The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
Röntgen's announcement of his unknown but uniquely penetrating rays were the equivalent of a 24/7 news story in 1896. Everybody talked about them, puzzled over them, tried to copy them, or wrote about them. Everybody. Even Sir Charles Haukes Todd Crosthwaite. As typical of second sons from good British families in the 19th century, he entered the Civil Service and went off with the colonizing forces in Asia, serving first in India and later rising through the ranks to become the Chief Commissioner of Burma, for which his received his knighthood. At the age of 60, in 1895, he went home, where he continued to write on colonial matters for the remaining 20 years of his life.
And, weirdly, got swept up in the all-encompassing hysteria over X rays. "Röntgen's Curse" was published in the September 1896 issue of Longman's, a British fiction magazine that attracted a number of top names. As far as I can tell, it was his only work of literary fiction and so has been overlooked even by the most indefatigable standard sources. He is not listed in the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database or even in the monumentally comprehensive Science Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler, the first time I've run across such an omission there.
Yet, "Röntgen's Curse" is unmistakably classic science fiction, the logical extrapolation of a scientific idea and its effects on people. Herbert Newton is obsessed with those newfangled X rays and works tirelessly to devise a method by which the human eye could see that portion of the spectrum. Eventually he succeeds, letting the chemical leak into his eyes overnight so that when he awakens he sees only a fog through which a few bony or metallic items float. Like much SF then and now, the result is horror; he cannot see where to walk or the food he wants to eat, and his wife and children are gibbering skeletons.
This may strike you as reminiscent of the trials of Griffin, the scientist studying optics in H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man, and dismiss it as another author eager to sit on Wells' coattails. Except for one thing: "Röntgen's Curse" is earlier by a year. One wonders: Wells would have had to see it in such a prestigious and easily available venue. Could it be that for once he is the imitator?
(Not necessarily, because the idea of seeing the insides of moving people must have ocurred simultaneously to dozens. One proof of that is a short silent bit of comedy, also from 1897, called The X-Ray Fiend.)
If we have The Invisible Man to thank for his story, that's about the only reward Crosthwaite got. The story was reprinted - most likely pirated - in America, known to have shown up in the Sept. 20, 1896 issue of the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, under the title "Roentgen's Curse." From then on, only a few researchers into the history of X-Rays appear to have noticed it.
Enjoy this lost chapter of SF history in what is seemingly its first ever reprinting. You may never look at your spouse in the same way again.
by C. H. T. Crosthwaite
I was educated at Cambridge, and after taking a respectable degree I adopted bacteriology and analytical chemistry as my profession. But after some years, part of which time was spent in the service of the Indian Government in the chase after the cholera microbe, I inherited some money, returned to England, and married. We had lived some years a country life, and had several children. I never altogether abandoned my favorite pursuit, and I had a laboratory built on to my house. My wife painted fairly for an amateur, and excelled in photography. The interest I took in her work led me to the study of light and all the phenomena connected with it, and this study became more and more absorbing. Nevertheless, a considerable portion of my time was given to outdoor pursuits and the society of my family and friends. No one could accuse me of overworking myself, or suspect me of yielding to the delusions of imagination. I trouble the reader with this preface lest in the statement I am about to make he should suspect he was reading the fictions of a diseased brain.
