The Man With The Broken Ear, by Edmond About

Chapter 7.

Professor Meiser’s Will in Favor of the Desiccated Colonel.

On this 20th day of January, 1824, being worn down by a cruel malady and feeling the approach of the time when my person shall be absorbed in the Great All;

I have written with my own hand this testament which is the expression of my last will.

I appoint as executor my nephew Nicholas Meiser, a wealthy brewer in the city of Dantzic.

I bequeath my books, papers and scientific collections of all kinds, except item 3712, to my very estimable and learned friend, Herr Von Humboldt.

I bequeath all the rest of my effects, real and personal, valued at 100,000 Prussian thalers or 375,000 francs, to Colonel Pierre Victor Fougas, at present desiccated, but living, and entered in my catalogue opposite No. 3712 (Zoology).

I trust that he will accept this feeble compensation for the ordeals he has undergone in my laboratory, and the service he has rendered to science.

Finally, in order that my nephew Nicholas Meiser may exactly understand the duties I leave him to perform, I have resolved to inscribe here a detailed account of the desiccation of Colonel Fougas, my sole heir.

It was on the 11th of November in that unhappy year 1813, that my relations with this brave young man began. I had long since quitted Dantzic, where the noise of cannon and the danger from bombs had rendered all labor impossible, and retired with my instruments and books under the protection of the Allied Armies in the fortified town of Liebenfeld. The French garrisons of Dantzic, Stettin, Custrin, Glogau, Hamburg and several other German towns could not communicate with each other or with their native land; meanwhile General Rapp was obstinately defending himself against the English fleet and the Russian army. Colonel Fougas was taken by a detachment of the Barclay de Tolly corps, as he was trying to pass the Vistula on the ice, on the way to Dantzic. They brought him prisoner to Liebenfeld on the 11th of November, just at my supper time, and Sergeant Garok, who commanded in the village, forced me to be present at the examination and act as interpreter.

The open countenance, manly voice, proud firmness and fine carriage of the unfortunate young man won my heart. He had made the sacrifice of his life. His only regret, he said, was having stranded so near port, after passing through four armies; and being unable to carry out the Emperor’s orders. He appeared animated by that French fanaticism which has done so much harm to our beloved Germany. Nevertheless I could not help defending him; and I translated his words less as an interpreter than as an advocate. Unhappily, they found upon him a letter from Napoleon to General Rapp, of which I preserved a copy:

“Abandon Dantzic, break the blockade, unite with the garrisons of Stettin, Custrin and Glogau, march along the Elbe, arrange with St. Cyr and Davoust to concentrate the forces scattered at Dresden, Forgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg and Hamburg; roll up an army like a snow ball; cross Westphalia, which is open, and come to defend the line of the Rhine with an army of 170,000 Frenchmen which you will have saved!

Napoleon.

This letter was sent to the headquarters of the Russian army, whilst a half-dozen illiterate soldiers, drunk with joy and bad brandy, condemned the brave Colonel of the 23d of the line to the death of a spy and a traitor. The execution was fixed for the next day, the 12th, and M. Pierre Victor Fougas, after having thanked and embraced me with the most touching sensibility, (He is a husband and a father.) was shut up in the little battlemented tower of Liebenfeld, where the wind whistles terribly through all the loopholes.

The night of the 11th and 12th of November was one of the severest of that terrible winter. My self-registering thermometer, which hung outside my window with a southeast exposure, marked nineteen degrees below zero, centigrade. I went early in the morning to bid the Colonel a last farewell, and met Sergeant Garok, who said to me in bad German:

“We won’t have to kill the Frantzouski, he is frozen to death.”

I ran to the prison. The colonel was lying on his back, rigid. But I found after a few minutes’ examination, that the rigidity of the body was not that of death. The joints, though they had not their ordinary suppleness, could be bent and extended without any great effort. The limbs, the face, and the chest gave my hands a sensation of cold, but very different from that which I had often experienced from contact with corpses.

