The Trouble With Me
“The trouble with me,” said the last patient of the day, “is that I know too much.”
The statement did not surprise Arbuthnot, the consulting alienist. The patient who had just left his office had assured him that he was perfectly all right save for a glass heart, which he lived in constant terror of cracking by colliding with somebody, or by slipping on a wet pavement.
Before him, there had been a pretty girl bubbling with enthusiasm over a scheme for curing stammerers by intravenal injections of parrot’s blood. And so it went, every afternoon from two until four. Arbuthnot elevated his brows politely, and gazed upon the pale, emaciated man of sixty-odd who faced him across the wide table.
“You know too much — about what?”
“Everything! Big things, and trifles. All my senses are abnormally keen. Without in the least wishing to do so, I overheard all your conversation with the patients who preceded me, through your soundproof door. Coming downtown, I passed seven hundred and thirteen pedestrians; and I could describe each one so minutely that any reasonably intelligent police officer could identify him at sight. On the street cars, I can hear the ticking of every watch, and distinguish the minute differences in beat and pitch. Yesterday I rode for two miles along the principal business street of a Jersey city. I can write out for you every sign, every scrap of lettering on the shop fronts of the side I was facing, along the entire route. When I smell a perfume, I at once identify each of the dozen or more coaltar derivatives from which it has been built up.”
Dr. Arbuthnot nodded.
“I have treated cases not unlike yours,” he said. “There is no cause for alarm. You are probably overworking. Drop everything and play for a while. Golf. Or long tramps in the country.”
“No use. I should count the apples on the trees, and if I laid down to rest I should hear the grass grow and the earthworms burrowing far beneath. I can stand it daytimes, but of late my mind retains its activity until I sink into a sort of stupor toward dawn. I am sixty-three, and I’ve never used drugs of any sort. Now I want something to make me sleep, at least every other night.”
The alienist made the customary examination, with stethoscope and opthalmoscope; tested his reflexes, and questioned him upon his family history.
John Slade’s father had been of a type not uncommon in rural New England, although dying out. Self-taught, save for what the village academy could impart, he knew a little about many things. He was a naturalist, of sorts. Was always pointing out glacial scratches on the rocks in the neighborhood, and finding Indian arrowheads. Had a fine collection of butterflies, and knew them all by their Latin names. Botanized a great deal by day, and read the stars by night through a rusty old telescope. Understood the ways of fishes and wood creatures. Could enjoy his New Testament in both Greek and Latin. With his hands he was able to repair sewing machines, pumps, typewriters, or clocks, and could design and build a modest house unaided. Knew surveying, and served as the local undertaker. With two or three simple tools he could do things that would have baffled a master mechanic, — yet could not have passed an examination as plumber’s assistant. A gentle, visionary man, the only resident of his county to whom Spinoza and Descartes and Einstein meant anything at all, he lived and died as poor as a church mouse.
Slade’s mother was a French-Canadian, unable to read or write. She had the illiterate peasant’s extraordinary powers of minute observation, was a neat housewife, a mixture of cunning and credulity, and a devout Christian.
John Slade himself cared nothing for money. When he needed any, he invented something. His education, begun by tramping the countrywide with his father and absorbing all sorts of illassorted facts, had been pursued in many lands. At one time he buried himself in Johns Hopkins, engrossed in biology and embryology. Next he was heard of at Oxford, steeped in medievalism. Physics at Leipsic and Prague. Chemistry at Bonn. Back again to the States, he flitted from Massachusetts Tech to the Edison laboratories. Always learning. Never producing — save when lack of funds drove him to some hack work: a course of lectures before the Lowell Institute, the invention of a crankless ice-cream freezer, an article for some technical publication.
“I know too much,” he repeated after answering all of Arbuthnot’s questions. “That is the trouble. And now I cannot sleep!”
The physician gave him some advice as to exercise and diet, to which he listened abstractedly. Then he handed him a little vial of the lethal tablets which would, for a time at least, permit his distracted brain to forget.
Usually he was able to dismiss his patients from his mind after he had done what he could for them, and filed their cards away. He did not find it so easy to forget Slade.