I was on the track of a great discovery. I was sure of it. A little more time, a little more toil and the reward would be mine. I, Herbert Newton, should be hailed as the greatest benefactor of the human race in modern times. It was about the time that Roentgen published the wonderful results of his experiments with what he called the X rays, and the whole world of scientific men felt that they were on the verge of a great event. Every magazine had an article on the so-called photography of the invisible, and every lecture hall resounded with explanations of these extraordinary phenomena. To me, a student in this same field, the possibilities which underlay this discovery seemed immeasurable. My excitement became intense, and I threw all my powers of mind and body into the work of following the path of research indicated by Roentgen. To my eager brain there appeared no limit to the power which might be acquired by one who could make the X rays his servants, and compel them to obey him. In one science alone —that of medicine —what a revolution might be effected, what progress made, if the physician could see the working of the vital organs and their condition. He could then no longer be accused of pouring he knows not what, into he knows not what, to cure he knows not what. It was possible even now, as Roentgen had proved, to examine the skeleton. But so long as a tedious process was necessary there would be many cases to which the new discovery could not be applied, while as yet only the skeleton, and not the interior organs, could be portrayed. I was determined to go far beyond the goal reached by Roentgen. I would not rest until the physician should be able to see and examine any part of the human organism as the patient lay on his bed, and to study the anatomy of the body in health or disease as if he had the eye of the Creator. Other and wider fields of ambition opened to me, and I pictured myself able to see into the bowels of the earth or the depth of the sea. The discovery of minerals and precious stones, the finding of lost treasures. the laying bare of the secrets of ancient cities—these were but a few of the vulgar applications of the power I sought to possess. Far and above and beyond these rose the hope of snatching from nature the secret of life itself, and of making biology the supreme science. Animated by these thoughts, I redoubled my exertions. Hardly giving myself time to eat or sleep. I would not spare a moment for the ordinary duties of life, and to my wife and children I became like one in a trance.
Not without a hard struggle did my wife let me fall into these ways. She exhorted and implored me by my love for her and the children. She urged me to remember my duty to God and man. But I would hear nothing. I was like the opium-eater or the drunkard. I could not now resist the impulse that was hurrying me on. So the days went by. Nearer and nearer I seemed to the desired end. and yet more and more there was to do. More laborious became the search, more close and fatiguing the observation necessary, for I had brought my experiments now to such a point that they were microscopic in their minuteness. As I staggered to bed, generally at an hour long past midnight, I felt my head swim and reel with the weariness of my brain. Excitement and determination reused me early in the morning to fresh efforts. Nature, however, did not leave me without warning that I was transgressing her laws. I began to dread that my strength would fail me, and that I should break down before my task was accomplished. Sometimes in the midst of my Studies a veil, as it were, would come over my thoughts. All of a sudden, just as if some fairy had touched me with an enchanted wand, my thoughts would cease, my mind became like an empty page, and the brain, which a moment before had been full of active movements, keen reasonings, and vivid perceptions of the conclusions, would be dull and inert. It was just as if a damp sponge had been passed over a slate. These were warnings. What were warnings to me? If I must die for my work, I would die. But I would die working.
At last it came. Not the ruin of my mind, but the glory and pride of my life. I had gone far beyond and a way from Roentgen's experiments. His discoveries had sufficed to show that no objects were in themselves opaque or impervious. There were rays of light or waves of ether that could—and no doubt did —pass through every and any substance. But the retina of the human eye did not respond to them. If the invisible ultra-violet rays can be made perceptible to the eye by means of the fluorescence they excite in certain substances, then why should not other rays, such as Roentgen's X-rays, be made visible to the eye by some chemical means?
As no bodies are really opaque, some rays must pass through matter of every kind, and some means can probably be found of making these rays visible to the eye. A power of sight able to see with the Roentgen rays was the first object to be attained, and my researches were directed towards finding the means of gaining that power. My belief in the possibilities of achieving this result was confirmed by the evident and great differences in the sight of animals—differences which seemed to me due less to variations in mechanism of the eye than to the capacity of the retina to respond to rays other than those which go to form what to the human eye is light.
I am not going, however, to weary the reader with the details of my discovery. What I wish to tell is the effect and consequences of it.
It was past midnight, and I had been absorbed in work for many hours. I was eager and hushed with excitement. My experiments during the day had been unusually successful and fertile. I thought I had the object of my desire within my grasp; and my mind was full of visions of the field of knowledge about to be laid open to it.
There was one faithful friend who never left me in all these weary days. My children, poor things, seldom came near me. My wife had well nigh ceased to come into my laboratory except at stated hours to call me to meals. My dog never left me. He had true faith. He knew well that the time would come when, my work being done, I should seize my gun and we should both go forth again into the sweet-smelling fields and the pleasant woods, full of scent and adventure to him. He seemed to know that I was not working for pleasure or caprice, and that I had no choice but to be about my business. At first, when the usual hour for going out arrived, he would bark and jump on me, and urge me to come as only a dog can urge; but after a few days he understood and accepted the reasons which bound me to my chair, and never again, irksome though the confinement was to him, did he importune me to leave my work.
