Dr. Heidenhoff's Process/Chapter 9
Henry had not referred to their marriage after the first interview. From day to day, and week to week, he had put off doing so, hoping that she might grow into a more serene condition of mind. But in this respect the result had sadly failed to answer his expectation. He could not deny to himself that, instead of becoming more cheerful, she was relapsing into a more and more settled melancholy. From day to day he noted the change, like that of a gradual petrifaction, which went on in her face. It was as if before his eyes she were sinking into a fatal stupor, from which all his efforts could not rouse her.
There were moments when he experienced the chilling premonition of a disappointment, the possibility of which he still refused to actually entertain. He owned to himself that it was a harder task than he had thought to bring back to life one whose veins the frost of despair has chilled. There were, perhaps, some things too hard even for his love. It was doubly disheartening for him thus to lose confidence; not only on his own account, but on hers. Not only had he to ask himself what would become of his life in the event of failure, but what would become of hers? One day overcome by this sort of discouragement, feeling that he was not equal to the case, that matters were growing worse instead of better, and that he needed help from some source, he asked Madeline if he had not better write to her mother to come to Boston, so that they two could keep house together.
"No," she said in a quick, startled voice, looking up at him in a scared way.
He hastened to reassure her, and say that he had not seriously thought of it, but he noticed that during the rest of the evening she cast furtive glances of apprehension at him, as if suspicious that he had some plot against her. She had fled from home because she could not bear her mother's eyes.
Meanwhile he was becoming almost as preoccupied and gloomy as she, and their dreary interviews grew more dreary than ever, for she was now scarcely more silent than he. His constant and increasing anxiety, in addition to the duties of a responsible business position, began to tell on his health. The owner of the manufactory of which he was superintendent, called him into his office one day, and told him he was working too hard, and must take a little vacation. But he declined. Soon after a physician whom he knew buttonholed him on the street, and managed to get in some shrewd questions about his health. Henry owned he did not sleep much nights. The doctor said he must take a vacation, and, this being declared impossible, forced a box of sleeping powders on him, and made him promise to try them.
All this talk about his health; as well as his own sensations, set him to thinking of the desperate position in which Madeline would be left in the event of his serious sickness or death.
That very day he made up his mind that it would not do to postpone their marriage any longer. It seemed almost brutal to urge it on her in her present frame of mind, and yet it was clearly out of the question to protract the present situation.
The quarter of the city in which he resided was suburban, and he went home every night by the steam cars. As he sat in the car that evening waiting for the train to start, two gentlemen in the seat behind fell to conversing about a new book on mental physiology, embodying the latest discoveries. They kept up a brisk talk on this subject till Henry left the car. He could not, however, have repeated a single thing which they had said. Preoccupied with his own thoughts, he had only been dimly conscious what they were talking about. His ears had taken in their words, but he had heard as not hearing.
After tea, in the gloaming, he called, as usual, on Madeline. After a few casual words, he said, gently--
"Madeline, you remember you promised to marry me a few weeks ago. I have not hurried you, but I want you now. There is no use in waiting any longer, dear, and I want you."
She was sitting in a low chair, her hands folded in her lap, and as he spoke her head sank so low upon her breast that he could not see her face. He was silent for some moments waiting a reply, but she made none.
"I know it was only for my sake you promised," he said again. "I know it will be nothing to you, and yet I would not press you if I did not think I could make you happier so. I will give up my business for a time, and we will travel and see the world a little."
Still she did not speak, but it was to some extent a reassurance to him that she showed no agitation.
"Are you willing that we should be married in a few days?" he asked.
She lifted her head slowly, and looked at him steadfastly.
"You are right," she said. "It is useless to keep on this way any longer."
"You consent, then?" said he, quite encouraged by her quiet air and apparent willingness.
"Don't press me for an answer to-night," she replied, after a pause, during which she regarded him with a singular fixity of expression. "Wait till to-morrow. You shall have an answer to-morrow. You are quite right. I've been thinking so myself. It is no use to put it off any longer."
He spoke to her once or twice after this, but she was gazing out through the window into the darkening sky, and did not seem to hear him. He rose to go, and had already reached the hail, when she called him--
"Come back a moment Henry."
He came back.
"I want you to kiss me," she said.
She was standing in the middle of the room. Her tall figure in its black dress was flooded with the weird radiance of the rising moon, nor was the moonshine whiter than her cheek, nor sadder than her steadfast eyes. Her lips were soft and yielding, clinging, dewy wet. He had never thought a kiss could be so sweet, and yet he could have wept, he knew not why.
When he reached his lodgings he was in an extremely nervous condition. In spite of all that was painful and depressing in the associations of the event, the idea of having Madeline for his wife in a few days more had power to fill him with feverish excitement, an excitement all the more agitating because it was so composite in its elements, and had so little in common with the exhilaration and light-heartedness of successful lovers in general. He took one of the doctor's sleeping powders, tried to read a dry book oil electricity, endeavoured to write a business letter, smoked a cigar, and finally went to bed.
