The Ray of Madness

by Captain S.P. Meek

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Dr. Bird Uncovers a Dastardly Plot, Amazing in its Mechanical Ingenuity, Behind the Apparently Trivial Eye Trouble of the President.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Dr. Bird discovers a dastardly plot, amazing in its mechanical ingenuity, behind the apparently trivial eye trouble of the President.

A knock sounded at the door of Dr. Bird’s private laboratory in the Bureau of Standards. The famous scientist paid no attention to the interruption but bent his head lower over the spectroscope with which he was working. The knock was repeated with a quality of quiet insistence upon recognition. The Doctor smothered an exclamation of impatience and strode over to the door and threw it open to the knocker.

“Oh, hello, Carnes,” he exclaimed as he recognized his visitor. “Come in and sit down and keep your mouth shut for a few minutes. I am busy just now but I’ll be at liberty in a little while.”


“There’s no hurry, Doctor,” replied Operative Carnes of the United States Secret Service as he entered the room and sat on the edge of the Doctor’s desk. “I haven’t got a case up my sleeve this time; I just came in for a little chat.”

“All right, glad to see you. Read that latest volume of the Zeitschrift for a while. That article of Von Beyer’s has got me guessing, all right.”

Carnes picked up the indicated volume and settled himself to read. The Doctor bent over his apparatus. Time and again he made minute adjustments and gave vent to muttered exclamations of annoyance at the results he obtained. Half an hour later he rose from his chair with a sigh and turned to his visitor.

“What do you think of Von Beyer’s alleged discovery?” he asked the operative.


“It’s too deep for me, Doctor,” replied the operative. “All that I can make out of it is that he claims to have discovered a new element named ‘lunium, ‘ but hasn’t been able to isolate it yet. Is there anything remarkable about that? It seems to me that I have read of other new elements being discovered from time to time.”

“There is nothing remarkable about the discovery of a new element by the spectroscopic method,” replied Dr. Bird. “We know from Mendeleff’s table that there are a number of elements which we have not discovered as yet, and several of the ones we know were first detected by the spectroscope. The thing which puzzles me is that so brilliant a man as Von Beyer claims to have discovered it in the spectra of the moon. His name, lunium, is taken from Luna, the moon.”

“Why not the moon? Haven’t several elements been first discovered in the spectra of stars?”

“Certainly. The classic example is Lockyer’s discovery of an orange line in the spectra of the sun in 1868. No known terrestrial element gave such a line and he named the new element which he deduced helium, from Helos, the sun. The element helium was first isolated by Ramsey some twenty-seven years later. Other elements have been found in the spectra of stars, but the point I am making is that the sun and the stars are incandescent bodies and could be logically expected to show the characteristic lines of their constituent elements in their spectra. But the moon is a cold body without an atmosphere and is visible only by reflected light. The element, lunium, may exist in the moon, but the manifestations which Von Beyer has observed must be, not from the moon, but from the source of the reflected light which he spectro-analyzed.”


“You are over my depth, Doctor.”

“I’m over my own. I have tried to follow Von Beyer’s reasoning and I have tried to check his findings. Twice this evening I thought that I caught a momentary glimpse on the screen of my fluoroscope of the ultra-violet line which he reports as characteristic of lunium, but I am not certain. I haven’t been able to photograph it yet. He notes in his article that the line seems to be quite impermanent and fades so rapidly that an accurate measurement of its wave-length is almost impossible. However, let’s drop the subject. How do you like your new assignment?”

“Oh, it’s all right. I would rather be back on my old work.”

“I haven’t seen you since you were assigned to the Presidential detail. I suppose that you fellows are pretty busy getting ready for Premier McDougal’s visit?”

“I doubt if he will come,” replied Carnes soberly. “Things are not exactly propitious for a visit of that sort just now.”


Dr. Bird sat back in his chair in surprise.

“I thought that the whole thing is arranged. The press seems to think so, at any rate.”

“Everything is arranged, but arrangements may be cancelled. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they were.”

“Carnes,” replied Dr. Bird gravely, “you have either said too much or too little. There is something more to this than appears on the surface. If it is none of my business, don’t hesitate to tell me so and I’ll forget what you have said, but if I can help you any, speak up.”

Carnes puffed meditatively at his pipe for a few minutes before replying.

“It’s really none of your business. Doctor,” he said at length, “and yet I know that a corpse is a chatterbox compared to you when you are told anything in confidence, and I really need to unload my mind. It has been kept from the press so far; but I don’t know how long it can be kept muzzled. In strict confidence, the President of the United State acts as though he were crazy.”

