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Produced by David A. Schwan


By William Henry Rhodes

With an Introduction by Geraldine Bonner


The greatest master of the short story our country has known found his
inspiration and produced his best work in California. It is now nearly
forty years since "The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared, and a line of
successors, more or less worthy, have been following along the
trail blazed by Bret Harte. They have given us matter of many kinds,
realistic, romantic, tragic, humorous, weird. In this mass of material
much that was good has been lost. The columns of newspapers swallowed
some; weeklies, that lived for a brief day, carried others to the grave
with them. Now and then chance or design interposed, and some fragment
of value was not allowed to perish. It is matter for congratulation that
the story in this volume was one of those saved from oblivion.

In 1871 a San Francisco paper published a tale entitled The Case of
Summerfield. The author concealed himself under the name of "Caxton," a
pseudonym unknown at the time. The story made an immediate impression,
and the remote little world by the Golden Gate was shaken into startled
and enquiring astonishment. Wherever people met, The Case of Summerfield
was on men's tongues. Was Caxton's contention possible? Was it true
that, by the use of potassium, water could be set on fire, and that
any one possessing this baneful secret could destroy the world? The
plausibility with which the idea was presented, the bare directness
of the style, added to its convincing power. It sounded too real to be
invention, was told with too frank a simplicity to be all imagination.
People could not decide where truth and fiction blended, and the name of
Caxton leaped into local fame.

The author of the tale was a lawyer, W. H. Rhodes, a man of standing and
ability, interested in scientific research. He had written little; what
time he had been able to spare from his work, had been given to studies
in chemistry whence he had drawn the inspiration for such stories as The
Case of Summerfield. With him the writing of fiction was a pastime, not
a profession. He wrote because he wanted to, from the urgence of an idea
pressing for utterance, not from the more imperious necessity of keeping
the pot boiling and of there being a roof against the rain. Literary
creation was to him a rest, a matter of holiday in the daily round of a
man's labor to provide for his own.

His output was small. One slender volume contains all he wrote: a few
poems, half a dozen stories. In all of these we can feel the spell
exercised over him by the uncanny, the terrible, the weirdly grotesque.
His imagination played round those subjects of fantastic horror which
had so potent an attraction for Fitz James O'Brien, the writer whom he
most resembles. There was something of Poe's cold pleasure in
dissecting the abnormally horrible in "The Story of John Pollexfen,"
the photographer, who, in order to discover a certain kind of lens,
experimented with living eyes. His cat and dog each lost an eye, and
finally a young girl was found willing to sell one of hers that she
might have money to help her lover. But none of the other stories shows
the originality and impressively realistic tone which distinguish The
Case of Summerfield. In this he achieved the successful combination of
audacity of theme with a fitting incisiveness of style. It alone rises
above the level of the merely ingenious and clever; it alone of his work
was worth preserving.

Scattered through the ranks of writers, part of whose profession is a
continuous, unflagging output, are these "one story men," who, in some
propitious moment, when the powers of brain and heart are intensified by
a rare and happy alchemy, produce a single masterpiece. The vision
and the dream have once been theirs, and, though they may never again
return, the product of the glowing moment is ours to rejoice in and
wonder at. Unfortunately the value of these accidental triumphs is not
always seen. They go their way and are submerged in the flood of fiction
that the presses pour upon a defenseless country. Now and then one
unexpectedly hears of them, their unfamiliar titles rise to the surface
when writers gather round the table. An investigator in the forgotten
files of magazinedom has found one, and tells of his treasure trove as
the diver of his newly discovered pearl. Then comes a publisher, who,
diligent and patient, draws them from their hiding-places, shakes off
the dust, and gives them to a public which once applauded and has since

Such has been the fate of The Case of Summerfield. Thirty-five years
ago, in the town that clustered along the edge of San Francisco Bay, it
had its brief award of attention. But the San Francisco of that day
was very distant - a gleam on the horizon against the blue line of the
Pacific. It took a mighty impetus to carry its decisions and opinions
across the wall of the Sierra and over the desert to the East. Fame and
reputation, unless the greatest, had not vitality for so long a flight.
So the strange and fantastic story should come as a discovery, the one
remarkable achievement of an unknown author, who, unfortunately, is no
longer here to enjoy an Indian summer of popularity.

