Stories by American Authors, Volume 8 online

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had been withdrawn into the great magnet, and mixed therein with what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

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

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

Was there yet time?

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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



_Harper's Magazine, June, 1863._

Osgood took a cane-bottomed chair whose edges had given way from the
application of boot-soles, cane and umbrella ferules, and studied his
predicament. He commenced this necessary study early in the morning in
his room, which was in a boarding-house situated in this metropolis.
The early carts were taking their way down town through a blue haze,
which in the country prefigured a golden day. The milkman, the
walk-sweeper, and the rag-picker, were the only creatures moving in
Osgood's neighborhood. The time was propitious for meditation and
resolve, but Osgood's head was not ready. The still Champagne that he
had drank the night before buzzed in his brain. With a glass of it in
his hand, under a side gas-light, in the drawing-room of his Aunt
Formica, he had proposed marriage to a handsome dashing girl, and
the handsome dashing girl had accepted him. They swallowed the
bubbles on the "beaker's brim," thinking it was the Cup of Life
they were drinking from. Neither supposed that the moment was one
of exhilaration or enthusiasm. Osgood never felt so serious, or so
determined to face the music, as he called it, which was the short for
a philosophical design to march boldly through life, and shoulder its
necessities with a brave spirit and a martial air.

Osgood was intelligent, agreeable, and handsome. He had advanced no
further into life than to give this impression. He knew nothing more
of himself than that he was intelligent, handsome, and "plucky." He
had no father or mother, but he had an aunt who had married Mr.
Formica; this pair, effete in themselves, belonged to that mysterious
class who are always able to get their relatives places under
Government. When Osgood was eighteen they obtained a place in the
Sub-Treasury, which yielded him the income of fifteen hundred dollars.
Aunt Formica expected a great deal from him in the way of deportment
and dress. The exigencies of his position, she observed, compelled him
to do as those around him did. Of course he never laid up any of his
salary, but he kept out of debt, and in doing this he fulfilled the
highest duty that came within his province. His associates were young
men who had more money than he, and who expected him to spend as much
as they spent. The houses he visited were inhabited by people who
took it for granted that all who came in contact with them were as
rich as themselves. The Formica interest was large. When he went to
Washington with his aunt, he went the rounds of the senators' houses
and hotels in the way of calls, dinners, and parties. When he went
to Boston with her he began his visits at the right hand of Beacon
Street, and branched into the streets behind it, where as good blood
abides, though it has not the same advantage of the air of the Common.
Wherever he went expense was involved, in the way of gloves, bouquets,
cards, fees to errand boys, exchange of civilities in lunches, cigars,
ale, brandy, sherry, stage, hack, and car fare, which he bore like a

Lily Tree, the girl whom he proposed to marry, belonged to a family
of the Formica species. It sailed through society all a-taut with
convention, and was _comme il faut_ from stem to stern. Lily and
Osgood had always known each other. They passed through the season
of hoop and ball, dancing-school, tableaux, and charades together;
sympathized in each other's embryonic flirtations; and were such fast
friends that no one ever dreamed of any danger to them from love. But
as the wagon that goes from the powder-mill in safety innumerable
times at last carries the keg which explodes it, so Osgood and Lily at
last touched the divine spark which threw them out of their old world
into one they had not anticipated.

This was part of Osgood's predicament.

What made him do as he had done?

Why had Lily accepted him?

She would never, he argued, consent to go out of the area which
bounded her ideas, and which comprised a small portion of New York,
Boston, Washington, and the tour of Europe, which meant a week in
London, six months in Paris, and ten days in Rome. Unless he descended
from the Sub-Treasury, and sought some business, such as making
varnish, glue, buttons, soap, sarsaparilla, or sewing machines, could
he marry? What shrewdness had he in the place of capital to bring to
bear on the requirements of these Yankee callings? How he worried over
the prospect which looked so pleasant the night before! Champagne,
flowers, light, and perfume were gone from it. He pitied himself in
his helplessness. The thought of Lily deprived of her delicate evening
dresses, her diurnal bouquets, caramels, and her pecunious caprices,
was not pleasant. He could not see her in any light that made her so
agreeable as in the light that he must certainly cause her to lose.

Something practical must be done.

