good deal of a cosmopolitan in his views and ways, which caused him to be looked upon as a not over-safe companion for young men of his own age or under.

Having made up his mind to winter in Freiberg, his first step was to quit the little hotel, with its mouldy stone-vaulted entrance and its columned dining-room, under whose full-centered arches close beery and smoky fumes lingered persistently, and seek quieter student-lodgings in the heart of the town. His choice was mainly influenced by a thin-railed balcony, twined through and through by the shoots of a vigorous Virginia creeper, that flamed and flickered in the breezy October sunsets in strong relief against the curtains that drifted whitely out and in through the open window. So, with the steady-going and hale old Frau Spritzkrapfen he took up his quarters, fully persuading himself that he did so for the sake of the stray home-breaths that seemed to stir the scarlet vine-leaves more gently for him, and ignoring pretty Lottchen’s great, earnest Saxon eyes as best he could.

A sunny morning followed his removal to Frau Spritzkrapfen’s tidy home. There had been a slight rain in the early night, and the footways were yet bright and moist in patches that the slanting morning rays were slowly coaxing away. Ronald Wyde, having set his favorite books handily on the dimity-draped table, which comprised for him the process of getting to rights, and having given more than one glance of amused wonderment at the naïve blue-and-white scriptural tiles that cased his cumbrous four-story earthenware stove, and smiled lazily at poor Adam’s obvious and sudden indigestion, even while the uneaten half-apple remained in his guilty hand, he stepped out on his balcony, leaned his elbows among the crimson leaves, and took in the healthful morning air in great draughts. It was a Sunday; the bells of the gray minster hard by were iterating their clanging calls to the simple townsfolk to come and be droned to in sleepy German gutturals from the carved, pillar-hung pulpit inside. Looking down, he saw thick-ankled women cluttering past in loose wooden-soled shoes, and dumpy girls with tow-braids primly dangling to their hips, convoying sturdy Dutch-built luggers of younger brothers up the easy slope that led to the church and the bells. Presently Frau Spritzkrapfen and dainty Lottchen, rosy with soap and health, slipped through the doorway beneath him out into the little church-bound throng, and, as they disappeared, left the house and street somehow unaccountably alone. Feeling this, Ronald Wyde determined on a stroll.

Something in the Sabbath stillness around him led Ronald away from the swift clang and throbbing hum of the bells and in the direction of the old cemetery. Passing through the clumsy tower-gate that lifts its grimy bulk sullenly, like a huge head-stone over the grave of a dead time of feudalism, he reached the burial-ground and entered the quiet enclosure. The usual touching reverence of the Germans for their dead was strikingly manifest around him. The humbler mounds, walled up with rough stones a foot or two above the pathway level, carried on their crests little gardens of gay and inexpensive plants; while on the tall wooden crosses at their head hung yellow wreaths, half hiding the hopeful legend, “Wiedersehen.” The more pretentious slabs bore vases filled with fresh flowers; while in the grate-barred vaults, that skirted the ground like the arches of a cloister, lay rusty heaps of long-since mouldered bloom, topped by newer wreaths tossed lovingly in to wilt and turn to dust in their turn, like those cast in before them in memory of that other dust asleep below.

Turning aside from the central walk that halved the cemetery, Ronald strolled along, his hands in his pockets, his eyes listlessly fixed on the orange-colored fumes and rolling smoke that welled out of tall chimneys in the hollow beyond, an idle student-tune humming on his lips, and his thoughts nowhere, and everywhere, at once. Happening to look away from the dun smoke-trail for an instant, he found something of greater interest close at hand. An old man stooped stiffly over a simple mound, busied among the flowers that hid it, and by his side crouched a young girl, perhaps fourteen years old, who peered up at Ronald with questioning, velvet-brown eyes. The old man heard the intruder’s steps crunching in the damp gravel, and slowly looked up too.

“Good morning, mein Herr,” said Ronald, pleasantly.

The old man remained for an instant blinking nervously, and shading his eyes from the full sunlight that fell on his face. A quiet face it was, and very old, seamed and creased by mazy wrinkles that played at aimless cross-purposes with each other, beginning and ending nowhere. His thick beard and thin, curved nose looked just a little Jewish, and seemed at variance with his pale blue eyes that were still bright in spite of age. And yet, bearded as he was, there was a lurking expression about his features that bordered upon effeminacy, and made the treble of his voice sound even more thin and womanish as he answered Wyde’s greeting.

“Good morning, too, mein Herr. A stranger to our town, I see.”

“Yes; but soon not to be called one, I hope. I am here for the winter.”