“Quite a section of the press has claimed that for a long time,” replied Dr. Bird, with a twinkle in his eye.

“I don’t mean crazy in that way, Doctor, I mean really crazy. Bugs! Nuts! Bats in his belfry!”


Dr. Bird whistled softly.

“Are you sure, Carnes?” he asked.

“As sure as may be. Both of his physicians think so. They were non-committal for a while, especially as the first attack waned and he seemed to recover, but when his second attack came on more violently than the first and the President began to act queerly, they had to take the Presidential detail into their confidence. He has been quietly examined by some of the greatest psychiatrists in the country, but none of them have ventured on a positive verdict as to the nature of the malady. They admit, of course, that it exists, but they won’t classify it. The fact that it is intermittent seems to have them stopped. He was bad a month ago but he recovered and became, to all appearances, normal for a time. About a week ago he began to show queer symptoms again and now he is getting worse daily. If he goes on getting worse for another week, it will have to be announced so that the Vice-President can take over the duties of the head of the government.”


“What are the symptoms?”

“The first we noticed was a failing of his memory. Coupled with this was a restlessness and a habit of nocturnal prowling. He tosses continually on his bed and mutters and at times leaps up and rages back and forth in his bedchamber, howling and raging. Then he will calm down and compose himself and go to sleep, only to wake in half an hour and go through the same performance. It is pretty ghastly for the men on night guard.”

“How does he act in the daytime?”

“Heavy and lethargic. His memory becomes a complete blank at times and he talks wildly. Those are the times we must guard against.”

“Overwork?” queried the Doctor.

“Not according to his physicians. His physical health is splendid and his appetite unusually keen. He takes his exercise regularly and suffers no ill health except for a little eye trouble.”

Dr. Bird leaped to his feet.

“Tell me more about this eye trouble, Carnes,” he demanded.

“Why, I don’t know much about it, Doctor. Admiral Clay told me that it was nothing but a mild opthalmia which should yield readily to treatment. That was when he told me to see that the shades of the President’s study were partially drawn to keep the direct sunlight out.”


“Opthalmia be sugared! What do his eyes look like?”

“They are rather red and swollen and a little bloodshot. He has a tendency to shut them while he is talking and he avoids light as much as possible. I hadn’t noticed anything peculiar about it.”

“Carnes, did you ever see a case of snow blindness?”

The operative looked up in surprise.

“Yes, I have. I had it myself once in Maine. Now that you mention it, his case does look like snow blindness, but such a thing is absurd in Washington in August.”

Dr. Bird rummaged in his desk and drew out a book, which he consulted for a moment.

“Now, Carnes,” he said, “I want some dates from you and I want them accurately. Don’t guess, for a great deal may depend on the accuracy of your answers. When was this mental disability on the part of the President first noticed?”

Carnes drew a pocket diary from his coat and consulted it.

“The seventeenth of July,” he replied. “That is, we are sure, in view of later developments, that that was the date it first came on. We didn’t realize that anything was wrong until the twentieth. On the night of the nineteenth the President slept very poorly, getting up and creating a disturbance twice, and on the twentieth he acted so queerly that it was necessary to cancel three conferences.”


Dr. Bird checked off the dates on the book before him and nodded.

“Go on,” he said, “and describe the progress of the malady by days.”

“It got progressively worse until the night of the twenty-third. The twenty-fourth he was no worse, and on the twenty-fifth a slight improvement was noticed. He got steadily better until, by the third or fourth of August, he was apparently normal. About the twelfth he began to show signs of restlessness which have increased daily during the past week. Last night, the nineteenth, he slept only a few minutes and Brady, who was on guard, says that his howls were terrible. His memory has been almost a total blank today and all of his appointments were cancelled, ostensibly because of his eye trouble. If he gets any worse, it probably will be necessary to inform the country as to his true condition.”

When Carnes had finished, Dr. Bird sat for a time in concentrated thought.

“You did exactly right in coming to me, Carnes,” he said presently. “I don’t think that this is a job for a doctor at all--I believe that it needs a physicist and a chemist and possibly a detective to cure him. We’ll get busy.”

“What do you mean, Doctor?” demanded Carnes. “Do you think that some exterior force is causing the President’s disability?”


“I think nothing, Carnes,” replied the Doctor grimly, “but I intend to know something before I am through. Don’t ask for explanations: this is not the time for talk, it is the time for action. Can you get me into the White House to-night?”

