Rays of the August mid-day sun pouring through the museum’s glass roof beat upon the eight soldiers surrounding the central exhibit, which for thirty years has been under constant guard. Even the present sweltering heat failed to lessen the men’s careful observation of the visitors who, from time to time, strolled listlessly about the room.
The object of all this solicitude scarcely seemed to require it. A great up-ended rectangle of polished steel some six feet square by ten or a dozen feet in height, standing in the center of Machinery Hall, it suggested nothing sinister or priceless. Two peculiarities, however, marked it as unusual--the concealment of its mechanism and the brevity of its title. For while the remainder of the exhibits located around it varied in the simplicity or complexity of their design, they were alike in the openness of their construction and detailed explanation of plan and purpose. The great steel box, however, bore merely two words and a date: “Drayle’s Invention, 1932.”
It was, nevertheless, toward this exhibit that a pleasant appearing white-haired old gentleman and a small boy were slowly walking when a change of guard occurred. The new men took their posts without words while the relieved detail turned down a long corridor that for a moment echoed with the clatter of hobnailed boots on stone. Then all was surprisingly still. Even the boy was impressed into reluctant silence as he viewed the uniformed men, though not for long.
“What’s that, what’s that, what’s that?” he demanded presently with shrill imperiousness. “Grandfather, what’s that?” An excited arm indicated the exhibit with its soldier guard.
“If you can keep still long enough,” replied the old gentleman patiently, “I’ll tell you.”
And with due regard for rheumatic limbs he slowly settled himself on a bench and folded his hands over the top of an ebony cane preparatory to answering the youngster’s question. His inquisitor, however, was, at the moment, being hauled from beneath a brass railing by the sergeant of the watch.
“You’ll have to keep an eye on him, sir,” said the man reproachfully. “He was going to try his knife on the wood-work when I caught him.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. I’ll do my best--but the younger generation, you know.”
“Sit still, if possible!” he directed the squirming boy. “If not, we’ll start home now.”
The non-com took a new post within easy reaching distance of the disturber and attempted to glare impressively.
“Go on, grandfather, tell me. What’s D-r-a-y-l-e? What’s in the box? Can’t they open it? What are the soldiers for? Must they stay here? Why?”
“Drayle,” said the old man, breaking through the barrage of questions, “was a close friend of mine a good many years ago.”
“How many, grandfather? Fifty? As much as fifty? Did father know him? Is father fifty?”
“Forty; no; yes; no,” said the harassed relative; and then with amazing ignorance inquired: “Do you really care to hear or do you just ask questions to exercise your tongue?”
“I want to hear the story, grandpa. Tell me the story. Is it a nice story? Has it got bears in it? Polar bears? I saw a polar bear yesterday. He was white. Are polar bears always white? Tell me the story, grandpa.”
The old man turned appealing eyes toward the sergeant. Tacitly a sympathetic understanding was established. The warrior also was a father, and off the field of battle he had known defeat.
“Leave me handle him, sir,” he suggested. “I’ve the like of him at home.”
“I’d be very much indebted to you if you would.”
Thus encouraged, the soldier produced from an inner pocket and offered one of those childhood sweets known as an “all day sucker.”
“See if you can choke yourself on that,” he challenged.
The clamor ceased immediately.
“It always works, sir,” explained the man of resource. “The missus says as how it’ll ruin their indigestions, but I’m all for peace even if I am in the army.”
Now that his vocal organs were temporarily plugged, the child waved a demanding arm in the direction of the main exhibit to indicate a desire for the resumption of the narrative. But the ancient was not anxious to disturb so soon the benign and acceptable silence. In fact it was not until he observed the sergeant’s look of inquiry that he began once more.
“That box,” he said slowly, “is both a monument and a milestone on the road to mankind’s progress in mechanical invention. It marks the point beyond which Drayle’s contemporaries believed it was unsafe to go: for they felt that inventions such as his would add to the complexities of life, and that if a halt were not made our own machines would ultimately destroy us.
“I did not, still do not, believe it. And I know Drayle’s spirit broke when the authorities sealed his last work in that box and released him upon parole to abandon his experiments.”