Naturally he looked into his pocket-book. There was eighteen dollars
in it - all the money he had. It was the last day in the month,
however, and he was entitled to draw one hundred and twenty-five
dollars. He shut his pocket-book and looked into his closet. He
found there several pairs of patent-leather boots and a brilliant
dressing-gown. "Pooh!" he said, peevishly, and shut the door. He then
examined his bureau: in its drawers were many socks, shirts, cravats,
four sets of studs and sleeve-buttons, and five scarf-pins. He rattled
the studs and buttons thoughtfully; but nothing came of it, and he
closed the drawers. His eye then fell on a dress-coat which he had
worn for the first time the evening before. He resolved to take the
coat back to Wiedenfeldt, his tailor. This resolve was the nucleus
probably of his future undertakings. He finished dressing and left the
house. Before reaching Wiedenfeldt he purchased and drank a bottle of
Congress Water. He also stopped at a favorite restaurant and made an
excellent breakfast, and came away with a "Relampagos" - a small
cigar of superior flavor - and three daily papers. His interview with
Wiedenfeldt was satisfactory; the coat was taken back, and when he had
settled the matter he felt as if a beginning had been made in a new
and right direction.

That afternoon he drew his pay, and walked up town. The moment he
entered his room his predicament fell upon him again, and his spirits
sunk. He sat on the edge of his bed, so quiet in his misery that he
began to hear the ticking of the watch in his pocket; it associated
itself in his mind with the sound and motion of railroad-cars. He felt
himself traveling hundreds of miles away, listening all the while to a
rhythmic sound, which said, "Many a mile, many a mile." Why should he
not go "many a mile, many a mile," in reality? He went out immediately
and bought a valise. After that his demeanor was settled and
tranquil. He then wrote three notes - to his chief, his Aunt Formica,
and Lily. The first was a note of resignation; the second conveyed the
information to his aunt that he was sick of his place, had thrown it
up, and was going out of town for a change of air. He regretted, when
he began his note to Lily, that he had not sent her some flowers. A
momentary impulse to go and see her stayed his hand; but he remembered
that she must be at Mrs. Perche's "sit-down supper" that evening, and
resumed writing. He begged her to enjoy herself, and not miss him
while he was away. He did not know what to write besides, but put in
a few chaotic expressions which might or might not mean a great deal.

While he put a few necessary articles in the valise he wondered where
he should go, never dropping the thought that he must go somewhere.
The remainder of his wardrobe, including the brilliant dressing-gown,
he packed in a trunk and locked it.

He rang the bell, and when the waiter came up asked for the landlady,
Mrs. Semmes. The waiter thought that it was not too late to see her in
her own parlor, and lingered, with his hand on his chin and his eyes
on the valise.

"Jem," said Osgood, "I have left some boots in the closet, and some
shirts in the drawers, which are at your service."

The alacrity with which Jem changed his attitude and expression
struck Osgood with a sense of pain. "How horribly selfish servants
are!" he thought, taking his way down stairs. Mrs. Semmes hoped there
was no trouble, and asked him to be seated. He looked at her
earnestly; she was the only one to say farewell to. Never had he
looked Mrs. Semmes in the face before; he had only seen the hand into
which he had placed the price of his board.

"I came to tell you, Mrs. Semmes, that I am about to leave town for
the present. Will you allow my trunk to remain here? If I do not
return in a year and a day, break it open."

Mrs. Semmes promised to keep the trunk; took some money due her;
wondered at his going away at that time of year, and asked him his

"I think I shall go to Canada," he answered, vaguely.

"There must be snow there, by the accounts."

"Where shall I go?" he was about to say, but checked himself.

"If you were going East," she continued, "you would find the ground
bare enough, especially in the neighborhood of the sea: the sea-winds
melt the snow almost as soon as it falls."

"I think I will go East," he said, musingly. He sat so long without
saying any thing, staring straight before him, that Mrs. Semmes began
to feel fidgety. She recalled him to the present by walking to the
window. He started, bade her good-by, and retired.

He tossed about all night in a feverish sleep, tormented with dreams
which transformed Lily into a small child which he was compelled to
carry in his arms, or furnished his Aunt Formica with a long spear,
with which she pursued him, and was forever on the point of overtaking

At 8 o'clock A.M. he might have been seen by a detective at the
Twenty-seventh Street dépôt. A few minutes after he was going through
the tunnel; and, emerging from that, he considered himself fairly
divided from New York. At the first station beyond the State-line
of Massachusetts he consulted a map, and concluded to stop at the
junction of the Old Colony Railroad. There he changed the route, and
in the evening reached a town which seemed waiting to go somewhere
else, where he passed the night.

