The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham

by H. G. Wells

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: The narrator a young man called Edward Eden meets a strange old gentleman who says he wants him to be his heir, this strange meeting produces stranger results.....

I set this story down, not expecting it will be believed, but, if possible, to prepare a way of escape for the next victim. He, perhaps, may profit by my misfortune. My own case, I know, is hopeless, and I am now in some measure prepared to meet my fate.

My name is Edward George Eden. I was born at Trentham, in Staffordshire, my father being employed in the gardens there. I lost my mother when I was three years old, and my father when I was five, my uncle, George Eden, then adopting me as his own son. He was a single man, self-educated, and well-known in Birmingham as an enterprising journalist; he educated me generously, fired my ambition to succeed in the world, and at his death, which happened four years ago, left me his entire fortune, a matter of about five hundred pounds after all outgoing charges were paid. I was then eighteen. He advised me in his will to expend the money in completing my education. I had already chosen the profession of medicine, and through his posthumous generosity, and my good fortune in a scholarship competition, I became a medical student at University College, London. At the time of the beginning of my story I lodged at 11A University Street, in a little upper room, very shabbily furnished, and draughty, overlooking the back of Shoolbred’s premises. I used this little room both to live in and sleep in, because I was anxious to eke out my means to the very last shillingsworth.

I was taking a pair of shoes to be mended at a shop in the Tottenham Court Road when I first encountered the little old man with the yellow face, with whom my life has now become so inextricably entangled. He was standing on the kerb, and staring at the number on the door in a doubtful way, as I opened it. His eyes--they were dull grey eyes, and reddish under the rims--fell to my face, and his countenance immediately assumed an expression of corrugated amiability.

“You come,” he said, “apt to the moment. I had forgotten the number of your house. How do you do, Mr. Eden?”

I was a little astonished at his familiar address, for I had never set eyes on the man before. I was a little annoyed, too, at his catching me with my boots under my arm. He noticed my lack of cordiality.

“Wonder who the deuce I am, eh? A friend, let me assure you. I have seen you before, though you haven’t seen me. Is there anywhere where I can talk to you?”

I hesitated. The shabbiness of my room upstairs was not a matter for every stranger. “Perhaps,” said I, “we might walk down the street. I’m unfortunately prevented”--My gesture explained the sentence before I had spoken it.

“The very thing,” he said, and faced this way and then that. “The street? Which way shall we go?” I slipped my boots down in the passage. “Look here!” he said abruptly; “this business of mine is a rigmarole. Come and lunch with me, Mr. Eden. I’m an old man, a very old man, and not good at explanations, and what with my piping voice and the clatter of the traffic”--

He laid a persuasive skinny hand that trembled a little upon my arm.

I was not so old that an old man might not treat me to a lunch. Yet at the same time I was not altogether pleased by this abrupt invitation. “I had rather”--I began. “But I had rather,” he said, catching me up, “and a certain civility is surely due to my grey hairs.” And so I consented, and went with him.

He took me to Blavitski’s; I had to walk slowly to accommodate myself to his paces; and over such a lunch as I had never tasted before, he fended off my leading questions, and I took a better note of his appearance. His clean-shaven face was lean and wrinkled, his shrivelled lips fell over a set of false teeth, and his white hair was thin and rather long; he seemed small to me, --though, indeed, most people seemed small to me, --and his shoulders were rounded and bent. And watching him, I could not help but observe that he too was taking note of me, running his eyes, with a curious touch of greed in them, over me, from my broad shoulders to my sun-tanned hands, and up to my freckled face again. “And now,” said he, as we lit our cigarettes, “I must tell you of the business in hand.

“I must tell you, then, that I am an old man, a very old man.” He paused momentarily. “And it happens that I have money that I must presently be leaving, and never a child have I to leave it to.” I thought of the confidence trick, and resolved I would be on the alert for the vestiges of my five hundred pounds. He proceeded to enlarge on his loneliness, and the trouble he had to find a proper disposition of his money. “I have weighed this plan and that plan, charities, institutions, and scholarships, and libraries, and I have come to this conclusion at last,”--he fixed his eyes on my face, --”that I will find some young fellow, ambitious, pure-minded, and poor, healthy in body and healthy in mind, and, in short, make him my heir, give him all that I have.” He repeated, “Give him all that I have. So that he will suddenly be lifted out of all the trouble and struggle in which his sympathies have been educated, to freedom and influence.”

