A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 24.

The house I occupied at L—— was a quaint, old-fashioned building, a corner-house. One side, in which was the front entrance, looked upon a street which, as there were no shops in it, and it was no direct thoroughfare to the busy centres of the town, was always quiet, and at some hours of the day almost deserted. The other side of the house fronted a lane; opposite to it was the long and high wall of the garden to a Young Ladies’ Boarding-school. My stables adjoined the house, abutting on a row of smaller buildings, with little gardens before them, chiefly occupied by mercantile clerks and retired tradesmen. By the lane there was a short and ready access both to the high turnpike-road, and to some pleasant walks through green meadows and along the banks of a river.

This house I had inhabited since my arrival at L— — and it had to me so many attractions, in a situation sufficiently central to be convenient for patients, and yet free from noise, and favourable to ready outlet into the country for such foot or horse exercise as my professional avocations would allow me to carve for myself out of what the Latin poet calls the “solid day,” that I had refused to change it for one better suited to my increased income; but it was not a house which Mrs. Ashleigh would have liked for Lilian. The main objection to it in the eyes of the “genteel” was, that it had formerly belonged to a member of the healing profession who united the shop of an apothecary to the diploma of a surgeon; but that shop had given the house a special attraction to me; for it had been built out on the side of the house which fronted the lane, occupying the greater portion of a small gravel court, fenced from the road by a low iron palisade, and separated from the body of the house itself by a short and narrow corridor that communicated with the entrance-hall. This shop I turned into a rude study for scientific experiments, in which I generally spent some early hours of the morning, before my visiting patients began to arrive. I enjoyed the stillness of its separation from the rest of the house; I enjoyed the glimpse of the great chestnut-trees, which overtopped the wall of the school-garden; I enjoyed the ease with which, by opening the glazed sash-door, I could get out, if disposed for a short walk, into the pleasant fields; and so completely had I made this sanctuary my own, that not only my man-servant knew that I was never to be disturbed when in it, except by the summons of a patient, but even the housemaid was forbidden to enter it with broom or duster, except upon special invitation. The last thing at night, before retiring to rest, it was the man-servant’s business to see that the sash-window was closed, and the gate to the iron palisade locked; but during the daytime I so often went out of the house by that private way that the gate was then very seldom locked, nor the sash-door bolted from within. In the town of L—— there was little apprehension of house-robberies — especially in the daylight — and certainly in this room, cut off from the main building, there was nothing to attract a vulgar cupidity. A few of the apothecary’s shelves and cases still remained on the walls, with, here and there, a bottle of some chemical preparation for experiment; two or three worm-eaten, wooden chairs; two or three shabby old tables; an old walnut-tree bureau without a lock, into which odds and ends were confusedly thrust, and sundry ugly-looking inventions of mechanical science, were, assuredly, not the articles which a timid proprietor would guard with jealous care from the chances of robbery. It will be seen later why I have been thus prolix in description. The morning after I had met the young stranger by whom I had been so favourably impressed, I was up as usual, a little before the sun, and long before any of my servants were astir. I went first into the room I have mentioned, and which I shall henceforth designate as my study, opened the window, unlocked the gate, and sauntered for some minutes up and down the silent lace skirting the opposite wall, and overhung by the chestnut-trees rich in the garniture of a glorious summer; then, refreshed for work, I reentered my study, and was soon absorbed in the examination of that now well-known machine, which was then, to me at least, a novelty — invented, if I remember right, by Dubois–Reymond, so distinguished by his researches into the mysteries of organic electricity. It is a wooden cylinder fixed against the edge of a table; on the table two vessels filled with salt and water are so placed that, as you close your hands on the cylinder, the forefinger of each hand can drop into the water; each of the vessels has a metallic plate, and communicates by wires with a galvanometer with its needle. Now the theory is, that if you clutch the cylinder firmly with the right hand, leaving the left perfectly passive, the needle in the galvanometer will move from west to south; if, in like manner, you exert the left arm, leaving the right arm passive, the needle will deflect from west to north. Hence, it is argued that the electric current is induced through the agency of the nervous system, and that, as human Will produces the muscular contraction requisite, so is it human Will that causes the deflection of the needle. I imagine that if this theory were substantiated by experiment, the discovery might lead to some sublime and unconjectured secrets of science. For human Will, thus actively effective on the electric current, and all matter, animate or inanimate, having more or less of electricity, a vast field became opened to conjecture. By what series of patient experimental deduction might not science arrive at the solution of problems which the Newtonian law of gravitation does not suffice to solve; and — But here I halt. At the date which my story has reached, my mind never lost itself long in the Cloudland of Guess.