This faithful friend was lying at my feet now. He was sleeping, half on his back, with limbs extended and head thrown a little back. It was, I have said, past midnight. The house was still as a tomb. All were asleep. My laboratory was at the end of a passage, away from the bedrooms of the family. I thought I had found at last how to make a liquid which, applied to the eyes, might make them sensitive to the X rays, and perhaps to other waves of ether yet unknown. Taking a camel's hair brush, I inserted a little of this preparation under the half open eyelids of the sleeping dog. I knew it would give him no pain, and the longer it remained undisturbed upon the eyes the more likely its action to be effectual. Scarcely moving under my touch, which he knew and loved, the dog slept on. 1 sat down again to wait the result. I was excited and impatient; my nerves, suffering from overwork, were as tense as those of a condemned man listening in his cell for the footsteps of the executioner. I heard every little weird and awesome sound that breaks the silence of a sleeping house to a nervous watcher—the creaking of the stairs under stealthy footsteps; the sigh of suppressed breathings; the fearful whisper of voices that must speak, yet dread to be heard.
Hark! What is that at my door? I must have been half asleep. I jumped up from my chair with a start, trembling with fear, yet ashamed of my fears and my childish lack of nerve. Ah! there it is again! I was stepping forward to open my door, when Just at that moment the dog awoke. He rose lazily, stretched himself, yawned, and then came up slowly and stiffly, stretching his hind legs and wagging his tail to greet me after his sleep, and suggest that it was time to move. He rubbed his nose against my knee, and then looked up in my face. Ah! What is it? The brute's eyes dilated with terror, his hair bristled on his back, he shrank back from me slowly, paralyzed by deadly fear. And then there went forth from him a cry of horror too awful for words to tell. It was unearthly, unfleshly—such a cry as a damned soul may give forth on hearing its condemnation. I have read of the shrieks of wounded horses on the field of battle; I have heard the groans of man in mortal agony; in the depths of the jungle I have heard the piteous cry of the deer seized by a beast of prey—all sounds eloquent of pain and fear. But these were as voices of joy compared to that cry of terror and despair that froze the blood in my veins and bade my pulse cease to beat. When that awful cry pierced the stillness of the night, the knocking at the door became loud and impatient. I heard my wife's voice imploring me to let her in. I opened the door and she rushed in, her face white and distorted with terror.
"Oh, my God," she cried, "protect me! What terrible cry was that? Herbert, what was it? It has nearly killed me with fear; and if the children had heard it? Oh, my children, my children! Speak, Herbert! Would you drive me mad?"
The dog was lying moaning under the table against the wall. Hearing my wife's voice, he came out trembling, and crouching as a hound that dreads the lash.
"Poor fellow," she said; "poor old fellow. What's the matter, Dash? What is it?" Hearing that kind and well-known voice, the poor beast crawled to her feet and looked up. Instantly the same awful cry issued from his mouth, and he slunk hack into his place of retreat under the table.
"What have you done to the poor beast?" cried my wife, indignation now taking the place of fear. "Surely you have not used him for some wicked experiment?"
Her anger was noble and became her well. I could not tell her what I had done. Resorting to a subterfuge, I assured her that I had done nothing to hurt or injure the animal, who, as she knew, was my constant and loved companion. I began to realize that the dog's fear was caused by what he saw, and triumph in the success of my experiments was driving every other consideration and feeling out of my mind.
"Come, dear," I said to my wife, "I am wearied out. Let us to bed. The dog was asleep, and must have dreamt something that terrified him. Let us have him alone. He will soon recover himself."
Fearing lest he should see either of us again and a fresh fit of horror should seize him, I switched off the electric light, and taking up a candle, which I lighted hastily, I led the way out of the room, and shut the doors on Dash.