Knowing that he had passed several nights without sleep, and endured extraordinary fatigues, I did not doubt that he had fallen into that profound and lethargic sleep which is superinduced by intense cold, and which if too far prolonged slackens respiration and circulation to a point where the most delicate physiological tests are necessary to discover the continuance of life. The pulse was insensible; at least my fingers, benumbed with cold, could not feel it. My hardness of hearing (I was then in my sixty-ninth year) prevented my determining by auscultation whether the beats of the heart still aroused those feeble though prolonged vibrations which the ear continues to hear some time after the hand fails to detect them.

The colonel had reached that point of torpor produced by cold, where to revive a man without causing him to die, requires numerous and delicate attentions. Some hours after, congelation would supervene, and with it, impossibility of restoration to life.

I was in the greatest perplexity. On the one hand I knew that he was dying on my hands by congelation; on the other, I could not, by myself, bestow upon him the attentions that were indispensable. If I were to administer stimulants without having him, at the same time, rubbed on the trunk and limbs by three or four vigorous assistants, I would revive him only to see him die. I had still before my eyes the spectacle of that lovely young girl asphyxiated in a fire, whom I succeeded in reviving by placing burning coals under the clavicles, but who could only call her mother, and died almost immediately, in spite of the administration of internal stimulants and electricity for inducing contractions of the diaphragm and heart.

And even if I should succeed in bringing him back to health and strength, was not he condemned by court-martial? Did not humanity forbid my rousing him from this repose akin to death, to deliver him to the horrors of execution?

I must confess that in the presence of this organism where life was suspended, my ideas on reanimation took, as it were, fresh hold upon me. I had so often desiccated and revived beings quite elevated in the animal scale, that I did not doubt the success of the operation, even on a man. By myself alone I could not revive and save the Colonel; but I had in my laboratory, all the instruments necessary to desiccate him without assistance.

To sum up, three alternatives offered themselves to me. I. To leave the Colonel in the crenellated tower, where he would have died the same day of congelation. II. To revive him by stimulants, at the risk of killing him. And for what? To give him up, in case of success, to inevitable execution. III. To desiccate him in my laboratory with the quasi certainty of resuscitating him after the restoration of peace. All friends of humanity will doubtless comprehend that I could not hesitate long.

I had Sergeant Garok called, and I begged him to sell me the body of the Colonel. It was not the first time that I had bought a corpse for dissection, so my request excited no suspicion. The bargain concluded, I gave him four bottles of kirsch-wasser, and soon two Russian soldiers brought me Colonel Fougas on a stretcher.

As soon as I was alone with him, I pricked one of his fingers: pressure forced out a drop of blood. To place it under a microscope between two plates of glass was the work of a minute. Oh, joy! The fibrin was not coagulated. The red globules appeared cleanly circular, flattened, biconcave, and without notches, indentations or spheroidal swellings. The white globules changed their shape, taking at intervals the spherical form, and varying their shapes again by delicate expansions. I was not deceived then, it was a torpid man that I had under my eyes, and not a dead one!

I placed him on a pair of scales. He weighed one hundred and forty pounds, clothing included. I did not care to undress him, for I had noticed that animals desiccated directly in contact with the air, died oftener than those which remained covered with moss and other soft materials, during the ordeal of desiccation.

My great air-pump, with its immense platform, its enormous oval wrought-iron receiver, which a rope running on a pulley firmly fixed in the ceiling easily raised and lowered by means of a windlass — all these thousand and one contrivances which I had so laboriously prepared in spite of the railleries of those who envied me, and which I felt desolate at seeing unemployed, were going to find their use! Unexpected circumstances had arisen at last to procure me such a subject for experiment, as I had in vain endeavored to procure, while I was attempting to reduce to torpidity dogs, rabbits, sheep and other mammals by the aid of freezing mixtures. Long ago, without doubt, would these results have been attained if I had been aided by those who surrounded me, instead of being made the butt of their railleries; if our authorities had sustained me with their influence instead of treating me as a subversive spirit.