I was dissatisfied with my experiment. The needle stirred, indeed, but erratically, and not in directions which, according to the theory, should correspond to my movement. I was about to dismiss the trial with some uncharitable contempt of the foreign philosopher’s dogmas, when I heard a loud ring at my street-door. While I paused to conjecture whether my servant was yet up to attend to the door, and which of my patients was the most likely to summon me at so unseasonable an hour, a shadow darkened my window. I looked up, and to my astonishment beheld the brilliant face of Mr. Margrave. The sash to the door was already partially opened; he raised it higher, and walked into the room. “Was it you who rang at the street-door, and at this hour?” said I.

“Yes; and observing, after I had rung, that all the shutters were still closed, I felt ashamed of my own rash action, and made off rather than brave the reproachful face of some injured housemaid, robbed of her morning dreams. I turned down that pretty lane — lured by the green of the chestnut-trees — caught sight of you through the window, took courage, and here I am! You forgive me?” While thus speaking, he continued to move along the littered floor of the dingy room, with the undulating restlessness of some wild animal in the confines of its den, and he now went on, in short fragmentary sentences, very slightly linked together, but smoothed, as it were, into harmony by a voice musical and fresh as a sky lark’s warble. “Morning dreams, indeed! dreams that waste the life of such a morning. Rosy magnificence of a summer dawn! Do you not pity the fool who prefers to lie a bed, and to dream rather than to live? What! and you, strong man, with those noble limbs, in this den! Do you not long for a rush through the green of the fields, a bath in the blue of the river?”

Here he came to a pause, standing, still in the gray light of the growing day, with eyes whose joyous lustre forestalled the sun’s, and lips which seemed to laugh even in repose.

But presently those eyes, as quick as they were bright, glanced over the walls, the floor, the shelves, the phials, the mechanical inventions, and then rested full on my cylinder fixed to the table. He approached, examined it curiously, asked what it was. I explained. To gratify him I sat down and renewed my experiment, with equally ill success. The needle, which should have moved from west to south, describing an angle of from thirty degrees to forty or even fifty degrees, only made a few troubled, undecided oscillations.

“Tut,” cried the young man, “I see what it is; you have a wound in your right hand.”

That was true; I had burned my band a few days before in a chemical experiment, and the sore had not healed.

“Well,” said I, “and what does that matter?”

“Everything; the least scratch in the skin of the hand produces chemical actions on the electric current, independently of your will. Let me try.”

He took my place, and in a moment the needle in the galvanometer responded to his grasp on the cylinder, exactly as the inventive philosopher had stated to be the due result of the experiment.

I was startled.

“But how came you, Mr. Margrave, to be so well acquainted with a scientific process little known, and but recently discovered?”

“I well acquainted! not so. But I am fond of all experiments that relate to animal life. Electricity, especially, is full of interest.”

On that I drew him out (as I thought), and he talked volubly. I was amazed to find this young man, in whose brain I had conceived thought kept one careless holiday, was evidently familiar with the physical sciences, and especially with chemistry, which was my own study by predilection. But never had I met with a student in whom a knowledge so extensive was mixed up with notions so obsolete or so crotchety. In one sentence he showed that he had mastered some late discovery by Faraday or Liebig; in the next sentence he was talking the wild fallacies of Cardan or Van Helmont. I burst out laughing at some paradox about sympathetic powders, which he enounced as if it were a recognized truth.

“Pray tell me,” said I, “who was your master in physics; for a cleverer pupil never had a more crack-brained teacher.”

“No,” he answered, with his merry laugh, “it is not the teacher’s fault. I am a mere parrot; just cry out a few scraps of learning picked up here and there. But, however, I am fond of all researches into Nature; all guesses at her riddles. To tell you the truth, one reason why I have taken to you so heartily is not only that your published work caught my fancy in the dip which I took into its contents (pardon me if I say dip, I never do more than dip into any book), but also because young —— tells me that which all whom I have met in this town confirm; namely, that you are one of those few practical chemists who are at once exceedingly cautious and exceedingly bold — willing to try every new experiment, but submitting experiment to rigid tests. Well, I have an experiment running wild in this giddy head of mine, and I want you, some day when at leisure, to catch it, fix it as you have fixed that cylinder, make something of it. I am sure you can.”