Before we slept my wife once more attempted by her entreaties to induce me to forsake this, as she called it, mad pursuit. She pointed out the change which the last few weeks had wrought in my appearance, how I had aged, and how my strength and health were failing. She prayed me, if I had not care for myself, to have some thoughts for our children and for her, from whose life I was taking away all joy and happiness. She knew I was not thirsting for gain, and she acknowledged the loftiness of my motives. Nevertheless, ambition was the spirit that moved me, and I had, she urged, no right to sacrifice to it my wife and children. It was hard indeed for me to resist her. But how could I have the heart to turn back when I was. as I conceived, within sight of the goal? I tried to explain to her the enormous importance to mankind of the great discovery I was on the point of making. Only a few more days, it might be only a few more hours, were necessary to complete my work. Would she not have a little more patience? When I had accomplished my task I would shut up my laboratory and resume straightway my usual healthy way of life. This I solemnly promised her, and she had perforce to be content with it. But I could see that she whom I loved above everything, so far as my accursed ambition left me free to love, had lost faith in my assurance and was sorely grieved. It was long before I could find rest in sleep.
Early in the morning I rose, eager to verify the success I anticipated, and went down again to my laboratory to work. My dog lay fast asleep on the hearth rug. Hearing me enter, he got up, shook and stretched himself, and came across the room to greet his master. But when he saw me, again that fearful look came into his eyes, and once again that cry of terror, seeming to gather into one all the pain and agony of the brute creation, swept through the house. Knowing as I did the cause of his fear, and hailing it as a sure token of my success, yet that terrible sound unnerved me. I opened the door of my room with an unsteady hand, and the poor brute rushed, or rather tumbled, past me, and I saw him no more. I heard afterward that he found his way into the garden, and into a thicket, whence no persuasion of voice or offer of food could tempt him, and where he perished miserably from fear and famine.
I pass over the contusion and panic which were caused in the house by the dog's cry of agony. Once more I had shut myself in my laboratory, and was preparing to try the experiment on my own eyes. Arrogant fool that I was, the dog's terror had no warning for me. It was true that I noticed with surprise that the effect had been more lasting than knowledge of the ingredients used had led me to anticipate. I had looked for a merely transient influence on the sight. The animal's eyes had retained the effects of the application for a considerable number of hours. It occurred to me as possible that the last attack of panic was only the result of the remembrance of what he had seen the night before. However this might be, no thought of applying the lesson to my own ease and of holding my hand came into my mind. I was satisfied that I had made one of the most wonderful discoveries of modern times and that by its publication my name would be made famous. By means practically as simple as that by which the surgeon dilates the pupil of his patient, I could now make the eye susceptible to those subtle rays or emanations to which few, perhaps none, of the objects surrounding us are dense or opaque. I was determined without delay to make the experiment on my own sight. Nor would anything have availed then to deter me, not even if I could have foreseen the suffering I was condemning myself to endure. I had in my grasp a talisman that would unlock for me the secrets of the universe. The fruit of the tree of knowledge hung within my reach. Ambition, desire, curiosity, tempted me. I must eat of it, even if the penalty were death, or worse.
As I have said. I had shut the door of my laboratory and was alone. I took the phial which contained the liquid I had applied to the dog's eyes, and carefully painted with it the insides of my eyelids. Then I sat down in my easy chair, with closed eyes, to give the drug a fair chance of showing its power.
I had sat thus for a considerable time, my mind full of the great discovery I had made, and dwelling on all its possible consequences, immense in their results, endless in their variations, when it occurred to me to write at once to Professor ----, with whom I was in correspondence on the subject of my researches, to tell him how far they had gone, and the extraordinary phenomena in the case of the dog. I turned to my writing table for this purpose. For a moment I thought my brain must have given way and that my imagination was playing me a trick.
I could see nothing like a table. The whole room had taken a fantastic and ghostly appearance. Instead of the mahogany bureau which held my writing materials, there was a misty and barely visible outline, which I can only compare to that of a ship looming through a dense fog. Upon the surface of this mist, floating, or rather upheld in their places by some magical and invisible support, were the brass handles, ornaments, locks, and keyholes of the drawers. There was nothing else to be seen with a distinct and defined outline, except here and there a screw or an angle iron which had been used in the joining, and a bunch of keys and some gold seals which I had kept in one of the drawers.
Pens or paper, although I knew there was plenty of them about, I could see none. I put out my hand to feel for them, and a shudder passed through me when I saw it was a skeleton hand. However, by the sense of touch I found some paper and a pen; but I could see neither, and after attempting to write a letter in ink. which I could not see, on paper I could not see, on an invisible table, and with an invisible pen in a skeleton hand, I gave it up in despair, and threw myself back in my chair. I began now to realize what I had done, and to feel that knowledge might be too perfect.