As the speaker sighed in regretful reminiscence, the sergeant glanced at his men. Apparently all was well: the only visible menace lolled within easy arm’s reach, swinging his short legs and sucking noisily on his candy. Nevertheless the non-com shifted to a slightly better tactical position as he awaited the continuance of the tale.
“Christopher Drayle,” said the elderly gentleman, “was the greatest man I have ever known, as well as the finest. Forty years or more ago we were close friends. Our homes on Long Island adjoined and I handled most of his legal affairs. He was about forty-five or six then, but already famous.
“His rediscovery of the ancient process of tempering copper had made him one of the wealthiest men in the land and enabled him to devote his time to scientific research. Electricity and chemistry were his specialties, and at the period of which I speak he was deeply engrossed in problems of radio transmission.
“But he had many interests and not infrequently visited our local country club for an afternoon of golf. Sometimes I played around the course with him and afterward, over a drink, we would talk. His favorite topic was the contribution of science to human welfare. And even though I could not always follow him when he grew enthusiastic about some new theory I was always puzzled.
“It was at such a time, when we had been discussing the new and first successful attempt to send moving pictures by radio, that I mentioned the prophecy of Jackson Gee. Gee was the writer of fantastic, pseudo-scientific tales who had said: ‘We shall soon be able to resolve human beings into their constituent elements, transmit them by radio to any desired point and reassemble them at the other end. We shall do this by means of vibrations. We are just beginning to learn that vibrations are the key to the fundamental process of all life.’
“I laughed as I quoted this to Drayle, for it seemed to me the ravings of a lunatic. But Drayle did not smile. ‘Jackson Gee, ‘ he said, ‘is nearer to the truth than he imagines. We already know the elements that make the human body, and we can put them together in their proper proportions and arrangements: but we have not been able to introduce the vitalizing spark, the key vibrations to start it going. We can reproduce the human machine, but we can not make it move. We can destroy life in the laboratory, and we can prolong it, but so far we have not been able to create it. Yet I tell you in all seriousness that that time will come; that time will come.’
“I was surprised at his earnestness and would have questioned him further. But a boy appeared just then with a message that Drayle was wanted at the telephone.
“Something important, sir,” he said. Drayle went off to answer the summons and later he sent word that he had been called away and would not be able to return.
“It was the last I heard from Drayle for months. He shut himself in his laboratory and saw no one but his assistants, Ward of Boston, and Buchannon of Washington. He even slept in the workshop and had his food sent in.
“Ordinarily I would not have been excluded, for I had his confidence to an unusual degree and I had often watched him work. I admired the deft movements of his hands. He had the certain touch and style of a master. But during that period he admitted only his aids.
“Consequently I felt little hope of reaching him one morning when it was necessary to have his signature to some legal documents. Yet the urgency of the case led me to go to his home on the chance that I might be able to get him long enough for the business that concerned us. Luck was with me, for he sent out word that he would see me in a few minutes. I remember seating myself in the office that opened off his laboratory and wondering what was beyond the door that separated us. I had witnessed some incredible performances in the adjoining room.
“At last Drayle came in. He looked worried and careworn. There were new lines in his face and blue half-circles of fatigue beneath his eyes. It was evident that it was long since he had slept. He apologized for having kept me waiting and then, without examining the papers I offered, he signed his name nervously in the proper spaces. When I gathered the sheets together he turned abruptly toward the laboratory, but at the door he paused and smiled.
“‘Give my respects to Jackson Gee, ‘ he said.”
“Who’s Jackson Gee? Does father know him? Has he any polar bears? Aren’t you going to tell me about that?”
The tidal wave of questions almost overwhelmed the historian and his auditor. But the military, fortunately, was equal to the emergency. With a tactical turn of his hand he thrust the remnant of the lollypop between the chattering jaws and spoke with sharp rapidity.
“Listen,” he commanded, “that there, what you got, is a magic candy, and if you go on exposing it to the air after it is once in your mouth it’s likely to disappear, just like that.” And the speed of the translation was illustrated by a smart snapping of the fingers.