The next morning he started on his travels again toward Cape Cod. Five
miles beyond a large village, in a flat, sterile, gloomy region, he
alighted with his baggage, and said, "This is the place for me." The
train went on, and the dépôt-master went into his little den without
noticing Osgood. Several tall school-girls, who had come to watch for
the train, strolled down a cross-road, and he was alone. He went to
the end of the platform and surveyed the country. He stood on the edge
of a wide plateau along which ran the railroad-track. Beyond that a
road deviated through dismal fields, by unpainted houses, large barns,
and straggling orchards. Below the plateau a wide marsh extended,
intersected by crooked creeks, which gnawed into the black earth like
worms. A rim of sea bordered the tongue of the marsh, but it was too
far off to add life to the scene. The sedge, giving up all hope of
being moistened by the salt waves, had died in great circles, which
looked like mats of gray hair on some pre-Adamite monster's buried

Osgood determined to pursue the windings of the road. He plowed the
sand for two miles, and at a sudden turn of the road came upon a
house, with a number of barns and sheds attached to it. A dog with a
stiff tail ran out from a shed and barked at him, and a pale-faced
woman in a muslin cap appeared at a window of the house. He knocked at
the door: she opened it.

"Will thee come in?" she asked.

He entered, following her as he would have followed a ghost. She moved
a chair from the wall without the least noise, and he dropped upon it.
As he looked at her his identity seemed slipping away - seemed to be
slipping into an atmosphere connected with her and her surroundings.
She brought him some water which she dipped from a pail near by, and
held the cocoa-nut dipper which contained it to his lips.

"Thee has come to us from strange parts, I reckon, from thy looks."

"Yes," he answered, absently; "I needed change."

"There has been no change here since the Indians went away. If thee
will look across the road thee can see the ground is strewed with the
bits of shells from their feasts."

He went to the window, and again remarked to himself, "This is the
place for me."

"Could you," he asked, going toward her, "let me stay with you a

"Did thee come to the Marsh End station this morning?"

"Yes; my valise is there."

"Thy parents are rich?"

"I have none."

"Thee has been well cared for, though."

"I have not left home because of any - " Misfortune, he was about to
say, but that did not seem to be the right word; so he tried to think
of something else to say. She saw his embarrassment, and said,

"I never have harbored a stranger; but if Peter likes, he may take

Osgood thanked her so pleasantly that she determined he should stay.
She asked him his name, his age, his place of residence, his business,
and his intentions. Except in regard to the latter, his answer proved
satisfactory; and when Peter returned at noon from the distant shore
with a load of sea-weed, she introduced Osgood as if he were an old
acquaintance of whom Peter was in a state of lamentable ignorance. He
pushed his hat on the back of his head, shook hands with Osgood, and
said, "Maria, will thee give me my dinner?" taking no further notice
of Osgood till she had placed it on the table. It consisted of stewed
beans, boiled beef, apple-pie, and cheese. Osgood ate half a pie, and
established himself in Peter's good graces.

"Thee will learn that Maria's pie-crust beats all," he said.

"Thee is ready to consent," said his wife, "to keep young Osgood a

"I don't know yet," answered Peter.

But after dinner he harnessed his horse and went to the dépôt for
Osgood's valise, which he carried upstairs and deposited in the spare
room. He then invited Osgood to take a look at the premises. He wished
to make his own investigations in regard to Osgood without Maria's
intervention. They lingered by the pig-sty, and while Peter scratched
the pigs with a cord-wood stick, exchanged views of men and things.
Peter saw the capabilities of Osgood's character, and easily divined
the manner of life he had led. He knew him to be selfish from
ignorance, and because he had early formed the habits which impose
self-indulgence. Something in the young man's bearing won his heart - a
certain impetuous simplicity and frankness which made him long to be
of service to a nature unlike his own. Osgood found Peter genial,
shrewd, and sad. Such a man he had never met. It seemed to him that
Peter could set him straight in his own estimation; there was no
nonsense about the old man, and yet he could see deep feeling in his
dark, cavernous eyes. The feeling which had oppressed him passed
away, and another took its place which contained restoration, and
faith in the future. He got into Peter's way by attempting to help
fodder the cattle and "slick up" the barn. When the work was done, and
while Peter fastened the barn-doors with an ox-bow, Osgood looked
about him. It was a March afternoon; no wind blew, and no sun shone;
but the gray round of the sky, which neither woods nor hills hid from
his sight, rolled over him in soft commotion. The reddish, barren
fields stretched in their flatness beyond his vision, and the narrow
roads of yellow sand ran to nowhere. The world of God, he thought, he
saw for the first time; and, away from the world of men, felt himself
a _man_.

