The Speck on the Lens, by John Kendrick Bangs
"Talking about inventions," said the oculist, as he very dexterously
pocketed two of the pool balls, the handsome ringer, more familiarly known
as the fifteen ball, and the white ball itself, thereby adding somewhat to
the minus side of his string—"talking about inventions, I had a curious
experience last August. It was an experience which was not only
interesting from an inventive point of view, but it had likewise a moral,
which, will become more or less obvious as I unfold the story.
"You know I rented and occupied a place in Yonkers last summer. It was
situated on the high lands to the north of the city, a little this side of
Greystone, overlooking that magnificent stream, the Hudson, the
ever-varying beauties of which so few of the residents along its banks
really appreciate. It was a comfortable spot, with a few trees about it, a
decent-sized garden—large enough to raise a tomato or two for a
Sunday-night salad—and a lawn which was a cure for sore eyes, its soft,
sheeny surface affording a most restful object upon which to feast the
tired optic. I believe it was that lawn that first attracted me as I drove
by the place with a patient I had in tow. It was just after a heavy
shower, and the sun breaking through the clouds and lighting up the
rain-soaked grass gave to it a glistening golden greenness that to my eyes
was one of the most beautiful and soul-satisfying bits of color I had seen
in a long time. 'Oh, for a summer of that!' I said to myself, little
thinking that the beginning of a summer thereof was to fall to my lot
before many days—for on May 1st I signed papers which made me to all
intents and purposes proprietor of the place for the ensuing six months.
"At one corner of the grounds stood, I should say, a dozen apple-trees,
the spreading branches of which seemed to form a roof for a sort of
enchanted bower, in which, you may be sure, I passed many of my leisure
hours, swinging idly in a hammock, the cool breezes from the Hudson,
concerning which so many people are sceptical, but which nevertheless
exist, bringing delight to the ear and nostril as well as to the 'fevered
brow,' which is so fashionable in the neighborhood of New York in the
summer, making the leaves rustle in a tuneful sort of fashion, and laden
heavily with the sweet odors of many a garden close over which they passed
before they got to me."
"Put that in rhyme, doctor, and there's your poem," said the lieutenant,
as he made a combination scratch involving every ball on the table.
"I'll do it," said the doctor; "and then I'll have it printed as Appendix
J to the third edition of my work on Sixty Astigmatisms, and How to
Acquire Them. But to get back to my story," he continued. "I was lying
there in my hammock one afternoon trying to take a census of the
butterflies in sight, when I thought I heard some one back of me call me
by name. Instantly the butterfly census was forgotten, and I was on the
alert; but—whether there was something the matter with my eyes or not, I
do not know—despite all my alertness, there wasn't a soul in sight that I
could see. Of course, I was slightly mystified at first, and then I
attributed the interruption either to imagination or to some passer-by,
whose voice, wafted on the breeze, might have reached my ears. I threw
myself back into the hammock once more, and was just about dozing off to
the lullaby sung by a bee to the accompaniment of the rustling leaves,
when I again heard my name distinctly spoken.
"This time there was no mistake about it, for as I sprang to my feet and
looked about, I saw coming towards me a man of unpleasantly cadaverous
aspect, whose years, I should judge, were at least eighty in number. His
beard was so long and scant that, to keep the breezes from blowing it
about to his discomfort, he had tucked the ends of it into his vest
pocket; his eyes, black as coals, were piercing as gimlets, their
sharpness equalled by nothing that I had ever seen, excepting perhaps the
point of this same person's nose, which was long and thin, suggesting a
razor with a bowie point; his slight body was clad in sombre garb, and at
first glance he appeared to me so disquietingly like a visitor from the
supernatural world that I shuddered; but when he spoke, his voice was all
gentleness, and whatever of fear I had experienced was in a moment
"'You are Doctor Carey?' he said, in a timid sort of fashion.
"'Yes,' I replied; 'I am. What can I do for you?'
"'The distinguished oculist?' he added, as if not hearing my question.
"'Well, I'm a sort of notorious eye-doctor,' I answered, my well-known
modesty preventing my entire acquiescence in his manner of putting it.
"He smiled pleasantly as I said this, and then drew out of his coat-tail
pocket a small tin box, which, until he opened it, I supposed contained a
drinking-cup—one of those folding tin cups.
"'Doctor Carey,' said he, sitting down in the hammock which I had vacated,
and toying with the tin box—a proceeding that was so extraordinarily cool
that it made me shiver—'I have been looking for you for just sixty-three
"'Excuse me,' I returned, as nonchalantly as I could, considering the fact
that I was beginning to be annoyed—'excuse me, but that statement seems
to indicate that I was born famous, which I'm inclined to doubt. Inasmuch
as I am not yet fifty years old, I cannot understand how it has come to
pass that you have been looking for me for sixty-three years.'