Geraldine Bonner.


The following manuscript was found among the effects of the late
Leonidas Parker, in relation to one Gregory Summerfield, or, as he was
called at the time those singular events first attracted public notice,
"The Man with a Secret." Parker was an eminent lawyer, a man of firm
will, fond of dabbling in the occult sciences, but never allowing this
tendency to interfere with the earnest practice of his profession. This
astounding narrative is prefaced by the annexed clipping from the Auburn
Messenger of November 1, 1870:

A few days since, we called public attention to the singular conduct of
James G. Wilkins, justice of the peace for the "Cape Horn" district, in
this county, in discharging without trial a man named Parker, who was,
as we still think, seriously implicated in the mysterious death of an
old man named Summerfield, who, our readers will probably remember, met
so tragical an end on the line of the Central Pacific Railroad, in the
month of October last. We have now to record another bold outrage on
public justice, in connection with the same affair. The grand jury of
Placer County has just adjourned, without finding any bill against the
person named above. Not only did they refuse to find a true bill, or
to make any presentment, but they went one step further toward the
exoneration of the offender; they specially ignored the indictment which
our district attorney deemed it his duty to present. The main facts in
relation to the arrest and subsequent discharge of Parker may be summed
up in few words:

It appears that, about the last of October, one Gregory Summerfield,
an old man nearly seventy years of age, in company with Parker, took
passage for Chicago, via the Pacific Railroad, and about the middle of
the afternoon reached the neighborhood of Cape Horn, in this county.
Nothing of any special importance seems to have attracted the attention
of any of the passengers toward these persons until a few moments before
passing the dangerous curve in the track, overlooking the North Fork of
the American River, at the place called Cape Horn. As our readers
are aware, the road at this point skirts a precipice, with rocky
perpendicular sides, extending to the bed of the stream, nearly
seventeen hundred feet below. Before passing the curve, Parker was heard
to comment upon the sublimity of the scenery they were approaching, and
finally requested the old man to leave the car and stand upon the open
platform, in order to obtain a better view of the tremendous chasm
and the mountains just beyond. The two men left the car, and a moment
afterward a cry of horror was heard by all the passengers, and the
old man was observed to fall at least one thousand feet upon the crags
below. The train was stopped for a few moments, but, fearful of a
collision if any considerable length of time should be lost in an
unavailing search for the mangled remains, it soon moved on again,
and proceeded as swiftly as possible to the next station. There the
miscreant Parker was arrested, and conveyed to the office of the nearest
justice of the peace for examination. We understand that he refused to
give any detailed account of the transaction, only that "the deceased
either fell or was thrown from the moving train."

The examination was postponed until the arrival of Parker's counsel,
O'Connell & Kilpatrick, of Grass Valley, and after they reached Cape
Horn not a single word could be extracted from the prisoner. It is said
that the inquisition was a mere farce; there being no witnesses present
except one lady passenger, who, with commendable spirit, volunteered to
lay over one day, to give in her testimony. We also learn that, after
the trial, the justice, together with the prisoner and his counsel, were
closeted in secret session for more than two hours; at the expiration of
which time the judge resumed his seat upon the bench, and discharged the

Now, we have no desire to do injustice toward any of the parties to
this singular transaction, much less to arm public sentiment against
an innocent man. But we do affirm that there is, there must be, some
profound mystery at the bottom of this affair, and we shall do our
utmost to fathom the secret.

Yes, there is a secret and mystery connected with the disappearance of
Summerfield, and the sole object of this communication is to clear it
up, and place myself right in the public estimation. But, in order to
do so, it becomes essentially necessary to relate all the circumstances
connected with my first and subsequent acquaintance with Summerfield. To
do this intelligibly, I shall have to go back twenty-two years.

