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
“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
“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
“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?”
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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?”
“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
“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
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
“You have to keep the bottle carefully corked, I should imagine,”
“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
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?”
“And what becomes of the soul?”
“I don’t quite know. I fancy, however, that the magnet absorbs that
“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
“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
“You can take that one, if you like.”
Ronald Wyde looked once more at the sodden features of the corpse, and
“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
“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
“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
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
“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?”
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.