I shut myself up tête-à-tête with the Colonel, and took care that even old Getchen, my housekeeper, now deceased, should not trouble me during my work. I had substituted for the wearisome lever of the old fashioned air-pumps, a wheel arranged with an eccentric which transformed the circular movement of the axis into the rectilinear movement required by the pistons: the wheel, the eccentric, the connecting rod, and the joints of the apparatus all worked admirably, and enabled me to do everything by myself. The cold did not impede the play of the machine, and the lubricating oil was not gummed: I had refined it myself by a new process founded on the then recent discoveries of the French savant M. Chevreul.

Having extended the body on the platform of the air-pump, lowered the receiver and luted the rim, I undertook to submit it gradually to the influence of a dry vacuum and cold. Capsules filled with chloride of calcium were placed around the Colonel to absorb the water which should evaporate from the body, and to promote the desiccation.

I certainly found myself in the best possible situation for subjecting the human body to a process of gradual desiccation without sudden interruption of the functions, or disorganization of the tissues or fluids. Seldom had my experiments on rotifers and tardigrades been surrounded with equal chances of success, yet they had always succeeded. But the particular nature of the subject and the special scruples imposed upon my conscience, obliged me to employ a certain number of new conditions, which I had long since, in other connections, foreseen the expediency of. I had taken the pains to arrange an opening at each end of my oval receiver, and fit into it a heavy glass, which enabled me to follow with my eye the effects of the vacuum on the Colonel. I was entirely prevented from shutting the windows of my laboratory, from fear that a too elevated temperature might put an end to the lethargy of the subject, or induce some change in the fluids. If a thaw had come on, all would have been over with my experiment. But the thermometer kept for several days between six and eight degrees below zero, and I was very happy in seeing the lethargic sleep continue, without having to fear congelation of the tissues.

I commenced to produce the vacuum with extreme slowness, for fear that the gases distributed through the blood, becoming free on account of the difference of their tension from that of rarified air, might escape in the vessels and so bring on immediate death. Moreover, I watched, every moment, the effects of the vacuum on the intestinal gases, for by expanding inside in proportion as the pressure of the air diminished outside of the body, they could have caused serious disorders. The tissues might not have been entirely ruptured by them, but an internal lesion would have been enough to occasion death in a few hours after reanimation. One observes this quite frequently in animals carelessly desiccated.

Several times, too rapid a protrusion of the abdomen put me on my guard against the danger which I feared, and I was obliged to let in a little air under the receiver. At last, the cessation of all phenomena of this kind satisfied me that the gases had disappeared by exosmose or had been expelled by the spontaneous contraction of the viscera. It was not until the end of the first day that I could give up these minute precautions, and carry the vacuum a little further.

The next day, the 13th, I pushed the vacuum to a point where the barometer fell to five millimetres. As no change had taken place in the position of the body or limbs, I was sure that no convulsion had been produced. The colonel had been desiccated, had become immobile, had lost the power of performing the functions of life, without death having supervened, and without the possibility of returning to activity having departed. His life was suspended, not extinguished.

Each time that a surplus of watery vapor caused the barometer to ascend, I pumped. On the 14th, the door of my laboratory was literally broken in by the Russian General, Count Trollohub, who had been sent from headquarters. This distinguished officer had run in all haste to prevent the execution of the colonel and to conduct him into the presence of the Commander in Chief. I loyally confessed to him what I had done under the inspiration of my conscience; I showed him the body through one of the bull’s-eyes of the air-pump; I told him that I was happy to have preserved a man who could furnish useful information to the liberators of my country; and I offered to resuscitate him at my own expense if they would promise me to respect his life and liberty. The General, Count Trollohub, unquestionably a distinguished man, but one of an exclusively military education, thought that I was not speaking seriously. He went out slamming the door in my face, and treating me like an old fool.

I set myself to pumping again, and kept the vacuum at a pressure of from three to five millimetres for the space of three months. I knew by experience that animals can revive after being submitted to a dry vacuum and cold for eighty days.

On the 12th of February 1814, having observed that for a month no modification had taken place in the shrinking of the flesh, I resolved to submit the Colonel to another series of operations, in order to insure more perfect preservation by complete desiccation. I let the air re-enter by the stop-cock arranged for the purpose, and, after raising the receiver, proceeded at once to my experiment.