Up to this time I had not paid much attention to anything beyond my table and my own hands and arms. Rising now from my chair, I saw that to my eyes I was a skeleton, with metal buttons and a watch and chain belonging to it in some mysterious way without touching it. I could see that my legs were nothing but bones without either clothes or flesh, although I was strangely conscious of the presence of both. It was a ghastly and sickening sight to look down at my legs and body and see the bare bones of my own skeleton, and watch the motions of the uncovered, of apparently uncovered joints Between excitement and over worry and the neglect to take proper food; rest and exercise, my nerves were no better than those of a drunkard. I could hardly endure the sights which I had imposed upon myself. It seemed to me that it was near our breakfast hour, and I took out my watch to see the time. I could see the hands, but the dial was invisible, while the works below it were clearly seen. The feeling of existence and reality conveyed by the sense of touch and the perception of warmth seemed the one barrier left between me and death.
My wife's voice at the door recalled me to myself. It was her practice, if I had not left the laboratory, to fetch me to breakfast, and usually our youngest child, a fine, stout little boy, came with her. Prepared as I was to some extent for what I was to see, the reality—if anything can be called real in this wonderful world—came upon me with a shock I could hardly bear. I tottered back and clutched for support at the misty and uncanny object which I knew to be my table. I dared for one moment to look again, and in that one moment I suffered enough to make me regret forever the ambition to see with the divine eye. Two living skeletons walked in, the larger leading the little one by the hand; two chattering, gibbering skeletons, the smaller dancing and hopping along, and waving his little bony hands. Nearer they came, and although I heard the loved and familiar voices of the mother and child, and knew that they were living creatures of flesh as well as bone, I could not master the terrors and the dreadful feeling of disgust and repulsion, that came over me. I could not endure to meet their embrace. Closing my eyes, I would have fallen if I had not supported myself against the table.
During the moment I looked at her my glance must have betrayed me, for my wife exclaimed:
"Herbert, what is the matter? Why do you look at me in such a way? You have overworked yourself. I was afraid it would all come to this."
It was some comfort to feel the warm, living touch of her hand and her breath on my face as she guided me to a chair. I sat down, resting my head on her shoulder, but not daring to look up. A little warm hand was laid upon mine and a little voice lisped:
"Fader dear, dear fader, look at baby!"
Unable to withstand the entreating little voice, I opened my eyes. Oh, God! how terrible! There at my knee was a little skeleton, mouthing at me and aping the motions of life. I closed my eyes again and my tongue refused to speak.
"Herbert," said my wife, "speak to us. You are ill, dear. Speak, I entreat you; tell me what is the matter." With all the force of my will I commanded myself, and looked at her.
"I am not feeling quite right, dear," I answered. "I have been overworking myself, as you say, and I want my breakfast. I must take things more easy for a time."
I tried to regard her with my usual look. I could not. It was not in my power. No one can imagine the grotesque horror of what I saw. Remember it was my wife, the woman I loved above every one else, in whose beauty I rejoiced, the light of whose eyes was the sunshine of my life. 1 looked, and what did I see? Instead of the comely face with its loving smile, a grinning skull, all the more dreadful because it was alive. Instead of the shapely figure, a ghastly skeleton, whose bony hands were outstretched to touch me. In the most tragic events there is sometimes an element of the ridiculous, so there was something of the ridiculous in this horrible travesty of life. There were hairpins hovering, as it were, over the skull, and a necklace of gold floating round the bones of the neck, moved by the breathing, yet appearing to touch nothing; the steel stiffenings of the corset showed like bars placed unmeaningly in front of the ribs, while a shoe-buckle sat lightly and uncannily above the bony instep of each foot. The rings she wore encircled without touching the bones of her fingers. It was a skeleton masquerading in the skeleton of a dress.
To turn to the child was only to see still uglier horrors —the groping stature in the baby skull, gaps where the joints should be, hands and feet connected by a hardly visible film with the limbs. For some reason the outlines of the flesh and the larger organs were more distinct than in the woman. David might have had some such vision when he truly said we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
"Come, Herbert," said my wife, in an anxious tone of voice, "I cannot see you like this. Your nerves are suffering from overwork, and you will be seriously ill if you do not rest. Come, now, and have something to eat, and then we will go out together. It is a lovely, bright morning, and when we come in you will lie down and take a sleep."