For one thing, he came upon articles written by him from time to time, in the journals to which he subscribed. His fellow practitioners mentioned him occasionally. Slade was a sort of mystery, with it was admitted that he knew more about embryology and chemistry than they did themselves. Nobody could tell just how much the fellow did know! Whatever he said or wrote was uttered with authority and was hard to refute. He had a laboratory which none of them had ever seen, and where it was rumored that he carried on extraordinary experiments, the nature of which was unknown.
Nevertheless, Arbuthnot had very nearly forgotten him when, six months after his call, he received a brief note requesting the alienist to visit him the following afternoon, upon a matter of life and death.
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A Menace to God Almighty
Promptly upon the departure of his last patient at a little after four next day, Arbuthnot stepped into the taxicab he had already summoned, and fifteen minutes later was admitted by John Slade himself to his quarters on the top floor of a wholesale storage house well downtown. There was nobody about except the janitor, who took him up in a rickety freight elevator and indicated the door bearing Slade’s card.
He had become much thinner, more haggard, the physician’s swiftly appraising glance told him, as he took his dry, skinny hand in greeting. The eyes seemed to have retreated deep into their bony sockets, and were now magnified by thick toric lenses. The man’s bare feet were thrust into sandals, and he wore a light, loosely belted linen robe falling to his knees. He took Arbuthnot’s hat and indicated an easy chair.
The room was evidently Slade’s general living quarters. It was large, square, lighted on two sides by windows. Its utter lack of the atmosphere of the conventional bachelor’s “den” struck Arbuthnot at once: There were no hospitable glasses, or tea-things, nor so much as a pipe rack or ash tray. The place was as ascetic as a monk’s cell; an effect heightened by Slade’s girdled robe and the sandals. Books — ranks and columns of them — in built-in cases along three sides of the wall. A great flat table, with reading lamp and precise stacks of papers, a rack of sharpened pencils, an open volume with fresh marginal annotations. A wide couch bed at one end, its blankets neatly folded. Filing cases at its head and foot. Through a half-open door Arbuthnot glimpsed the famous laboratory — mostly a gleam of white enamel, against which glimmered the blue-green of retorts and the glitter of polished brass.
Slade seated himself.
“Do you believe that suicide is ever justifiable, Arbuthnot?”
The physician started.
“Old inhibitions, doctor! First, your Hippocratian oath –which was never composed by Hippocrates, and is a jumble of pompous platitudes. Then, your religion. We mustn’t take life–because that power is the only one we hold in common with God. Therefore — God is jealous!”
Arbuthnot scanned the face before him, scored deeply with the lines of insomnia, strangely illuminated with the vast mental energy going on within.
Everything at top speed, — he thought without replying. Blood pressure too high, of course. Pulse rapid and wiry — you could catch its flutter over the hollow temples. Breathing short — and stirring only the upper chest. Burn out pretty fast, at this rate … .
“I told you what my trouble was,” Slade continued in his tired voice. “I know too much. And I know more now than on that day when I consulted you. Oh, very much more!”
Still the alienist uttered no comment. Let the poor devil talk. It was a relief — sort of safety-valve.
“The fact is, I know so much that I am a menace to God Almighty! One of us — so it seems to me — must go. And you sit there, smugly, and tell me that suicide is wrong. As one would tell a naughty child not to bite its nails.” Slade closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled a deep breath. Then he pulled open a drawer in his table and held out a little oblong glass slide.
“Bits of protoplasm, Arbuthnot. Life cells. And all the scientists in the world, with their most cunning microscopes and reagents, cannot isolate one of them and say whether it would have developed into a rear-admiral or a cucumber; an elephant or a moth; a theologian or a toadstool! Am I right?”
The physician half smiled.
“With certain reservations you are perfectly correct,” he admitted.
“One step separates me from divinity,” Slade remarked. “I haven’t yet actually created a life cell, but I stand on the threshold. And then — what?”
“Many have stood on the threshold a longtime, Slade. With the eggs of sea urchins and — “
“Grammar school stuff! Piffle!! I tell you, in less than a year, probably within three months, I can from inorganic substances form a living cell. Then, having the power of creating and destroying life, I shall emerge, the lone pioneer, the first human being to rise to godship. And I don’t dare. I tell you, I am afraid! What of? I don’t know. Not of anything that can happen to this wreck of a body. Not of any hell-and-damnation stuff. Not of pure annihilation. But I am horribly afraid — of something. So much so that I am withholding my foot just as I lift it to take that final step that divides men and gods.”