“A cold season—a cold season; our northern winters are very chilling to an old man’s blood.” And slouching together into a tired stoop, he resumed his simple task of knotting a few flowers into a clumsy nosegay. Ronald stood and watched him with a vague interest. Presently, the flowers being clumped to his liking, the old man pried himself upright by getting a good purchase with his left hand in the small of his back, and so deliberately that Ronald almost fancied he heard him creak. The girl rose too, and drew her thin shawl over her shoulders.

“You Germans love longer than we,” said Ronald, glancing at the flowers that trembled in the old man’s bony fingers, and then downwards to the quiet grave; “a lifetime of easy-going love and a year or two of easier-forgetting are enough for us.”

“Should I forget my own flesh and blood?” asked the old man, simply.

Ronald paused a moment, and, pointing downwards, said:

“Your daughter, then, I fancy?”

“Yes.”

“Long dead?”

“Very long; more than fifty years.”

Ronald stared, but said nothing audibly. Inwardly he whispered something about being devilish glad to make the wandering Jew’s acquaintance, rattled the loose gröschen in his pocket, and turned to follow the tottering old man and firm-footed child down the walk. After a dozen paces they halted before a more ambitious tombstone, on which Ronald could make out the well-remembered name of Plattner. The child took the flowers and laid them reverently on the stone.

“It seems to me almost like arriving at the end of a pilgrimage,” said Ronald, “when I stand by the grave of a man of science. Perhaps you knew him, mein Herr?”

“He was my pupil.”

“Whew!” thought Ronald, “that makes my friend here a centenarian at least.”

“My pupil and friend,” the feeble voice went on; “and, more than that, my daughter’s first lover, and only one.”

“Ach so!” drawled Ronald.

“And now, on her death-day, I take these poor flowers from her to him, as I have done all these years.”

Something in the pathetic earnestness of his companion touched Ronald Wyde, and he forthwith took his hands out of his pockets, and didn’t try to whistle inaudibly—which was a great deal for him to do.

“I know Plattner well by his works,” he said; “I once studied mineralogy for nearly a month.”

“You love science, then?”

“Yes; like every thing else, for diversion.”

“It was different with him,” quavered the old man, pointing unsteadily to the head-stone. “Science grew to be his one passion, and many discoveries rewarded him for his devotion. He was groping on the track of a far greater achievement when he died.”

“May I ask what it was?” said Ronald, now fairly interested.

“The creation and isolation of the principle of Life!”

This was too much for Ronald Wyde; down dived his restless hands into his trowsers’ pockets again, and the gröschen rattled as merrily as before.

“I have made quite a study of biology, and all that sort of thing,” said he; “and, although a good deal of a skeptic, and inclined to follow Huxley, I can’t bring myself to conceive of life without organism. Such theorizing is, to my mind, on a par with the illogical search for the philosopher’s stone and a perpetual motor.”

The old man’s eyes sparkled as he turned full upon Ronald.

“You dismiss the subject very airily, my young friend,” he cried; “but let me tell you that I—I, whom you see here—have grappled with such problems through a weary century, and have conquered one of them.”

“And that one is—”

“The one that conquered Plattner!”

“Do I understand you to claim that you have discovered the life-principle?”

“Yes.”

“Will you permit an utter stranger to inquire what is its nature?”

“Certainly. It is twofold. The ultimate principle of life is carbon; the cause of its combination with water, or rather with the two gaseous elements of water, and the development of organized existence therefrom, is electricity.”

Ronald Wyde shrugged his broad shoulders a little, and absently replied,

“All I can say, mein Herr, is, that you’ve got the bulge on me.”

“I beg your pardon—”

“Excuse me; I unconsciously translated an Americanism. I mean that I don’t quite understand you.”

“Which means that you do not believe me. It is but natural at your age, when one doubts as if by instinct. Would you be convinced?”

“Nothing would please me better.”

With the same painful effort as before, the old man straightened himself and made a piercing clairvoyant examination into and through Ronald Wyde’s eyes, as if reading the brain beyond them.

“I think I can trust you,” he mumbled at last. “Come with me.”

Leaning on the young girl’s arm, the old philosopher faltered through the cemetery and into the town, followed by Wyde, his hands again pocketed for safety. Groups of released church-goers, sermon-fed, met them, and once in a while some stout burgher would nod patronizingly to Ronald’s guides, and get in response a shaky, sidelong roll of the old man’s head, as if it were mounted on a weak spiral spring. Further on they intersected a knot of students, who eyed them askance and exchanged remarks in an undertone. Keeping on deeper into the foul heart of the town, they passed through swarms of idle children playing sportlessly, as poverty is apt to play, in the dank shadows of the narrow street. They seemed incited to mirth and ribaldry by the sight of Ronald’s new friend, and one even ventured to hurl a clod at him; but this striking Ronald instead, and he facing promptly to the hostile quarter from whence it came, caused a sudden slinking of the crowd into unknown holes, like a horde of rats, and the street was for a time empty save for the little party that threaded it. Ronald began to think that the old man’s sanity was gravely called in doubt by the townsfolk, and would readily have backed out of his adventure but for the curiosity that had now got the upper hand of him.