“What is it?”

“Something akin to the theories in your work. You would replenish or preserve to each special constitution the special substance that may fail to the equilibrium of its health. But you own that in a large proportion of cases the best cure of disease is less to deal with the disease itself than to support and stimulate the whole system, so as to enable Nature to cure the disease and restore the impaired equilibrium by her own agencies. Thus, if you find that in certain cases of nervous debility a substance like nitric acid is efficacious, it is because the nitric acid has a virtue in locking up, as it were, the nervous energy — that is, preventing all undue waste. Again, in some cases of what is commonly called feverish cold, stimulants like ammonia assist Nature itself to get rid of the disorder that oppresses its normal action; and, on the same principle, I apprehend, it is contended that a large average of human lives is saved in those hospitals which have adopted the supporting system of ample nourishment and alcoholic stimulants.”

“Your medical learning surprises me,” said I, smiling; “and without pausing to notice where it deals somewhat superficially with disputable points in general, and my own theory in particular, I ask you for the deduction you draw from your premises.”

“It is simply this: that to all animate bodies, however various, there must be one principle in common — the vital principle itself. What if there be one certain means of recruiting that principle; and what if that secret can be discovered?”

“Pshaw! The old illusion of the mediaeval empirics.”

“Not so. But the mediaeval empirics were great discoverers. You sneer at Van Helmont, who sought, in water, the principle of all things; but Van Helmont discovered in his search those invisible bodies called gases. Now the principle of life must be certainly ascribed to a gas.11 And what ever is a gas chemistry should not despair of producing! But I can argue no longer now — never can argue long at a stretch; we are wasting the morning; and, joy! the sun is up! See! Out! come out! out! and greet the great Lifegiver face to face.”

I could not resist the young man’s invitation. In a few minutes we were in the quiet lane under the glinting chestnut-trees. Margrave was chanting, low, a wild tune — words in a strange language.

“What words are those — no European language, I think; for I know a little of most of the languages which are spoken in our quarter of the globe, at least by its more civilized races.”

“Civilized race! What is civilization? Those words were uttered by men who founded empires when Europe itself was not civilized! Hush, is it not a grand old air?” and lifting his eyes towards the sun, he gave vent to a voice clear and deep as a mighty bell! The air was grand; the words had a sonorous swell that suited it, and they seemed to me jubilant and yet solemn. He stopped abruptly as a path from the lane had led us into the fields, already half-bathed in sunlight, dews glittering on the hedgerows.

“Your song,” said I, “would go well with the clash of cymbals or the peal of the organ. I am no judge of melody, but this strikes me as that of a religious hymn.”

“I compliment you on the guess. It is a Persian fire-worshipper’s hymn to the sun. The dialect is very different from modern Persian. Cyrus the Great might have chanted it on his march upon Babylon.”

“And where did you learn it?”

“In Persia itself.”

“You have travelled much, learned much — and are so young and so fresh. Is it an impertinent question if I ask whether your parents are yet living, or are you wholly lord of yourself?”

“Thank you for the question — pray make my answer known in the town. Parents I have not — never had.”

“Never had parents!”

“Well, I ought rather to say that no parents ever owned me. I am a natural son, a vagabond, a nobody. When I came of age I received an anonymous letter, informing me that a sum — I need not say what, but more than enough for all I need — was lodged at an English banker’s in my name; that my mother had died in my infancy; that my father was also dead — but recently; that as I was a child of love, and he was unwilling that the secret of my birth should ever be traced, he had provided for me, not by will, but in his life, by a sum consigned to the trust of the friend who now wrote to me; I need give myself no trouble to learn more. Faith, I never did! I am young, healthy, rich — yes, rich! Now you know all, and you had better tell it, that I may win no man’s courtesy and no maiden’s love upon false pretences. I have not even a right, you see, to the name I bear. Hist! let me catch that squirrel.”

With what a panther-like bound he sprang! The squirrel eluded his grasp, and was up the oak-tree; in a moment he was up the oak-tree too. In amazement I saw him rising from bough to bough; saw his bright eyes and glittering teeth through the green leaves. Presently I heard the sharp piteous cry of the squirrel, echoed by the youth’s merry laugh; and down, through that maze of green, Hargrave came, dropping on the grass and bounding up, as Mercury might have bounded with his wings at his heels.