“I doubt it, Doctor, but I’ll try. What excuse shall I give? I am not supposed to have told you anything about the President’s illness.”

“Get Bolton, your chief, on the phone and tell him that you have talked to me when you shouldn’t have. He’ll blow up, but after he is through exploding, tell him that I smell a rat and that I want him down here at once with carte blanche authority to do as I see fit in the White House. If he makes any fuss about it, remind him of the fact that he has considered me crazy several times in the past when events showed that I was right. If he won’t play after that, let me talk to him.”

“All right, Doctor,” replied Carnes as he picked up the scientist’s telephone and gave the number of the home of the Chief of the Secret Service. “I’ll try to bully him out of it. He has a good deal of confidence in your ability.”


Half an hour later the door of Dr. Bird’s laboratory opened suddenly to admit Bolton.

“Hello, Doctor,” exclaimed the Chief, “what the dickens have you got on your mind now? I ought to skin Carnes alive for talking out of turn, but if you really have an idea, I’ll forgive him. What do you suspect?”

“I suspect several things, Bolton, but I haven’t time to tell you what they are. I want to get quietly into the White House as promptly as possible.”

“That’s easy,” replied Bolton, “but first I want to know what the object of the visit is.”

“The object is to see what I can find out. My ideas are entirely too nebulous to attempt to lay them out before you just now. You’ve never worked directly with me on a case before, but Carnes can tell you that I have my own methods of working and that I won’t spill my ideas until I have something more definite to go on than I have at present.”

“The Doctor is right, Chief,” said Carnes. “He has an idea all right, but wild horses won’t drag it out of him until he’s ready to talk. You’ll have to take him on faith, as I always do.”

Bolton hesitated a moment and then shrugged his shoulders.

“Have it your own way, Doctor,” he said. “Your reputation, both as a scientist and as an unraveller of tangled skeins, is too good for me to boggle about your methods. Tell me what you want and I’ll try to get it.”


“I want to get into the White House without undue prominence being given to my movements, and listen outside the President’s door for a short time. Later I will want to examine his sleeping quarters carefully and to make a few tests. I may be entirely wrong in my assumptions, but I believe that there is something there that requires my attention.”

“Come along,” said Bolton. “I’ll get you in and let you listen, but the rest we’ll have to trust to luck on. You may have to wait until morning.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” replied the Doctor. “I’ll get a little stuff together that we may need.”

In a few moments he had packed some apparatus in a bag and, taking up it and an instrument case, he followed Bolton and Carnes down the stairs and out onto the grounds of the Bureau of Standards.

“It’s a beautiful moon, isn’t it?” he observed.

Carnes assented absently to the Doctor’s remark, but Bolton paid no attention to the luminous disc overhead, which was flooding the landscape with its mellow light.

“My car is waiting,” he announced.

“All right, old man, but stop for a moment and admire this moon,” protested the Doctor. “Have you ever seen a finer one?”

“Come on and let the moon alone,” snorted Bolton.

“My dear man, I absolutely refuse to move a step until you pause in your headlong devotion to duty and pay the homage due to Lady Luna. Don’t you realize, you benighted Christian, that you are gazing upon what has been held to be a deity, or at least the visible manifestation of deity, for ages immemorial? Haven’t you ever had time to study the history of the moon-worshipping cults? They are as old as mankind, you know. The worship of Isis was really only an exalted type of moon worship. The crescent moon, you may remember, was one of her most sacred emblems.”


Bolton paused and looked at the Doctor suspiciously.

“What are you doing--pulling my leg?” he demanded.

“Not at all, my dear fellow. Carnes, doesn’t the sight of the glowing orb of night influence you to pious meditation upon the frailty of human life and the insignificance of human ambition?”

“Not to any very great degree,” replied Carnes dryly.

“Carnesy, old dear, I fear that you are a crass materialist. I am beginning to despair of ever inculcating in you any respect for the finer and subtler things of life. I must try Bolton. Bolton, have you ever seen a finer moon? Remember that I won’t move a step until you have carefully considered the matter and fully answered my question.”

Bolton looked first at the Doctor, then at Carnes, and finally he looked reluctantly at the moon.

“It’s a fine one,” he admitted, “but all full moons look large on clear nights at this time of the year.”

“Then you have studied the moon?” cried Dr. Bird with delight. “I was sure--”


He broke off his speech suddenly and listened. From a distance came the mournful howl of a dog. It was answered in a moment by another howl from a different direction. Dog after dog took up the chorus until the air was filled with the melancholy wailing of the animals.