It is well known amongst my intimate friends that I resided in the late
Republic of Texas for many years antecedent to my immigration to this
State. During the year 1847, whilst but a boy, and residing on the
sea-beach some three or four miles from the city of Galveston, Judge
Wheeler, at that time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, paid
us a visit, and brought with him a gentleman, whom he had known several
years previously on the Sabine River, in the eastern part of that State.
This gentleman was introduced to us by the name of Summerfield. At
that time he was past the prime of life, slightly gray, and inclined to
corpulency. He was of medium height, and walked proudly erect, as though
conscious of superior mental attainments. His face was one of those
which, once seen, can never be forgotten. The forehead was broad, high,
and protuberant. It was, besides, deeply graven with wrinkles, and
altogether was the most intellectual that I had ever seen. It bore some
resemblance to that of Sir Isaac Newton, but still more to Humboldt or
Webster. The eyes were large, deep-set, and lustrous with a light that
seemed kindled in their own depths. In color they were gray, and whilst
in conversation absolutely blazed with intellect. His mouth was large,
but cut with all the precision of a sculptor's chiseling. He was rather
pale, but, when excited, his complexion lit up with a sudden rush of
ruddy flushes, that added something like beauty to his half-sad and
half-sardonic expression. A word and a glance told me at once, this is a
most extraordinary man.

Judge Wheeler knew but little of the antecedents of Summerfield. He was
of Northern birth, but of what State it is impossible to say definitely.
Early in life he removed to the frontier of Arkansas, and pursued for
some years the avocation of village schoolmaster. It was the suggestion
of Judge Wheeler that induced him to read law. In six months' time he
had mastered Story's Equity, and gained an important suit, based upon
one of its most recondite principles. But his heart was not in the
legal profession, and he made almost constant sallies into the fields of
science, literature and art. He was a natural mathematician and was the
most profound and original arithmetician in the Southwest. He frequently
computed the astronomical tables for the almanacs of New Orleans,
Pensacola and Mobile, and calculated eclipse, transit and observations
with ease and perfect accuracy. He was also deeply read in metaphysics,
and wrote and published, in the old Democratic Review for 1846, an
article on the "Natural Proof of the Existence of a Deity," that for
beauty of language, depth of reasoning, versatility of illustration, and
compactness of logic, has never been equaled. The only other publication
which at that period he had made, was a book that astonished all of his
friends, both in title and execution. It was called "The Desperadoes of
the West," and purported to give minute details of the lives of some of
the most noted duelists and bloodstained villains in the Western States.
But the book belied its title. It is full of splendid description and
original thought. No volume in the language contains so many eloquent
passages and such gorgeous imagery, in the same space. His plea for
immortality, on beholding the execution of one of the most noted
culprits of Arkansas, has no parallel in any living language for beauty
of diction and power of thought. As my sole object in this communication
is to defend myself, some acquaintance with the mental resources of
Summerfield is absolutely indispensable; for his death was the immediate
consequence of his splendid attainments. Of chemistry he was a complete
master. He describes it in his article on a Deity, above alluded to, as
the "Youngest Daughter of the Sciences, born amid flames, and cradled
in rollers of fire." If there were any one science to which he was more
specially devoted than to any and all others, it was chemistry. But he
really seemed an adept in all, and shone about everywhere with equal

Many of these characteristics were mentioned by Judge Wheeler at the
time of Summerfield's visit to Galveston, but others subsequently came
to my knowledge, after his retreat to Brownsville, on the banks of the
Rio Grande. There he filled the position of Judge of the District Court,
and such was his position just previous to his arrival in this city in
the month of September of the past year.

One day, toward the close of last September, an old man rapped at my
office door, and on invitation came in, and advancing, called me by
name. Perceiving that I did not at first recognize him, he introduced
himself as Gregory Summerfield. After inviting him to a seat, I
scrutinized his features more closely, and quickly identified him as
the same person whom I had met twenty-two years before. He was greatly
altered in appearance, but the lofty forehead and the gray eye were
still there, unchanged and unchangeable. He was not quite so stout,
but more ruddy in complexion, and exhibited some symptoms, as I then
thought, of intemperate drinking. Still there was the old charm of
intellectual superiority in his conversation, and I welcomed him to
California as an important addition to her mental wealth.