"'Nevertheless, my statement was correct,' said he. 'I have been looking
for you for sixty-three years, but not for you as you.'
"This made me laugh, although it added slightly to my nervousness, which
was now beginning to return. To have a man with a tin box in his hand tell
me he had been looking for me for thirteen years longer than I had lived,
and then to have him add that it was not, however, me as myself that he
wanted, was amusing in a sense, and yet I could not help feeling that it
would be a relief to know that the tin box did hold a drinking-cup, and
"'You seem to speak English,' I said, in answer to this remark, 'and I
have always thought I understood that language pretty well, but you'll
excuse me if I say that I don't see your point.'
"'Why is it that great men are so frequently obtuse?' he said, languidly,
giving the ground such a push with his toe that it set the hammock
swinging furiously. 'When I say that I have searched for you all these
years, but not for you as you, I mean not for you as Dr. Carey, not for
you as an individual, but for you as the possessor of a very rare eye.'
"'Go on,' I said, feebly, and rubbed my forehead, thinking perhaps my
brains had got into a tangle, and were responsible for this extraordinary
affair. 'What is the peculiar quality which makes my eye so rare?'
"'There is only one pair of eyes like them in the world, that I know of,'
said the stranger, 'and I have visited all lands in search of them and
experimented with all kinds of eyes.'
"'And I am the proud possessor of that pair?' I queried, becoming slightly
"'Not you,' said he. 'You and I together possess that pair, however.'
"'You and I?' I cried.
"'Yes,' said he. 'Your left eye and my right have the honor of being the
only two unique eyes in the world.'
"'That's queer too,' I observed, a mixture of sarcasm and flippancy in my
tones, I fear. 'You mean twonique, don't you?'
"The old gentleman drew himself up with dignity, made a gesture of
impatience, and remarked that if I intended to be flippant he would leave
me. Of course I would not hear of this, now that my curiosity had been
aroused, and so I apologized.
"'Don't mention it,' he said. 'But, my dear doctor, you cannot imagine my
sensations when I found your eye yesterday.'
"'Oh! You found it yesterday, did you?' I put in.
"'Yes,' he said. 'On Forty-third Street.'
"'I was on Forty-third Street yesterday,' I replied, 'but really I was not
conscious of the loss of my eye.'
"'Nobody said you had lost it,' said my visitor. 'I only said I had found
it. I mean by that that I found it as Columbus found America. America was
not necessarily lost before it was found. I had the good fortune to be
passing through the street as you left your club. I glanced into your face
as I passed, caught sight of your eye, and my heart stood still. There at
last was that for which I had so long and so earnestly searched, and so
overcome was I with joy at my discovery that I seemed to lose all power of
speech, of locomotion, or of sane thought, and not until you had passed
entirely out of sight did I return really to my senses. Then I rushed
madly into the club-house I had seen you leave a few moments before,
described you to the man at the door, learned your name and address,
and—well, here I am.'
"'And what does all this extraordinary nonsense lead up to?' I asked.
'What do you intend to do about my eye? Do you wish to borrow it, buy it,
or steal it?'
"'Doctor Carey,' said my visitor, sadly, 'I shall not live very long. I
have reason to believe that another summer will find me in my grave, and I
do not want to die without imparting to the world the news of a marvellous
discovery I have made—the details of a wonderful invention that I have
not only conceived, but have actually put into working order. I, an
unknown man—too old to be able to refute the charge of senility were any
one disposed to question the value of my statements—could announce to the
world my great discovery a thousand times a day, and very properly the
world would decline to believe in me. The world would cry humbug, and I
should have been unable, had I failed to find you, to convince the world
that I was not a humbug. With the discovery of your eye, all that is
changed. I shall have an ally in you, and that is valuable for the reason
that your statements, whatever they may be, will always be entitled to and
will receive respectful attention. Here in this box is my invention. I
shall let you discover its marvellous power for yourself, hoping that when
you have discovered its power, you will tell the world of it, and of its
"With that," said the doctor, "the old fellow handed me the tin box, which
I opened with considerable misgivings as to possible results. There was no
explosion, however. The cover came off easily enough, and on the inside
was a curiously shaped telescope, not a drinking-cup, as I had at first
"'Why, it's a telescope, isn't it?' I said.
"'Yes. What did you suppose it was?' he asked.
"'I hadn't an idea,' I replied, not exactly truthfully. 'But it can't be
good for much in this shape,' I added, for, as I pulled the parts out and
got it to its full length, I found that each section was curved, and that
the whole formed an arc, which, though scarcely perceptible, nevertheless
should, it seemed to me, have interfered with the utility of the
"'That's the point I want you to establish one way or the other,' said my
visitor, getting up out of the hammock, and pacing nervously up and down
the lawn. 'To my eye that telescope is a marvel, and is the result of
years of experiment. It fulfils my expectations, and if your eye is what I
think it is, I shall at last have found another to whom it will appear the
treasure it appears to me to be. You have a tower on your house, I see.