“I have caught him. What pretty brown eyes!”

Suddenly the gay expression of his face changed to that of a savage; the squirrel had wrenched itself half-loose, and bitten him. The poor brute! In an instant its neck was wrung, its body dashed on the ground; and that fair young creature, every feature quivering with rage, was stamping his foot on his victim again and again! It was horrible. I caught him by the arm indignantly. He turned round on me like a wild beast disturbed from its prey — his teeth set, his hand lifted, his eyes like balls of fire.

“Shame!” said I, calmly; “shame on you!”

He continued to gaze on me a moment or so, his eye glaring, his breath panting; and then, as if mastering himself with an involuntary effort, his arm dropped to his side, and he said quite humbly, “I beg your pardon; indeed I do. I was beside myself for a moment; I cannot bear pain;” and he looked in deep compassion for himself at his wounded hand. “Venomous brute!” And he stamped again on the body of the squirrel, already crushed out of shape.

I moved away in disgust, and walked on.

But presently I felt my arm softly drawn aside, and a voice, dulcet as the coo of a dove, stole its way into my ears. There was no resisting the charm with which this extraordinary mortal could fascinate even the hard and the cold; nor them, perhaps, the least. For as you see in extreme old age, when the heart seems to have shrunk into itself, and to leave but meagre and nipped affections for the nearest relations if grown up, the indurated egotism softens at once towards a playful child; or as you see in middle life, some misanthrope, whose nature has been soured by wrong and sorrow, shrink from his own species, yet make friends with inferior races, and respond to the caress of a dog — so, for the worldling or the cynic, there was an attraction in the freshness of this joyous favourite of Nature — an attraction like that of a beautiful child, spoilt and wayward, or of a graceful animal, half docile, half fierce.

“But,” said I, with a smile, as I felt all displeasure gone, “such indulgence of passion for such a trifle is surely unworthy a student of philosophy!”

“Trifle,” he said dolorously. “But I tell you it is pain; pain is no trifle. I suffer. Look!”

I looked at the hand, which I took in mine. The bite no doubt had been sharp; but the hand that lay in my own was that which the Greek sculptor gives to a gladiator; not large (the extremities are never large in persons whose strength comes from the just proportion of all the members, rather than the factitious and partial force which continued muscular exertion will give to one part of the frame, to the comparative weakening of the rest), but with the firm-knit joints, the solid fingers, the finished nails, the massive palm, the supple polished skin, in which we recognize what Nature designs the human hand to be — the skilled, swift, mighty doer of all those marvels which win Nature herself from the wilderness.

“It is strange,” said I, thoughtfully; “but your susceptibility to suffering confirms my opinion, which is different from the popular belief — namely, that pain is most acutely felt by those in whom the animal organization being perfect, and the sense of vitality exquisitely keen, every injury or lesion finds the whole system rise, as it were, to repel the mischief and communicate the consciousness of it to all those nerves which are the sentinels to the garrison of life. Yet my theory is scarcely borne out by general fact. The Indian savages must have a health as perfect as yours; a nervous system as fine — witness their marvellous accuracy of ear, of eye, of scent, probably also of touch; yet they are indifferent to physical pain; or must I mortify your pride by saying that they have some moral quality defective in you which enables them to rise superior to it?”

“The Indian savages,” said Margrave, sullenly, “have not a health as perfect as mine, and in what you call vitality — the blissful consciousness of life — they are as sticks and stones compared to me.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I have lived with them. It is a fallacy to suppose that the savage has a health superior to that of the civilized man — if the civilized man be but temperate; and even if not, he has the stamina that can resist for years the effect of excesses which would destroy the savage in a month. As to the savage’s fine perceptions of sense, such do not come from exquisite equilibrium of system, but are hereditary attributes transmitted from race to race, and strengthened by training from infancy. But is a pointer stronger and healthier than a mastiff, because the pointer through long descent and early teaching creeps stealthily to his game and stands to it motionless? I will talk of this later; now I suffer! Pain, pain! Has life any ill but pain?”

It so happened that I had about me some roots of the white lily, which I meant, before returning home, to leave with a patient suffering from one of those acute local inflammations, in which that simple remedy often affords great relief. I cut up one of these roots, and bound the cooling leaves to the wounded hand with my handkerchief.