It was not many minutes before he requested a private interview. He
followed me into my back office, carefully closed the door after him and
locked it. We had scarcely seated ourselves before he inquired of me
if I had noticed any recent articles in the newspapers respecting the
discovery of the art of decomposing water so as to fit it for use as a
fuel for ordinary purposes?

I replied that I had observed nothing new upon that subject since
the experiments of Agassiz and Professor Henry, and added that, in my
opinion, the expensive mode of reduction would always prevent its use.

In a few words he then informed me that he had made the discovery
that the art was extremely simple, and the expense attending the
decomposition so slight as to be insignificant.

Presuming then that the object of his visit to me was to procure the
necessary forms to get out a patent for the right, I congratulated him
upon his good fortune, and was about to branch forth with a description
of some of the great benefits that must ensue to the community, when he
suddenly and somewhat uncivilly requested me to "be silent," and listen
to what he had to say.

He began with some general remarks about the inequality of fortune
amongst mankind, and instanced himself as a striking example of the fate
of those men, who, according to all the rules of right, ought to be near
the top, instead of at the foot of the ladder of fortune. "But," said
he, springing to his feet with impulsive energy, "I have now the means
at my command of rising superior to fate, or of inflicting incalculable
ills upon the whole human race."

Looking at him more closely, I thought I could detect in his eye
the gleam of madness; but I remained silent and awaited further
developments. But my scrutiny, stolen as it was, had been detected, and
he replied at once to the expression of my face: "No, sir; I am neither
drunk nor a maniac; I am in deep earnest in all that I say; and I am
fully prepared, by actual experiment, to demonstrate beyond all doubt
the truth of all I claim."

For the first time I noticed that he carried a small portmanteau in his
hand; this he placed upon the table, unlocked it, and took out two
or three small volumes, a pamphlet or two, and a small, square,
wide-mouthed vial, hermetically sealed.

I watched him with profound curiosity, and took note of his slightest
movements. Having arranged his books to suit him, and placed the vial in
a conspicuous position, he drew up his chair very closely to my own, and
uttered in a half-hissing tone: "I demand one million dollars for the
contents of that bottle; and you must raise it for me in the city of
San Francisco within one month, or scenes too terrible even for the
imagination to conceive, will surely be witnessed by every living human
being on the face of the globe."

The tone, the manner, and the absurd extravagance of the demand, excited
a faint smile upon my lips, which he observed, but disdained to notice.

My mind was fully made up that I had a maniac to deal with, and I
prepared to act accordingly. But I ascertained at once that my inmost
thoughts were read by the remarkable man before me, and seemed to be
anticipated by him in advance of their expression.

"Perhaps," said I, "Mr. Summerfield, you would oblige me by informing me
fully of the grounds of your claim, and the nature of your discovery."

"That is the object of my visit," he replied. "I claim to have
discovered the key which unlocks the constituent gases of water, and
frees each from the embrace of the other, at a single touch."

"You mean to assert," I rejoined, "that you can make water burn itself

"Nothing more nor less," he responded, "except this: to insist upon the
consequences of the secret, if my demand be not at once complied with."

Then, without pausing for a moment to allow me to make a suggestion, as
I once or twice attempted to do, he proceeded in a clear and deliberate
manner, in these words: "I need not inform you, sir, that when this
earth was created, it consisted almost wholly of vapor, which, by
condensation, finally became water. The oceans now occupy more than
two-thirds of the entire surface of the globe. The continents are mere
islands in the midst of the seas. They are everywhere oceanbound, and
the hyperborean north is hemmed in by open polar seas. Such is my first
proposition. My second embraces the constituent elements of water. What
is that thing which we call water? Chemistry, that royal queen of all
the sciences, answers readily: 'Water is but the combination of two
gases, oxygen and hydrogen, and in the proportion of eight to one.' In
other words, in order to form water, take eight parts of oxygen and one
of hydrogen, mix them together, and the result or product is water.
You smile, sir, because, as you very properly think, these are the
elementary principles of science, and are familiar to the minds of every
schoolboy twelve years of age. Yes! but what next? Suppose you take
these same gases and mix them in any other proportion, I care not what,
and the instantaneous result is heat, flame, combustion of the intensest
description. The famous Drummond Light, that a few years ago astonished
Europe what is that but the ignited flame of a mixture of oxygen and
hydrogen projected against a small piece of lime? What was harmless as
water, becomes the most destructive of all known objects when decomposed
and mixed in any other proportion.