He looked so kindly upon Maria when he entered the house that she
delayed the stream of the tea-kettle which she held over the teapot to
admire him. The supper was the dinner - cold, with an addition of warm
biscuits; and again Osgood ate himself into Peter's good graces.

The evening was passed in silence. Peter smoked, Maria mended, and
Osgood reflected. A violent storm arose in the night, which lasted
three days. They were improved by Maria and Peter in overhauling
garden-seeds in the garret, and in setting up a leach-tub in the
wood-house. Osgood assisted. When he was alone with Maria she talked
to him of the boy who was lost at sea, and of the girl who died in
childhood; with the hungry eyes of a bereaved mother she looked upon
him, and his heart was touched with a new tenderness. When he was
alone with Peter the old man sounded the depths of the young man's
soul with wise, pathetic, quaint speech; he went over the ground of
his own life, which had been passed on the spot where he now was, with
the exception of several mackerel voyages, and one in a merchant
vessel to some of the southern ports of Europe. But when together
Peter and Maria never talked with Osgood on personal matters. Between
them a marital silence was kept, which was more expressive than the
conjugal volubility which ordinarily exists; it proved that they had
passed through profounder experiences.

When the storm ceased Peter went to the station for his Boston
newspaper, which he read to Maria, who took it afterward and read it
over to herself. Brother Quakers, Peter's neighbors, who lived out of
sight, dropped in from time to time to exchange a word with Maria, or
hold talks outside with Peter, with one foot in the rut and the other
on the wagon-step. The present subject of interest, Osgood discovered,
was the approaching Quarterly Meeting, and the mackerel fishery. Peter
asked him to accompany himself and Maria to the town where the meeting
was to be. They breakfasted at sunrise, when the day arrived, in full
dress - Peter in a snuff-colored suit, and Maria in a series of brown
articles - dress, shawl, and bonnet. They started in good spirits in an
open wagon, with an improvised seat for Peter in front. Beyond a belt
of pine woods stood the meeting-house, and a mile beyond the
meeting-house lay the town, before a vast bay. Osgood drove alone into
the town, and spent several hours there. He visited the shops to find
some trifle for Maria, and then went through the town down to the
shore. How happy he grew in the pure wind and the gay morning light!
The gulls rode over the foaming wave-crests and dipped into their
green walls, and hawks swooped between the steadfast sky and heaving
deep. The sea traveled round and round before his eyes with a mad joy,
and tempted him to plunge into it. He wrote his name in the heavy sand
with a broken shell, and the water filtered out the letters; then he
paved it in pebbles with the word _Strength_.

Peter and Maria were waiting for him when he returned to the
meeting-house with the wagon.

"Thee has been skylarking," she said.

"After something for you," he answered, putting in her hand a handsome

"Has thee so much money that thee must waste it on me, Osgood?"

But she was pleased with the gift. They rode home amicably. Peter, as
a favor, allowed Osgood to drive, while he imparted to Maria sundry
bits of information gained at the meeting.

"Mackerel" went in and out at Osgood's ears without gaining his
attention, till he caught at something Peter said about the _Bonita_.
He listened. Three vessels were about to sail from the town on a
mackerel voyage, and the _Bonita_ was one of them. He comprehended
that Peter owned half the _Bonita_, and a plan struck him. He inquired
into the subject, and obtained its history. That evening he proposed
going on a mackerel voyage, which proposal so fired Peter that he
declared he had a mind to go too; but Maria quenched his enthusiasm by
going over the programme of work that must be done at home. She made
no opposition to Osgood's going, but set before him in plain terms the
hardships of such a voyage. He was not to be deterred, and Peter gave
his consent, promising him a small share of the profits.

Osgood wrote to his Aunt Formica that night, assuring her that he
already felt much better, and that he was about to enter into a new
business, of which she should hear more. He also wrote Lily Tree a
minute, lengthy epistle. He described his situation with Peter and
Maria; told her how much board he paid - two dollars and fifty cents a

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Online LibraryVariousStories by American Authors, Volume 8 → online text (page 10 of 12)