“I think you are perfectly right,” Arbuthnot assented in soothing tones. “I’d feel the same way about it myself!” Slade stared at him for a moment before his yellow face broke into a myriad of little wrinkles, and his voice into cracked laughter.
“You’re only a little fellow in your profession, after all! You think I’m demented — even now you’re figuring on how to keep me quiet till you can get a message to the Psychopathic Hospital.”
The alienist went mottled-red. It was precisely what he was thinking–but he was a man of great dignity, and hated to be mocked even by a lunatic.
“You’ve no right to say that,” he parried. “I simply agreed with you.”
“Well — even alienists know enough not to contradict their patients, don’t they? You didn’t dispute that chap when he told you he had a glass heart! Humor us, my learned friend. Humor us!”
Instantly dropping his banter, he leaned forward, his voice falling to a whisper.
“What would you say if I told you that I could take any life cell and make of it what I choose? What are the determining factors?. Light — heat — moisture — food — what we term in general, environment.”
He touched a thick, leather-bound book on the table.
“Here are the formulas, all worked out. What will you, my good Arbuthnot? An oak tree, or a lizard? A pretty girl, or a serpent — or, if you like, both in one?”
He rose jerkily, and beckoned his visitor to follow him into the other room.
Arbuthnot, now thoroughly on his guard against any sudden violence directed by Slade against either of them, followed him into a room twice as long as the other, and fitted up as a laboratory.
Even in his anxiety, the extraordinary neatness and order of the room caught his notice. There was none of the litter familiar to such places presided over by man, with only vestigial housekeeping instincts. Brass and nickel were gleaming. Test tubes, glass jars, stood in racks or on shelves. Rows of labeled bottles were not sticky or stained by escaping drops of their own contents. Tables, floor, walls, showed no trace of dust or grime. A tall threeleaved screen cut off one end of the long room, which was lighted from a skylight, it being too early to turn on any of the numerous incandescents.
Slade crossed over to where, apparently, a huge steel safe was set in the wall, and opened the thick door. It swung easily and noiselessly upon its oiled pinions, revealing a closet the height of a tall man, with a perforated disc upon the floor, and a grill of shining rods extending to the top. Overhead was an oblong box thickly wound with heavy copper wire. A number of dials, indicators and gauges were attached to a heavy plate screwed to the inside of the door. Slade turned to the silent physician.
“This is my lethal chamber,” he explained. “One who enters this steel chest and throws this switch, ceases to exist. He disappears. More scientifically, since in our universe nothing can be destroyed, he is transmuted into material not identifiable by our imperfect senses. Simply open the door five minutes after I enter, and you will see. Or rather, you will not see!”
Arbuthnot made an involuntary step toward the other, who smiled and closed the heavy door.
“Do not be alarmed! I have other things to show you.”
He pointed out a few of the ingenious contrivances in the laboratory, calling especial attention to his electric incinerator and showing his guest how, by turning a small lever, a globular furnace became white hot in a minute or two. Anything placed therein would shrivel almost instantly to ashes.
“And now for the real exhibit,” he said, leading Arbuthnot to the far end of the room and around the screen which he had noted on entering.
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Part Man — Part Seaweed
Late afternoon had set in; and the dusk revealed nothing but a long row of square glass cases standing upon a trestle and emanating a sickly greenish light in the afterglow which slanted down through the skylight.
Slade switched on some incandescents.
Details leaped out at Arbuthnot. He noted that some of the glass tanks contained a fluid, while others were dry. Electric wires were connected with each, and thermometers indicated their interior heat. Faint stirrings — a little scraping on the sand of one of the dry containers — indicated some sort of life within. Slade touched his sleeve and directed him to the end of the row.
Peering within, the alienist made out some creature which he could not identify, nor even classify as plant or animal. It swayed gently in the water, its eight or nine inches erect, with a bulbous head and a suggestion of human features; but its limbs were like some unwholesome plant, with twigs for hands and feet. It seemed rooted in a yellowish-gray clay at the bottom of the tank. Little bubbles rose continuously from its mouth.
“Part man — part seaweed,” observed Slade. “What do you think of it?”