Presently the old man sidled into a dingy doorway, like a tired beast run to earth, and Ronald followed him, not without a wish that the architect had provided for a more efficient lighting of the sombre passage-way in which he found himself. A sharp turn to the right after a dozen groping-paces, a narrow stairway, a bump or two against unexpected saliences of rough mortared wall, two steps upward and one very surprising step downward through a cavernous doorway that took away Ronald’s breath for a moment, and sent it back again with a hot, creeping wave of sudden perspiration all over him, as is the way with missteps, and two more sharp turns, brought the three into a black no-thoroughfare of a hall, whose further end was closed by a locked door. The girl here rubbed a brimstone abomination of a match into a mal-odorous green glow, and by its help the old man got a tortuous key into the snaky opening in the great lock, creakily shot back its bolt, swung open the door, and motioned Ronald to enter.

He found himself in a long and rather narrow room, with a high ceiling, duskily lighted by three wide windows that were thickly webbed and dusted, like ancestral bottles of fine crusty Port. A veritable den it was, filled with what seemed to be the wrecks of philosophical apparatus dating back two or three generations—ill-fated ventures on the treacherous main of science. Here a fat-bellied alembic lolled lazily over in a gleamy sand-bath, like a beach-lost galleon at ebb-tide; and there a heap of broken porcelain-tubing and shreds of crucibles lay like bleaching ship-ribs on a sullen shore. Beyond, by the middle window, stood a furnace, fireless, and clogged with gray ashes. Two or three solid old-time tables, built when joiners were more lavish of oaken timber than nowadays, stood hopelessly littered with retorts, filtering funnels, lamps, ringstands, and squat-beakers of delicate glass, caked with long-dried sediment, all alike dust-smirched. Ronald involuntarily sought for some huge Chaldaic tome, conveniently open at a favorite spell, or a handy crocodile or two dangling from the square beams overhead, but saw nothing more formidable than a stray volume of “Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” Taking this up and glancing at its fly-leaf, he saw a name written in spidery German script, almost illegible from its shakiness—“Max Lebensfunke.”

“Your name?” he asked.

“Yes, mein Herr,” answered the old man, taking the volume and caressing it like a live thing in his fumbling hands. “This book was given to me by the great Kant himself,” he added.

Reverently replacing it, he advanced a few steps toward the middle of the room. Ronald followed, and, turning 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 treason; beyond them stood a great glass globe, connected with a sizable air-pump, 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 many-sided 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 to 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 colorless 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 Crœsus?”

“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 life-magnet.”

“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?”

“I have.”

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.

“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 with pleasure.

“You consent, then?” he chuckled in 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.”

“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 he had never been seen in Doctor Lebensfunke’s neighborhood; and, on the whole, Lottchen was inclined to attribute 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 alternation 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 looked 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 sign-manual, he tipsily scrawled the unfamiliar name of Hans Kraut. Tearing the sheet angrily across, he wrote another, 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 beer-cellars 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-magnet. 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. At 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 leaves was the only sound he heard for many minutes, until, at last, pattering feet neared him on the inside, and a child’s voice asked who was there. To his friendly response the door was opened half-wide, and Vögelein’s blank, pretty face peeped through.

Was Herr Lebensfunke at home? No; he had said that he wasn’t at home; but then, she thought he was in the long room where mamma went to sleep. Could he be seen? No, she thought not; he was very tired, and, in her own—Vögelein’s—opinion, he was going to sleep too, just as mamma did. And the wizened little face, with its eldritch eyes and tangled hair, was withdrawn, and the door began to close. Ronald forced himself inside, and grasped the child’s arm.

“Vögelein, don’t you know me?”

The girl, in nowise startled, gravely set her flickering candle on the door-step, looked up at him wonderingly, as if he were an exhibition, and said she thought not, unless he had been asleep on the table.

“Good heavens!” cried Ronald, “can this child talk of nothing but people asleep on a table?”

But, as he spoke, a thought whirred through his brain. He drew the poor half-witted thing close to him and asked:

“Can Vögelein tell me something about mamma, and how she went to sleep?”