I suffered her to lead me out of the room, turning my eyes away from her. It was difficult for me to see my way in any case, as I saw little but a kind of mist, and I remember wondering how Dash had found his way out of my room. She led me into the breakfast-room, and I forced myself to look about me. I was not ill, I was not mad. It was childish and foolish to be thus upset by the sight of the human frame. I reasoned with myself, and tried to conquer and overcome my disgust, but it was impossible. It was not merely that I saw my family in the form of skeletons sitting around me. The horror lay in the life of the skeletons. They were not like the dry bones in a museum of anatomy or in the valley of death. They looked fresh and clammy, and the skulls wagged and mouthed at me in a manner that made my skin creep with disgust to see them eating or pretending to eat, lifting the bony fingers to the gumless jaws, which they moved in the act of chewing. The Egyptians may have been able to feast with a quiet, unobtrusive skeleton at the board — one among many living.
The most callous cynic would not have enjoyed his dinner with such company as I had. Besides, I could not see to eat or drink. Nothing was visible to me except the metal of the plate and knives. I could not help myself, and I could not or would not explain to my wife what had happened. I was afraid she would think me laboring under a delusion, and I was more afraid that, if she believed me, she would feel outraged and offended that I should see her thus, and a barrier would be raised between us. I made an effort to look natural and unconcerned and find something to eat and drink. I succeeded only in upsetting a cup of tea that had been handed to me, and sweeping the crockery off the table. My wife gave a cry of distress and came over to me. She evidently thought, as she had good cause for thinking, that my intellect was failing.
As the only means of escape I said I was not feeling very well and must lie down. I was giddy and could hardly see. If she would take me up stairs and help me to lie down, I thought I should be better, and some food on a tray might be sent up to me. Accordingly, with my wife's aid, I went up stairs and lay down. Some breakfast was brought up on a tray, which happened to be of silver or plated metal. As this was visible to me, and I knew the limits within which I had to search, I was able without much difficulty to find what I wanted and to take the food of which I was in sore need. This done. I lay still and tried to sleep. My care now was how to get rid of the power which I had striven so hard to gain, to the possession of which I had looked forward as the main object of living. It was mine, and what was the result? Everything in the outer world which had given me pleasure and happiness had gone from me. All beauty of shape and color had for me vanished away. So far as I was concerned this ancient world, with all the lovely forms of life it contains, had disappeared, and I lived in the older time of chaos, when the earth was without form and void.
I must have fallen asleep and slept for some time. I was awakened by the door opening and some one entering with a soft and cautious step. I heard my wife speaking in a whisper. I called her to me without opening my eyes, lest the pleasure of her presence and of her soft, warm touch should be destroyed by the sight of the bones, living indeed, but without sinews or flesh. It was something to know that I could close my eyes to what I did not wish to see. and that the pleasure of feeling her touch and hearing her voice remained to me and was enhanced. The cheerfulness of the blind became intelligible to me. "How are you now, dear?" she said; "you have been a long time asleep. I have brought Dr. B---- to see you," she went on, naming a well-known London physician whom I knew well. "He came down an hour ago, but I did not let him come up, as you were asleep, and he arrived tired and hungry."
"I am glad to see you, B ," said I holding out my hand to him. "But I do not think I need your professional help." I turned to look at him as I spoke, and felt that my eyes must have belied my lips.
"What is the matter, Newton?" said he: "are you in pain? You seemed to start when you looked at me."
It was very difficult to tell him. I could not tell him that he seemed to me a grinning skeleton with a complete set of false teeth and a pince-nez. Yet that would have been the simple truth. He seemed to me a framework of living bones with a few metal buttons, like satellites of a planet, unconnected and yet attached.
He was a somewhat corpulent man, and the way in which his handsome watch and chain hovered, as it were, several inches in front of his ribs was peculiarly ludicrous. It was a horrible and ghastly sight. But the absurdity of this grotesque collection of bones being an eminent London physician so tickled my fancy that I broke into a loud laugh, which even to my own ears sounded like the laugh of a maniac. When I looked at B---- I was not overcome by the horror which I felt at seeing my wife and children in this manner. In the case of my friend it was the ridiculous side of the picture which affected me most. He did not understand the cause of my merriment. I could see by his attitude that he was beginning to take my case seriously.