Let us go up on the roof of the tower, and test the glass. Then we shall
see if I claim too much for it.'
"The earnestness of the old gentleman interested me hugely, and I led the
way through the garden to the house, up the tower stairs to the roof, and
then standing there, looking across the river at the Palisades looming up
like a huge fortress before me, I put the telescope to my eye.
"'I see absolutely nothing,' I said, after vainly trying to fathom the
depths of the instrument.
"'Alas!' began the old gentleman; and then he laughed, nervously. 'You are
using the wrong eye. Try the other one. It is your left eye that has the
power to show the virtues of this glass.'
"I obeyed his order, and then a most singular thing happened. Strange
sights met my gaze. At first I could see nothing but the Palisades
opposite me, but in an instant my horizon seemed to broaden, the vista
through the telescope deepened, and before I knew it my sight was
speeding, now through a beautiful country, over fields, hills, and
valleys; then on through great cities, out to and over a broad, gently
undulating stretch which I at once recognized as the prairie lands of the
west. In a minute more I began to catch the idea of this wonderful glass,
for I now saw rising up before me the wonderful beauties of the Yosemite,
and then, like a flash of the lightning, my vision passed over the Sierra
Nevada range, my eye swept down upon San Francisco, and was soon speeding
over the waters of the Pacific.
"Two minutes later I saw the strange pagodas of the Chinese rising before
me. Sweeping my glass to the north, bleak Siberia met my gaze; then to the
south I saw India, her jungles, her waste places. Not long after, a most
awful sight met my gaze. I saw a huge ship at the moment of foundering in
the Indian Ocean. Horrified, I turned my glass again to the north, and the
minarets of Stamboul rose up before me; then the dome of St. Peter's at
Rome; then Paris; then London; then the Atlantic Ocean. I levelled my
glass due west, and finally I could see nothing but one small, black
speck—as like to a fleck of dust as to anything else—on the lens at the
other end. With a movement of my hand, I tried to wipe it off, but it
still remained, and, in answer to a chuckle at my side, I put the glass
"'It is the most extraordinary thing I ever saw,' I said.
"'Yes, it is,' said the other.
"'One can almost see around the world with it,' I cried, breathless nearly
"'One can—quite,' said the inventor, calmly.
"'Nonsense!' I said. 'Don't claim too much, my friend.'
"'It is true,' said he. 'Did you notice a speck on the glass? I am sure
you did, for you tried to remove it.'
"'Yes,' said I, 'I did. But what of it? What does that signify?'
"'It proves what I said,' he answered. 'You did see all the way around the
world with that glass. The black spot on the lens that you thought was a
piece of dust was the back of your own head.'
"'Nonsense, my boy! The back of my head is bigger than that,' I said.
"'Certainly it is,' he responded; 'but you must make some allowance for
perspective. The back of your head is a trifle less than twenty-four
thousand miles from the end of your nose the way you were looking at it.'"
"You mean to say—" began the lieutenant, as the doctor paused to chalk
"Never mind what I mean to say," said the doctor. "Reflect upon what I
"But the man and the telescope—what became of them?" asked the
"I was about to tell you that. The old fellow who had made this marvellous
glass, which to two eyes that he knew of, and to only two, would work as
was desired, feeling that he was about to die, had come to me to offer the
glass for sale on two considerations. One was a consideration of $25. The
other was that I would leave no stone unturned to discover a possible
third person younger than myself with an eye similar to those we had, to
whom at my death the glass should be transmitted, exacting from him the
promise that he too would see that it was passed along in the same manner
into the hands of posterity. I was also to acquaint the world with the
story of the glass and the name of its inventor to the fullest extent
"And you, of course, accepted?"
"I did," said the doctor; "but having no money in my pocket, I went down
into the house to borrow it of my wife, and upon my return to the roof,
found no trace of the glass, the old man, or the roof either."
"What!" cried the lieutenant. "Are you crazy?"
"No," smiled the doctor. "Not at all. For the moment I reached the roof of
the house, I opened my eyes, and found myself still swinging in the
hammock under the trees."
"And the moral?" queried the lieutenant. "You promised a moral, or I
should not have listened."
"Always have money in your pocket," replied the doctor, pocketing the last
ball, and putting up his cue. "Then you are not apt to lose great bargains
such as I lost for the want of $25."
"It's a good idea," returned the lieutenant. "And you live up to it, I
"I do," returned the oculist, tapping his pocket significantly. "Always!"
"Then," said the lieutenant, earnestly, "I wish you'd lend me a tenner,
for really, doctor, I have gone clean broke."