The child rambled on, pleased to find a listener to her foolish prattle. All he could connect into a narrative was, that the girl’s mother, some seven or eight years before, had been drained of her life by the awful magnet, and that, as the child said, “the Herr Doctor ever since had talked just like mamma.”

His dread was well founded, then. The old man’s one dream and aim was to prolong his wretched life; could he doubt that he would not now make use of the means he had so unwisely thrown in his way? He turned about, half maddened.

“Girl!” he cried, “I must see the old man! Where is he?”

He couldn’t see him, she whined. He was asleep up there, on the table. At one o’clock he had said he would wake up.

He pushed past her, mounted to the long room, pressed open the unfastened door, and entered.

The old man and the corpse of his former self lay together under the light of a lamp that swung from the beam overhead. An insulated carbon point was directed to each white, still breast. From the old man’s hand a cord ran to a key beyond, arranged to make or break connection at a touch. By it stood a clock, with a simple mechanism attached that bore upon a second key like the first, evidently planned to press upon it when the hands should mark a given hour. The child had said that he would wake at one, and it was now past midnight.

Ronald Wyde comprehended it all now. The wily old man’s feeble life had been withdrawn into the great magnet, and mixed therein with what remained of his own. In less than an hour the key would fall, and the double stream would flow into and animate his young body, which would then wake to renewed life; while the cast-off shell beside it, worn to utter uselessness by a toilsome century, would be left to moulder as a mothed garment.

Surely no time was to be lost; his life depended upon instant action. And yet, comprehending this, he went to work slowly, and as a somnambulist might, acting almost by instinct, and well knowing that a blunder now meant irrevocable death.

Carefully disengaging the cord from the old man’s yet warm grasp, and setting the carbon point aside, he lifted the shrivelled corpse and bore it away, to cast it on the white rubbish-heap in one corner. Returning to his work, he stripped himself, and laid down in the old man’s place. As he did so, the distant Minster bells rang the three-quarters.

Was there yet time?

He braced his shoulders firmly against the brass plate under them, and moved the carbon point steadily back to its place, with its tip resting on his breast; the silk-wrapped wire that dangled between it and the magnet quivering, as he did so, as with conscious life. Drawing a long breath, he tightened the cord, and heard a faint click as the key snapped down.

The same sharp sting as before instantly pricked his breast, tingling thrills pulsed over him, beats of light and shadow swept before his eyes, and he lost all consciousness. For how long he knew not. At last he felt, rather than saw, the lamp-rays flickering above him, and opened his eyes as though waking from a tired sleep. Sitting up, he gave a fearful look around him, as if dreading what he might see. The drunkard’s body lay stretched and motionless beside him, and the clock marked three. He was saved!

Slipping down from his perilous bed, he resumed the old familiar garments that belonged to him as Ronald Wyde, shuddering with emotion as he did so. Only pausing to give one look at the pale heap in the shadowy corner, and at the other sleeper under the now dying lamp, he quitted the room and locked its heavy door upon the two silent guardians of its life-secrets. When he reached the street, he found the rain had ceased to drop, and that the cold stars blinked over the slumbrous town.

Before noon he had taken leave of Frau Spritzkrapfen, turned buxom Lottchen scarlet all over by a hearty, sudden, farewell-kiss, and was far on his way from Freiberg, with its red-vined balcony and its dark laboratory, never again to visit it or them. And as the busy engine toiled and shrieked, and with each beat of its mighty steam-heart carried him further away, his thoughts flew back and clustered around witless, brown-eyed birdling. Poor child, he never learned her fate.


I heard this strange story from its hero, one sunny summer morning as we swept over the meadowy reaches of the Erie Railway, or hung along the cliffside by the wooded windings of the Susquehanna. When he had ended it, he smiled languidly, and, showing me his still-mutilated hand, said that the old doctor’s job had been a sad bungle, after all. In fact, the only physical proof that remained to verify his story, was a curved blue spot where the ingoing current from the magnet had carried particles from the carbon point and lodged them beneath the skin. Psychologically, he was sadly mixed up, he said; for, since that time, he had felt that four lives were joined in him—his own, the remnant of Herr Lebensfunke’s miserable hoard merged in that of poor birdling’s mother, and, last of all, Hans Kraut’s.

He left the cars soon afterward at Binghamton, watchfully followed by a stout, shabby man with a three days’ beard stubbling his chin, who had occupied the seat in front of us, and had turned now and then to listen for a moment to Ronald’s rapid narration.

A week later, and I heard that he was dead—having committed suicide in a fit of delirium soon after his admission to the Binghamton Inebriate Asylum. The attendant who made him ready for burial noticed a singular blue mark on his left breast, that looked, he said, a little like a horseshoe magnet.