"Newton," he said, in a grave voice, "you are not well, and I must insist on your being calm and quiet. Let me feel your purse." I put out my hand, and when I saw the skeleton with its false teeth and gold pince-nez holding my skeleton wrist with one bony hand, while in the other it held a watch at which it appeared to gaze attentively, I threw myself back on the pillow and fairly screamed with laughter. He was a handsome, well-mannered man, and had a large practice among the fashionable ladies of London. How many of these fair patients would consult him, thought I, if he appeared to them in this guise? Not many of those, at least, who suffered from nerves. To him my laugh must have sounded absolutely inept. What on earth was there to laugh at? From the tone of his voice I gathered that he was alarmed for me. We had known each other long, and were close friends.
"Newton," he said gravely, "you must compose yourself. Your wife has told me how you have been working for months, and how this attack came on. I must order you to keep perfectly quiet, and to remain in bed until I give you leave to get up. You will have an attack of brain fever and lose your life, perhaps worse, unless you obey me. Dear Mrs. Newton," he said, turning to my wife, "leave us for a few minutes. I should like to have some conversation with your husband."
When she had gone, B came and sat down In a chair beside me. I was compelled to shut my eyes, as the appearance of this solemn spectacled skeleton bending over me with that professional bedside manner which the physician has, or acquires, was more than my sense of humor could stand. About the man as he was in the flesh, there was nothing absurd, but the skeleton, and especially the skull, had an air of priggish conceit that moved me to assault him. He felt my pulse again and examined me carefully with a stethoscope, took my temperature, looked at my tongue, and questioned me closely as to the state of my health. Then he began, evidently of a purpose, to discuss current events and every day topics. It required all the self-control of which I was capable to look at him and keep my countenance while this was going on. The solemn movements of the physician skeleton were sublimely burlesque. I could see that he was fairly puzzled. At last, after all the tappings and touchings and auscultations were over –
“Well, Newton," he said, "I cannot see that there is anything bodily wrong with you, except that you are rather run down from too much work and too little air and exercise. But from the account your wife has given me, and from what I have seen of you, I am not at all satisfied about you. You appear to be in a very excitable state, liable to fits of horror when those you love come near you, and at other times to attacks of causeless laughter. What do you find so ludicrous in me, or so horrible in your wife and children? I cannot understand your case, unless you are either feigning madness —a supposition which, as regards you, is impossible—or suffering from one of those hallucinations or delusions with which nature punishes us for overtaxing our brain power. Now that your wife has left the room, tell me why her appearance causes you to shrink from her. You can rely on my discretion."
"My dear fellow," said I, "there is no mystery about it except nature, the mystery of all mysteries. I have made a wonderful discovery."
And I told him the history of the matter from the experiment on the dog up to his arrival. I could see that he thought my mind had gone astray, and did not believe a word I was saying. "My dear B---- I said, "I see you think I have lost my senses and that I am talking nonsense. I admit that 1 have been working too much and became very excited by my experiments. My nerves are no doubt overstrung, otherwise I should not have been so much disturbed by what I have seen. But as to the facts, what I have told you is the simple truth. Indeed, in some respects it is less than the truth, as words cannot convey to you more than a very imperfect idea of the kind of world into which I have plunged. I have torn away the veil mercifully spread over our eyes. Blindness itself were preferable to the perfect vision I have sought and acquired."
I was going to offer to prove by experiment that my assertions were true, when, more convinced than ever that I was raving, he cut me short: "Come now, Newton, I must forbid you to talk any more at present. I will come to see you again shortly, and we can discuss this matter. Meanwhile remain in bed. Keep absolutely quiet, and sleep as much as you can. I will order you a sleeping draught. Goodby untll the day after to-morrow."