“See, Bolton,” remarked the Doctor, “even the dogs feel the chastening influence of the Lady of Night and repent of the sins of their youth and the follies of their manhood, or should one say doghood? Come along. I feel that the call of duty must tear us away from the contemplation of the beauties of nature.”

He led the way to Bolton’s car and got in without further words. A half-hour later, Bolton led the way into the White House. A word to the secret service operative on guard at the door admitted him and his party, and he led the way to the newly constructed solarium where the President slept. An operative stood outside the door.

“What word, Brady?” asked Bolton in a whisper.

“He seems worse, sir. I doubt if he has slept at all. Admiral Clay has been in several times, but he didn’t do much good. There, listen! The President is getting up again.”


From behind the closed door which confronted them came sounds of a person rising from a bed and pacing the floor, slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly, until it was almost a run. A series of groans came to the watchers and then a long drawn out howl. Bolton shuddered.

“Poor devil!” he muttered.

Dr. Bird shot a quick glance around.

“Where is Admiral Clay?” he asked.

“He is sleeping upstairs. Shall I call him?”

“No. Take me to his room.”

The President’s naval physician opened the door in response to Bolton’s knock.

“Is he worse?” he demanded anxiously.

“I don’t think so, Admiral,” replied Bolton. “I want to introduce you to Dr. Bird of the Bureau of Standards. He wants to talk with you about the case.”

“I am honored, Doctor,” said the physician as he grasped the scientist’s outstretched hand. “Come in. Pardon my appearance, but I was startled out of a doze when you knocked. Have a chair and tell me how I can serve you.”

Dr. Bird drew a notebook from his pocket.

“I have received certain dates in connection with the President’s malady from Operative Carnes,” he said, “and I wish you to verify them.”

“Pardon me a moment, Doctor,” interrupted the Admiral, “but may I ask what is your connection with the matter? I was not aware that you were a physician or surgeon.”


“Dr. Bird is here by the authority of the secret service,” replied Bolton. “He has no connection with the medical treatment of the President, but permit me to remind you that the secret service is responsible for the safety of the President and so have a right to demand such details about him as are necessary for his proper protection.”

“I have no intention in obstructing you in the proper performance of your duties, Mr. Bolton,” began the Admiral stiffly.

“Pardon me, Admiral,” broke in Dr. Bird, “it seems to me that we are getting started wrong. I suspect that certain exterior forces are more or less concerned in this case and I have communicated my suspicions to Mr. Bolton. He in turn brought me here in order to request from you your cooperation in the matter. We have no idea of demanding anything and are really seeking help which we believe that you can give us.”

“Pardon me, Admiral,” said Bolton. “I had no intention of angering you.”

“I am at your service, gentlemen,” replied Admiral Clay. “What information did you wish, Doctor?”

“At first merely a verification of the history of the case as I have it.”


Dr. Bird read the notes he had taken down from Carnes and the Admiral nodded agreement.

“Those dates are correct,” he said.

“Now, Admiral, there are two further points on which I wish enlightenment. The first is the opthalmia which is troubling the patient.”

“It is nothing to be alarmed about as far as symptoms go, Doctor,” replied the Admiral. “It is a rather mild case of irritation, somewhat analogous to granuloma, but rather stubborn. He had an attack several weeks ago and while it did not yield to treatment as readily as I could have wished, it did clear up nicely in a couple of weeks and I was quite surprised at this recurrent attack. His sight is in no danger.”

“Have you tried to connect this opthalmia with his mental aberrations?”

“Why no, Doctor, there is no connection.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am certain. The slight pain which his eyes give him could never have such an effect upon the mind of so able and energetic a man as he is.”

“Well, we’ll let that pass for the moment. The other question is this: has he any form of skin trouble?”


The Admiral looked up in surprise.

“Yes, he has,” he admitted. “I had mentioned it to no one, for it really amounts to nothing, but he has a slight attack of some obscure form of dermatitis which I am treating. It is affecting only his face and hands.”

“Please describe it.”

“It has taken the form of a brown pigmentation on the hands. On the face it causes a slight itching and subsequent peeling of the affected areas.”

“In other words, it is acting like sunburn?”

“Why, yes, somewhat. It is not that, however, for he has been exposed to the sun very little lately, on account of his eyes.”

“I notice that he is sleeping in the new solarium which was added last winter to the executive mansion. Can you tell me with what type of glass it is equipped?”

“Yes. It is not equipped with glass at all, but with fused quartz.”

“When did he start to sleep there?”

“As soon as it was completed.”