“There,” said I. “Fortunately if you feel pain more sensibly than others, you will recover from it more quickly.” And in a few minutes my companion felt perfectly relieved, and poured out his gratitude with an extravagance of expression and a beaming delight of countenance which positively touched me.

“I almost feel,” said I, “as I do when I have stilled an infant’s wailing, and restored it smiling to its mother’s breast.”

“You have done so. I am an infant, and Nature is my mother. Oh, to be restored to the full joy of life, the scent of wild flowers, the song of birds, and this air — summer air — summer air!”

I know not why it was, but at that moment, looking at him and hearing him, I rejoiced that Lilian was not at L——. “But I came out to bathe. Can we not bathe in that stream?”

“No. You would derange the bandage round your hand; and for all bodily ills, from the least to the gravest, there is nothing like leaving Nature at rest the moment we have hit on the means which assist her own efforts at cure.”

“I obey, then; but I so love the water.”

“You swim, of course?”

“Ask the fish if it swim. Ask the fish if it can escape me! I delight to dive down — down; to plunge after the startled trout, as an otter does; and then to get amongst those cool, fragrant reeds and bulrushes, or that forest of emerald weed which one sometimes finds waving under clear rivers. Man! man! could you live but an hour of my life you would know how horrible a thing it is to die!”

“Yet the dying do not think so; they pass away calm and smiling, as you will one day.”

“I— I! die one day — die!” and he sank on the grass, and buried his face amongst the herbage, sobbing aloud.

Before I could get through half a dozen words I meant to soothe, he had once more bounded up, dashed the tears from his eyes, and was again singing some wild, barbaric chant. Abstracting itself from the appeal to its outward sense by melodies of which the language was unknown, my mind soon grew absorbed in meditative conjectures on the singular nature, so wayward, so impulsive, which had forced intimacy on a man grave and practical as myself.

I was puzzled how to reconcile so passionate a childishness, so undisciplined a want of self-control, with an experience of mankind so extended by travel, with an education desultory and irregular indeed, but which must, at some time or other, have been familiarized to severe reasonings and laborious studies. In Margrave there seemed to be wanting that mysterious something which is needed to keep our faculties, however severally brilliant, harmoniously linked together — as the string by which a child mechanically binds the wildflowers it gathers, shaping them at choice into the garland or the chain.

11 “According to the views we have mentioned, we must ascribe life to a gas, that is, to an aeriform body.”— Liebig: “Organic Chemistry,” Mayfair’s translation, p.363. — It is perhaps not less superfluous to add that Liebig does not support the views “according to which life must be ascribed to a gas,” than it would be to state, had Dugald Stewart been quoted as writing, “According to the views we have mentioned the mind is but a bundle of impressions,” that Dugald Stewart was not supporting, but opposing, the views of David Hume. The quotation is merely meant to show, in the shortest possible compass, that there are views entertained by speculative reasoners of our day which, according to Liebig, would lead to the inference at which Margrave so boldly arrives. Margrave is, however, no doubt, led to his belief by his reminiscences of Van Helmont, to whose discovery of gas he is referring. Van Helmont plainly affirms “that the arterial spirit of our life is of the nature of a gas;” and in the same chapter (on the fiction of elementary complexions and mixtures) says, “Seeing that the spirit of our life, since it is a gas, is most mightily and swiftly affected by any other gas,” etc. He repeats the same dogma in his treatise on “Long Life,” and indeed very generally throughout his writings, observing, in his chapter on the Vital Air, that the spirit of life is a salt, sharp vapour, made of the arterial blood, etc. Liebig, therefore, in confuting some modern notions as to the nature of contagion by miasma, is leading their reasonings back to that assumption in the Brawn of physiological science by which the discoverer of gas exalted into the principle of life the substance to which he first gave the name, now so familiarly known. It is nevertheless just to Van Helmont to add that his conception of the vital principle was very far from being as purely materialistic as it would seem to those unacquainted with his writings; for he carefully distinguishes that principle of life which he ascribes to a gas, and by which he means the sensuous animal life, from the intellectual immortal principle of soul. Van Helmont, indeed, was a sincere believer of Divine Revelation. “The Lord Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,” says with earnest humility this daring genius, in that noble chapter “On the completing of the mind by the ‘prayer of silence,’ and the loving offering tip of the heart, soul, and strength to the obedience of the Divine will,” from which some of the most eloquent of recent philosophers, arguing against materialism, have borrowed largely in support and in ornament of their lofty cause.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31