Doubt shone in the juvenile terror’s eyes and the earlier generations waited fearfully while skepticism and greed waged their recurrent conflict. For a time it seemed as if the veteran had blundered; but finally greed triumphed and a temporary peace ensued.
“Where was I?” inquired the interrupted narrator when the issue of battle was settled.
“You was talking about Jackson Gee,” answered the guardsman in a cautiously low tone.
“So I was, so I was,” the old gentleman agreed somewhat vaguely, nodding his head. He gazed at the sergeant with mingled awe and admiration. “I suppose it’s quite useless to mention it,” he said rather wistfully, “but if you ever get out of the army and should want a job ... You could name your own salary, you know?” The question ended on an appealing note.
Evidently the soldier understood the digression, for he replied in a tone that would brook no dispute. “No, sir, I couldn’t consider it.”
“I was afraid so,” said the other regretfully, and added, with apparent irrelevance, “I have to live with him, you see.”
“Tough luck,” commiserated the listener.
Reluctantly summoning his thoughts from the pleasant contemplation of what had seemed to offer a new era of peace, the bard turned to his story.
“A few hours later,” he continued, “I had a telephone call from Drayle’s wife, and I realized from the fright in her voice that something dreadful had happened. She asked me to come to the house at once. Chris had been hurt. But she disconnected before I could ask for details. I started immediately and I wondered as I drove what disaster had overtaken him. Anything, it seemed to me, might have befallen in that room of miracles. But I was not prepared to find that Drayle had been shot and wounded.
“The police were before me and already questioning the assailant, Mrs. Farrel, a fiery tempered young Irish-woman. When I entered the room she was repeating half-hysterically her explanation that Drayle had killed her husband in the laboratory that morning.
“‘Right before my eyes, I seen it, ‘ she shouted. ‘Harry was standing on a sort of platform looking at a big machine like, and so help me he didn’t have a stitch of clothes on, and I started to say something, but all at once there came a terrible sort of screech and a flash like lightnin’ kinda, in front of him. Then Harry turns into a sort of thick smoke and I can see right through him like he was a ghost; and then the smoke gets sucked into a big hole in the machine and I know Harry’s dead. And here’s this man what done it, just a standin’ there, grinnin’ horrid. So something comes over me all at once and I points Harry’s gun at him and pulls the trigger!’
“Even before the woman had finished I recalled what I seen one afternoon in Drayle’s laboratory many months before. I had been there for some time watching him when he placed a small tumbler on a work table and asked me if I had ever seen glass shattered by the vibrations of a violin. I told him that I had, but he went through the demonstration as if to satisfy himself. Of course when he drew a bow across the instrument’s strings and produced the proper pitch the goblet cracked into pieces exactly as might have been expected. And I wondered why Drayle concerned himself with so childish an experiment before I noticed that he appeared to have forgotten me completely.
“I endeavored then not to disturb him, and I remember trying to draw myself out of his way and feeling that something momentous was about to take place. Yet actually I believe it would have required a considerable commotion to have distracted his attention, for his ability to concentrate was one of the characteristics of his genius.
“I saw him place another glass on the table and I noticed then that it stood directly in front of a complicated mechanism. At first this gave out a low humming sound, but it soon rose to an unearthly whining shriek. I shrank from it involuntarily and a second later I was amazed at the sight of the glass, seemingly reduced to a thin vapor, being drawn into a funnel-like opening near the top of the device. I was too startled to speak and could only watch as Drayle started the contrivance again. Once more its noise cut through me with physical pain. I cried out. But my voice was overwhelmed by the terrific din of the mysterious machine.
“Then Drayle strode down the long room to another intricate mass of wire coils and plates and lamps. And I saw a dim glow appear in two of the bulbs and heard a noise like the crackling of paper. Drayle made some adjustments, and presently I observed a peculiar shimmering of the air above a horizontal metal grid. It reminded me of heat waves rising from a summer street, until I saw the vibrations were taking a definite pattern; and that the pattern was that of the glass I had seen dissolved into air. At first the image made me think of a picture formed by a series of horizontal lines close together but broken at various points in such fashion as to create the appearance of a line by the very continuity of the fractures. But as I watched, the plasma became substance. The air ceased to quiver and I was appalled to see Drayle pick up the tumbler and carry it to a scale on which he weighed it with infinite exactness. If he had approached me with it at that moment I would have fled in terror.