The body did not weigh more than forty-six pounds; I had then reduced it nearly to a third of its original weight. It should be borne in mind that the clothing had not lost as much water as the other parts. Now the human body contains nearly four-fifths of its own weight of water, as is proved by a desiccation thoroughly made in a chemical drying furnace.

I accordingly placed the Colonel on a tray, and, after sliding it into my great furnace, gradually raised the temperature to 75 degrees, centigrade. I did not dare to go beyond this heat, from fear of altering the albumen and rendering it insoluble, and also of taking away from the tissues the capacity of reabsorbing the water necessary to a return to their functions.

I had taken care to arrange a convenient apparatus so that the furnace was constantly traversed by a current of dry air. This air was dried in traversing a series of jars filled with sulphuric acid, quick-lime and chloride of calcium.

After a week passed in the furnace, the general appearance of the body had not changed, but its weight was reduced to forty pounds, clothing included. Eight days more brought no new decrease of weight. From this, I concluded that the desiccation was sufficient. I knew very well that corpses mummified in church vaults for a century or more, end by weighing no more than a half-score of pounds, but they do not become so light without a material alteration in their tissues.

On the 27th of February, I myself placed the colonel in the boxes which I had had made for his occupancy. Since that time, that is to say during a space of nine years and eleven months, we have never been separated. I carried him with me to Dantzic. He stays in my house. I have never placed him, according to his number, in my zoological collection; he remains by himself, in the chamber of honor. I do not grant any one the pleasure of re-using his chloride of calcium. I will take care of you till my dying day, Oh Colonel Fougas, dear and unfortunate friend! But I shall not have the joy of witnessing your resurrection. I shall not share the delightful emotions of the warrior returning to life. Your lachrymal glands, inert to-day, but some day to be reanimated, will not pour upon the bosom of your old benefactor, the sweet dew of recognition. For you will not recover your life until a day when mine will have long since departed! Perhaps you will be astonished that I, loving you as I do, should have so long delayed to draw you out of this profound slumber. Who knows but that some bitter reproach may come to taint the tenderness of the first offices of gratitude that you will perform over my tomb! Yes! I have prolonged, without any benefit to you, an experiment of general interest to others. I ought to have remained faithful to my first intention, and restored your life, immediately after the signature of peace. But what! Was it well to send you back to France when the sun of your fatherland was obscured by our soldiers and allies? I have spared you that spectacle — one so grievous to such a soul as yours. Without doubt you would have had, in March, 1815, the consolation of again seeing that fatal man to whom you had consecrated your devotion; but are you entirely sure that you would not have been swallowed up with his fortune, in the shipwreck of Waterloo?

For five or six years past, it has not been your welfare nor even the welfare of science, that prevented me from reanimating you, it has been. . . . Forgive me, Colonel, it has been a cowardly attachment to life. The disorder from which I am suffering, and which will soon carry me off, is an aneurism of the heart; violent emotions are interdicted to me. If I were myself to undertake the grand operation whose process I have traced in a memorandum annexed to this instrument, I would, without any doubt, succumb before finishing it; my death would be an untoward accident which might trouble my assistants and cause your resuscitation to fail.

Rest content! You will not have long to wait, and, moreover, what do you lose by waiting? You do not grow old, you are always twenty-four years of age; your children are growing up, you will be almost their contemporary when you come to life again. You came to Liebenfeld poor, you are now in my house poor, and my will makes you rich. That you may be happy also, is my dearest wish.

I direct that, the day after my death, my nephew, Nicholas Meiser, shall call together, by letter, the ten physicians most illustrious in the kingdom of Prussia, that he shall read to them my will and the annexed memorandum, and that he shall cause them to proceed without delay, in my own laboratory, to the resuscitation of Colonel Fougas. The expenses of travel, maintenance, etc., etc., shall be deducted from the assets of my estate. The sum of two thousand thalers shall be devoted to the publication of the glorious results of the experiment, in German, French and Latin. A copy of this pamphlet shall be sent to each of the learned societies then existing in Europe.

In the entirely unexpected event of the efforts of science being unable to reanimate the Colonel, all my effects shall revert to Nicholas Meiser, my sole surviving relative.

John Meiser, M. D.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 12:59