It seemed to him that he went all the next day in a dazed, dreaming state, until the moment when he presented himself, after tea, at Madeline's lodgings, and she opened the door to him. The surprise which he then experienced was calculated to arouse him had he been indeed dreaming. His first thought was that she had gone crazy, or else had been drinking wine to raise her spirits; for there was a flush of excitement on either cheek, and her eyes were bright and unsteady. In one hand she held, with a clasp that crumpled the leaves, a small scientific magazine, which he recognized as having been one of a bundle of periodicals that he had sent her. With her other hand, instead of taking the hand which he extended, she clutched his arm and almost pulled him inside the door.
"Henry, do you remember what George Bayley said that might in meeting, about the river of Lethe, in which, souls were bathed and forgot the past?"
"I remember something about it," he answered.
"There is such a river. It was not a fable. It has been found again," she cried.
"Come and sit down, dear don't excite yourself so much. We will talk quietly," he replied, with a pitiful effort to speak soothingly, for he made no question that her long brooding had affected her mind.
"Quietly! How do you suppose I can talk quietly?" she exclaimed excitedly, in her nervous irritation throwing off the hand which he had laid on her arm. "Henry, see here, I want to ask you something. Supposing anybody had done something bad and had been very sorry for it, and then had forgotten it all, forgotten it wholly, would you think that made them good again? Would it seem so to you? Tell me!"
"Yes, surely; but it isn't necessary they should forget, so long us they're sorry."
"But supposing they had forgotten too?"
"Yes, surely, it would be as if it had never been."
"Henry," she said, her voice dropping to a low, hushed tone of wonder, while her eyes were full of mingled awe and exultation, "what if I were to forget it, forget that you know, forget it all, everything, just as if it had never been?"
He stared at her with fascinated eyes. She was, indeed, beside herself. Grief had made her mad.. The significance of his expression seemed to recall her to herself, and she said--
"You don't understand. Of course not. You think I'm crazy. Here, take it. Go somewhere and read it. Don't stay here to do it. I couldn't stand to look on. Go! Hurry! Read it, and then come back."
She thrust the magazine into his hand, and almost pushed him out of the door. But he went no further than the hall. He could not think of leaving her in that condition. Then it occurred to him to look at the magazine. He opened it by the light of the hall lamp, and his eyes fell on these words, the title of an article: "The Extirpation of Thought Processes. A New Invention."
If she were crazy, here was at least the clue to her condition. He read on; his eyes leaped along the lines.
The writer began with a clear account of the discoveries of modern psychologists and physiologists as to the physical basis of the intellect, by which it has been ascertained that certain ones of the millions of nerve corpuscles or fibres in the grey substance in the brain, record certain classes of sensations and the ideas directly connected with them, other classes of sensations with the corresponding ideas being elsewhere recorded by other groups of corpuscles. These corpuscles of the grey matter, these mysterious and infinitesimal hieroglyphics, constitute the memory of the record of the life, so that when any particular fibre or group of fibres is destroyed certain memories or classes of memories are destroyed, without affecting others which are elsewhere embodied in other fibres. Of the many scientific and popular demonstrations of these facts which were adduced, reference was made to the generally known fact that the effect of disease or injury at certain points in the brain is to destroy definite classes of acquisitions or recollections, leaving others untouched. The article then went on to refer to the fact that one of the known effects of the galvanic battery as medically applied, is to destroy and dissolve morbid tissues, while leaving healthy ones unimpaired. Given then a patient, who by excessive indulgence of any particular train of thought, had brought the group of fibres which were the physical seat of such thoughts into a diseased condition, Dr. Gustav Heidenhoff had invented a mode of applying the galvanic battery so as to destroy the diseased corpuscles, and thus annihilate the class of morbid ideas involved beyond the possibility of recollection, and entirely without affecting other parts of the brain or other classes of ideas. The doctor saw patients Tuesdays and Saturdays at his office, 79 ---- Street.
Madeline was not crazy, thought Henry, as still standing under the hall lamp he closed the article, but Dr. Heidenhoff certainly was. Never had such a sad sense of the misery of her condition been borne in upon him, as when he reflected that it had been able to make such a farrago of nonsense seem actually creditable to her. Overcome with poignant sympathy, and in serious perplexity how best he could deal with her excited condition, he slipped out of the house and walked for an hour about the streets. Returning, he knocked again at the door of her parlour.
"Have you read it?" she asked, eagerly, as she opened it.
"Yes, I've read it. I did not mean to send you such trash. The man must be either an escaped lunatic or has tried his hand at a hoax. It is a tissue of absurdity."
He spoke bluntly, almost harshly, because he was in terror at the thought that she might be allowing herself to be deluded by this wild and baseless fancy, but he looked away as he spoke. He could not bear to see the effect of his words.
"It is not absurd," she cried, clasping his arm convulsively with both hands so that she hurt him, and looking fiercely at him out of hot, fevered eyes. "It is the most reasonable thing in the world. It must be true. There can be no mistake. God would not let me be so deceived. He is not so cruel. Don't tell me anything else."
She was in such a hysterical condition that he saw he must be very gentle.
"But, Madeline, you will admit that if he is not the greatest of all discoverers, he must be a dangerous quack. His process might kill you or make you insane. It must be very perilous."
"If I knew there were a hundred chances that it would kill me to one that it would succeed, do you think I would hesitate?" she cried.
The utmost concession that he could obtain her consent to was that he should first visit this Dr. Heidenhoff alone, and make some inquiries of and about him.