“Next, Drayle filled the goblet with some liquid which immediately afterward he measured in a beaker. The result seemed to please him, for he smiled happily. At the same instant he became aware of my presence. He looked surprised and then a trifle disconcerted. I could see that he was embarrassed by the knowledge that I had witnessed so much, and after a second or two he asked my silence. I agreed at once, not only because he requested it but because I couldn’t believe the evidence myself. He let me out then and locked the door.
“It was this recollection that made me credit the woman’s story. But I was sick with dread, for in spite of my faith in Drayle’s genius I feared he had gone mad.
“Mrs. Drayle had listened to Mrs. Farrel’s account calmly enough, but I could see the fear in her eyes when she signaled a wish to speak to me alone. I followed her into an adjoining room, leaving Mrs. Farrel with the two policemen and the doctor, who was trying to quiet her.
“As soon as the door closed after us Mrs. Drayle seized my hands.
“‘Tim, ‘ she whispered, ‘I’m horribly afraid that what the woman says is true. Chris has told me of some wonderful things he was planning to do, but I never expected he would experiment on human beings. Can they send him to prison?’
“Of course I said what I could to comfort her and tried to make my voice sound convincing. At the time the legal aspect of the matter did not worry me so much as the fear that the attack on Drayle might prove fatal. For even if it should develop that he was not dangerously hurt, I imagined that the interruption of the experiment at a critical moment might easily have ruined whatever slim chance there had been of success. For us the nerve-wracking part was that we could do nothing until the surgeon who was attending Drayle could tell us how badly he was injured.
“At last word came that the bullet had only grazed Drayle’s head and stunned him, but that he might remain unconscious for some time. Mrs. Drayle went in and sat at her husband’s side, while I returned to the laboratory and found the police greatly bewildered as to whether they ought to arrest Drayle.
“They had discovered in a closet an outfit of men’s clothing that Mrs. Farrel identified as her husband’s, and, although they saw no other trace of the missing man, they had a desire to lock up somebody as an evidence of their activity. It took considerable persuasion to prevail upon them to withhold their hands. There was no such difficulty about restraining them in the laboratory. They were afraid to touch any apparatus, and they gave the invention a ludicrously wide berth.
“I never knew exactly how long it was that I paced about the lower floor of Drayle’s home before the doctor summoned me and announced that the patient wanted me, but that I must be careful not to excite him. I have often wondered how many physicians would have to abandon their profession if they were deprived of that phrase. ‘You must not excite the patient.’
“Drayle was already excited when I entered. In fact, he was furious at the doctor’s efforts to restrain him. But I realized that my fear for his reason was groundless. His remarks were lucid and forceful as he raged at the interference with his work. As soon as he saw me he appealed for assistance.
“‘Make them let me alone. Tim, ‘ he begged, as his wife and the doctor, partly by force and partly by persuasion, endeavored to hold him in bed. ‘I must get back to the laboratory. That woman believes that I’ve killed her husband, and my assistant will think that we’ve failed.’
“I was about to argue with him when suddenly he managed to thrust the doctor aside and start toward the door. His seriousness impressed me so that I gave him a supporting arm and together we headed down the hall, with Mrs. Drayle and the doctor following anxiously in the rear. The laboratory was deserted and locked when we arrived. The police evidently felt it was too uncanny an atmosphere for a prolonged wait. Drayle opened the door, went directly to his machine, and examined it minutely.
“‘Thank the Lord that woman hit only me!’ he said, and sank into a chair. Then he asked for some brandy. Mrs. Drayle rushed off and reappeared in a minute with a decanter and glass. Drayle helped himself to a swallow that brought color to his cheeks and new strength to his limbs. Immediately after he turned again to the machine. I dragged up a chair, assisted him into it, and seated myself close by.