"Stop B---!" I cried. "I can prove to you easily that you are mistaken and that I am telling the truth." But before I had finished the sentence he was away and the door shut. Like many of his kind, he had no scientific imagination, and took little interest in anything that did not in his view lead to some practical end in his profession. I determined to obey him all the same, because his advice, although founded on a very mistaken view of my case, coincided with my own opinion. It was very probable that absolute rest and sleep were the best means of allowing the effects of the drug to wear off, and of restoring my eyes to their ordinary state. Accordingly I remained in bed, kept my eyes closed, and got my wife to read an amusing book to me.
It is needless to write down all the incidents of the day. Let me hasten to the end. I occasionally looked round, but found that my sight was still in the same state. I took the sleeping draught at night, and slept soundly without even a dream. How refreshed 1 felt when I awoke in the early morning! I was lying on my side, with my face towards: a window which looked out on part of the garden. There was an old oak tree not far off, and it was my fancy to leave the curtains undrawn so that I might see the tree with the background of the morning sky when I awoke. No beautiful picture awaited me this morning. My eyes were still, to my dismay, under the influence of the drug and sensitive to the X rays. I turned hastily away from the window to my other side. An indescribable horror seized me. There in her accustomed place beside me lay my wife's skeleton, as it were the skeleton of one who had died in her sleep long years ago, and had been left to lie undisturbed. There it lay beside me. and 1 nearly touched the skull as I turned. I put out my hands to save my face from the hateful contact, when the arms began to move as if they would enfold me in their embrace. I could control my terror no longer. With the shriek of a madman I leapt from the bed. The skeleton rose with a start and tried to grasp me. I heard my wife's voice uttering a cry of fear. I tried to escape; my foot caught in something, and I fell heavily, and I remember no more.
It was a lovely summer morning when I came to myself. I felt weak, and did not desire to move. I was lying in bed, turned towards the window I have mentioned before. I could tell that it was early morning. The sun was not high. The pale greenish blue of the sky was mottled with delicate rosy clouds's. Birds were singing, and a soft flower scented breath was coming in through the open window. It was some time before full consciousness returned and I could recall to mind what had happened to me. Then the dreadful recollection came upon me, and, forgetting, the present evidence of my senses, I turned with an awful dread that the same sight might await me again.
It may be a confession of weakness, but never before or since, though 1 may have had much greater cause, have I been so really and earnestly thankful. It may seem but a small thing comparatively to be saved from a disagreeable sight, especially when it is the consequence of a power that may be turned to great purposes. I had my wife and children with me still. I could still hear their voices and feel their touch unchanged, even though I could see only the most unlovely portion of their bodies. Yet I believe, although it is a terrible thing to say, that I would have chosen rather to part with them forever than to see them as I saw them during those terrible days. I was indeed glad and thankful in the inmost depths of my being when, turning myself slowly and feebly on that lovely morning, full of fear of what I might see, I saw lying there, close beside me, the gracious form of my wife, her comely head with its soft brown hair almost touching mine.
It was not long before I had quite regained my strength and spirits. I recognized that I was not of the stuff of which the pioneers and heroes of science are made. I had been ill and unconscious for many days. My wife had taken the reins for the time into her own hands, and I found she had effected a complete clearance of my laboratory and its contents. She believed that I had worked myself into a state of madness, and as I never explained the facts to her, and for the reasons already given did not wish to explain them, I took no pains to undeceive her. If it had not been for the fate of my poor dog, who had not shared in his master's scientific labors. I might have persuaded myself that I had been the sport of a diseased imagination.
My note-books, I found, had escaped the ruthless hand which had turned my laboratory into a billiard-room. In them was a record of my researches and their results, more or less complete. This I sent to my friend. Professor Gleichen, to use the result as he thought fit, provided he did not connect the discovery with my name. The Professor worked them out, and verified them at once by experimenting on his own sight. I received a letter from him, written by an amenuensis in the first flush of his pleasure, full of what he hoped to achieve by this new faculty. He was an old man, he said, and even if he found that his sight was permanently altered, and that he could not recover his normal vision, he did not object to unpleasantness and inconvenience suffered in the cause of knowledge.
Some weeks afterwards he wrote in a less cheerful and hopeful strain, notwithstanding some remarkable discoveries he had been able to make. When some months had passed, I heard of his sudden death. Whether he died from natural causes, or whether he found life under such conditions a burden not to be endured even by a German savant, who can tell?