"Now, suppose I fling the contents of this small vial into the Pacific
Ocean, what would be the result? Dare you contemplate it for an instant?
I do not assert that the entire surface of the sea would instantaneously
bubble up into insufferable flames; no, but from the nucleus of a
circle, of which this vial would be the center, lurid radii of flames
would gradually shoot outward, until the blazing circumference would
roll in vast billows of fire, upon the uttermost shores. Not all the
dripping clouds of the deluge could extinguish it. Not all the tears of
saints and angels could for an instant check its progress. On and onward
it would sweep, with the steady gait of destiny, until the continents
would melt with fervent heat, the atmosphere glare with the ominous
conflagration, and all living creatures, in land and sea and air, perish
in one universal catastrophe."

Then suddenly starting to his feet, he drew himself up to his full
height, and murmured solemnly, "I feel like a God! and I recognize my
fellow-men but as pygmies that I spurn beneath my feet."

"Summerfield," said I calmly, "there must be some strange error in all
this. You are self-deluded. The weapon which you claim to wield is one
that a good God and a beneficent Creator would never intrust to the
keeping of a mere creature. What, sir! create a world as grand and
beautiful as this, and hide within its bosom a principle that at any
moment might inwrap it in flames, and sink all life in death? I'll not
believe it; 't were blasphemy to entertain the thought!"

"And yet," cried he passionately, "your Bible prophesies the same
irreverence. Look at your text in 2d Peter, third chapter, seventh and
twelfth verses. Are not the elements to melt with fervent heat? Are not
the 'heavens to be folded together like a scroll?' Are not 'the rocks to
melt, the stars to fall, and the moon to be turned into blood?' Is not
fire the next grand cyclic consummation of all things here below? But I
come fully prepared to answer such objections. Your argument betrays a
narrow mind, circumscribed in its orbit, and shallow in its depth. 'Tis
the common thought of mediocrity. You have read books too much, and
studied nature too little. Let me give you a lesson today in the
workshop of Omnipotence. Take a stroll with me into the limitless
confines of space, and let us observe together some of the scenes
transpiring at this very instant around us. A moment ago you spoke of
the moon: what is she but an extinguished world? You spoke of the sun:
what is he but a globe of flame? But here is the Cosmos of Humboldt.
Read this paragraph."

As he said this he placed before me the Cosmos of Humboldt, and I read
as follows:

Nor do the Heavens themselves teach unchangeable permanency in the works
of creation. Change is observable there quite as rapid and complete as
in the confines of our solar system. In the year 1752, one of the small
stars in the constellation Cassiopeia blazed up suddenly into an orb
of the first magnitude, gradually decreased in brilliancy, and finally
disappeared from the skies. Nor has it ever been visible since that
period for a single moment, either to the eye or to the telescope. It
burned up and was lost in space.

"Humboldt," he added, "has not told us who set that world on fire!"

"But," resumed he, "I have still clearer proofs."

Saying this, he thrust into my hands the last London Quarterly, and on
opening the book at an article headed "The Language of Light," I read
with a feeling akin to awe, the following passage:

Further, some stars exhibit changes of complexion in themselves. Sirius,
as before stated, was once a ruddy, or rather a fiery-faced orb, but has
now forgotten to blush, and looks down upon us with a pure, brilliant
smile, in which there is no trace either of anger or of shame. On the
countenances of others, still more varied traits have rippled, within a

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Online LibraryW.H. RhodesThe Case of Summerfield → online text (page 1 of 3)