“And all the time the windows have been of fused quartz?”

“No. They were glazed at first, but the glass was removed and the fused quartz substituted at my suggestion about two months ago, just before this trouble started.”

“Thank you, Admiral. You have given me several things to think about. My ideas are a little too nebulous to share as yet but I think that I can give you one piece of very sound advice. The President is spending a very restless night. If you would remove him from the solarium and get him to lie down in a room which is glazed with ordinary glass, and pull down the shades so that he will be in the dark, I think that he will pass a better night.”


Admiral Clay looked keenly into the piercing black eyes of the Doctor.

“I know something of you by reputation, Bird,” he said slowly, “and I will follow your advice. Will you tell me why you make this particular suggestion?”

“So that I can work in that solarium to-night without interruption,” replied Dr. Bird. “I have some tests which I wish to carry out while it is still dark. If my results are negative, forget what I have told you. If they yield any information, I will be glad to share it with you at the proper time. Now get the President out of that solarium and tell me when the coast is clear.”

The Admiral donned a dressing gown and stepped out of the room. He returned in fifteen minutes.

“The solarium is at your disposal, Doctor,” he announced. “Shall I accompany you?”

“If you wish,” assented Dr. Bird as he picked up his apparatus and strode out of the room.

In the solarium he glanced quickly around, noting the position of each of the articles of furniture.

“I presume that the President always sleeps with his head in this direction?” he remarked, pointing to the pillow on the disturbed bed.

The Admiral nodded assent. Dr. Bird opened the bag which he had packed in his laboratory, took out a sheet of cardboard covered with a metallic looking substance, and placed it on the pillow. He stepped back and donned a pair of smoked glasses, watching it intently. Without a word he took off the glasses and handed them to the Admiral. The Admiral donned them and looked at the pillow. As he did so an exclamation broke from his lips.

“That plate seems to glow,” he said in an astonished voice.


Dr. Bird stepped forward and laid his hand on the pillow. He was wearing a wrist watch with a radiolite dial. The substance suddenly increased its luminescence and began to glow fiercely, long luminous streamers seeming to come from the dial. The Doctor took away his hand and substituted a bottle of liquid for the plate on the pillow. Immediately the bottle began to glow with a phosphorescent light.

“What on earth is it?” gasped Carnes.

“Excitation of a radioactive fluid,” replied the Doctor. “The question is, what is exciting it. Somebody get a stepladder.”

While Bolton was gone after the ladder, the Doctor took from his bag what looked like an ordinary pane of glass.

“Take this, Carnes,” he directed, “and start holding it over each of those panes of quartz which you can reach. Stop when I tell you to.”


The operative held the glass over each of the panes in succession, but the Doctor, who kept his eyes covered with the smoked glasses and fastened on the plate which he had replaced on the pillow, said nothing. When Bolton arrived with the ladder, the process went on. One end and most of the front of the solarium had been covered before an exclamation from the Doctor halted the work.

“That’s the one,” he exclaimed. “Hold the glass there for a moment.”

Hurriedly he removed the plate from the pillow and replaced the phial of liquid. There was only a very feeble glow.

“Good enough,” he cried. “Take away the glass, but mark that pane, and be ready to replace it when I give the word.”

From the instrument case he had brought he took out a spectroscope. He turned back the mattress and mounted it on the bedstead.

“Cover that pane,” he directed.

Carnes did so, and the Doctor swung the receiving tube of the instrument until it pointed at the covered pane. He glanced into the eyepiece, and then held a tiny flashlight for an instant opposite the third tube.

“Uncover that pane,” he said.

Carnes took down the glass plate and the Doctor gazed into the instrument. He made some adjustments.

“Are you familiar with spectroscopy, Admiral?” he asked.

“Somewhat.”

“Take a squint in here and tell me what you see.”


The Admiral applied his eye to the instrument and looked long and earnestly.

“There are some lines there, Doctor,” he said, “but your instrument is badly out of adjustment. They are in what should be the ultra-violet sector, according to your scale.”

“I forgot to tell you that this is a fluoroscopic spectroscope designed for the detection of ultra-violet lines,” replied Dr. Bird. “Those lines you see are ultra-violet, made visible to the eye by activation of a radioactive compound whose rays in turn impinge on a zinc blende sheet. Do you recognize the lines?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Small wonder; I doubt whether there are a dozen people who would. I have never seen them before, although I recognize them from descriptions I have read. Bolton, come here. Sight along this instrument and through that plate of glass which Carnes is holding and tell me what office that window belongs to.”

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