Arbuthnot bent closely over the stagnant water. A feeling of horror crept through his veins like iced water. The homunculus turned its head — if it was a head — upward, and its eyes, whitish and without expression, seemed to look through the viscous fluid into his own. A rudimentary nose — a wide mouth–sessile ears — these he made out before the thing seemed to take fright and slithered down to burrow into the clay in which its lower limbs were rooted.
Without a comment Arbuthnot permitted himself to be led to the next tank.
Here was, unquestionably, a miniature woman. Beautiful and shapely as a fairy, with perfect breasts and an exquisite little head swaying upon a slender neck, her skin shimmered silverygreen in the water. Arbuthnot turned deathly sick as he saw that below the waist she — it — was seemingly a slimy eel!
Concerning the occupants of the other glass boxes he retained only a jangled sense of hideous and unclassifiable monstrosities. There were serpents that were part vegetable; plants that mocked humanity. There were other things that fascinated by a sort of loathsome beauty. Sickened to the soul, he was dragged back to a consciousness of the present by the low-pitched voice of John Slade, whose presence he had forgotten.
“I don’t suppose that I can possibly explain my feelings toward these little creatures. We have no adjectives, no similes for it — because it isn’t a human emotion. I am the first man ever to know it. There is nothing of sex in it, you see; nothing comparable to love of wife, or parents, or offspring. It is the yearning of the creator over the people he has created. God feels it, I suppose, for us; but in depicting God’s love we grope for words and say that he cares for us as a father for his son.”
He moved from the blue-green tanks with their faint stirrings of a nameless life shadowing the translucent glass. At the end of the screen he turned to look squarely back at Arbuthnot.
“Although a narrow and unimaginative man, you are an honest one,” he said. “You will know what to do. I am going back to nothingness!”
The physician heard him cross the room, caught the soft click of the lever as he threw open the great steel door. He leaped forward, overturning the screen, and beheld Slade with a quick motion cast aside his single garment and shuffle off his sandals. His naked body stood out for a second against the dark interior of the metal closet; and then the door closed noiselessly behind him.
Arbuthnot’s impulse to rush forward and open the door was arrested by a deep, musical tone which came from the closet. Slowly, and by infinitesimal tonal shadings, it rose through the scale, culminating at length in an incredibly thin and high note, like the keenest harmonic of a violin. It died away into silence; but he had a feeling that the sound was still mounting up and up, though now far beyond the range of his ear. Then he turned, steadily enough, and switched on the current in the electric incinerator.
The half-hour that followed was never anything save a horrible nightmare. The details were not clear, and he made no effort to recall them. On many a sleepless night he prayed to be able to forget them all.
When the furnace was white hot he began dropping into it, one by one, the living organisms from their glass tanks. As he moved back and forth, there were times when he felt that he was a malignant deity destroying a world. A sense of megalomania, like that induced by certain drugs, obsessed him. The poor creatures didn’t want to die; that was plain enough. They clung to their bleak, arid lives, and they feared and hated him. When Slade had approached their tanks they had evinced a feeble pleasure or, at least, a sluggish indifference. But from Arbuthnot they shrank, seeking to hide away among the pebbles and sand and fragments of coral. And into his mind came the words of Scripture, how on the Last Day the human mites shall call upon the mountains to cover them!
The little tree-man fought with a futile rage, seeking to bite his fingers, and making no more impression upon the skin than if it had been buffalo hide. Its tiny twig-like fingers struggled ceaselessly; and it seemed to feel acute pain as he uprooted it from its bed of clay. But the eel-woman offered no resistance; and her tragic despair was the harder to bear. She covered her wee breasts with her hands, and tears unbelievably minute rolled down her face.
Down Arbuthnot’s streams of perspiration poured, as one by one he dropped Slade’s creations hissing into the white-hot incinerator. When at length he had done, ending by burning the great book, filled with the formula; which might conceivably enable another to recreate a forbidden microcosm, his limbs were trembling and his pulse racing.
Ordinarily, he would have dreaded to open the steel door which Slade had closed behind him; but after what he had done, anything else seemed commonplace. His nerves refused to react further. Listlessly, and almost incuriously, he crossed the room, turned the lever and pulled open the door.
A wave of heated air swept out, stirring the damp hair upon his forehead. But there was no one inside.
The steel closet was shining and empty.
By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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