I tried to seem disinterested. With a transparent hypocrisy, I said, “And you want my help, my professional services, maybe, to find that person.”

He smiled, and looked at me over his cigarette, and I laughed at his quiet exposure of my modest pretence.

“What a career such a man might have!” he said. “It fills me with envy to think how I have accumulated that another man may spend--

“But there are conditions, of course, burdens to be imposed. He must, for instance, take my name. You cannot expect everything without some return. And I must go into all the circumstances of his life before I can accept him. He must be sound. I must know his heredity, how his parents and grandparents died, have the strictest inquiries made into his private morals”--

This modified my secret congratulations a little. “And do I understand,” said I, “that I--?”

“Yes,” he said, almost fiercely. “You. You.

I answered never a word. My imagination was dancing wildly, my innate scepticism was useless to modify its transports. There was not a particle of gratitude in my mind--I did not know what to say nor how to say it. “But why me in particular?” I said at last.

He had chanced to hear of me from Professor Haslar, he said, as a typically sound and sane young man, and he wished, as far as possible, to leave his money where health and integrity were assured.

That was my first meeting with the little old man. He was mysterious about himself; he would not give his name yet, he said, and after I had answered some questions of his, he left me at the Blavitski portal. I noticed that he drew a handful of gold coins from his pocket when it came to paying for the lunch. His insistence upon bodily health was curious. In accordance with an arrangement we had made I applied that day for a life policy in the Loyal Insurance Company for a large sum, and I was exhaustively overhauled by the medical advisers of that company in the subsequent week. Even that did not satisfy him, and he insisted I must be re-examined by the great Doctor Henderson. It was Friday in Whitsun week before he came to a decision. He called me down, quite late in the evening, --nearly nine it was, --from cramming chemical equations for my Preliminary Scientific examination. He was standing in the passage under the feeble gas-lamp, and his face was a grotesque interplay of shadows. He seemed more bowed than when I had first seen him, and his cheeks had sunk in a little.

His voice shook with emotion. “Everything is satisfactory, Mr. Eden,” he said. “Everything is quite, quite satisfactory. And this night of all nights, you must dine with me and celebrate your--accession.” He was interrupted by a cough. “You won’t have long to wait, either,” he said, wiping his handkerchief across his lips, and gripping my hand with his long bony claw that was disengaged. “Certainly not very long to wait.”

We went into the street and called a cab. I remember every incident of that drive vividly, the swift, easy motion, the vivid contrast of gas and oil and electric light, the crowds of people in the streets, the place in Regent Street to which we went, and the sumptuous dinner we were served with there. I was disconcerted at first by the well-dressed waiter’s glances at my rough clothes, bothered by the stones of the olives, but as the champagne warmed my blood, my confidence revived. At first the old man talked of himself. He had already told me his name in the cab; he was Egbert Elvesham, the great philosopher, whose name I had known since I was a lad at school. It seemed incredible to me that this man, whose intelligence had so early dominated mine, this great abstraction, should suddenly realise itself as this decrepit, familiar figure. I daresay every young fellow who has suddenly fallen among celebrities has felt something of my disappointment. He told me now of the future that the feeble streams of his life would presently leave dry for me, houses, copyrights, investments; I had never suspected that philosophers were so rich. He watched me drink and eat with a touch of envy. “What a capacity for living you have!” he said; and then, with a sigh, a sigh of relief I could have thought it, “It will not be long.”

“Ay,” said I, my head swimming now with champagne; “I have a future perhaps--of a passing agreeable sort, thanks to you. I shall now have the honour of your name. But you have a past. Such a past as is worth all my future.”

He shook his head and smiled, as I thought, with half-sad appreciation of my flattering admiration. “That future,” he said, “would you in truth change it?” The waiter came with liqueurs. “You will not perhaps mind taking my name, taking my position, but would you indeed--willingly--take my years?”

“With your achievements,” said I gallantly.

He smiled again. “Kummel--both,” he said to the waiter, and turned his attention to a little paper packet he had taken from his pocket. “This hour,” said he, “this after-dinner hour is the hour of small things. Here is a scrap of my unpublished wisdom.” He opened the packet with his shaking yellow fingers, and showed a little pinkish powder on the paper. “This,” said he--”well, you must guess what it is. But Kummel--put but a dash of this powder in it--is Himmel.” His large greyish eyes watched mine with an inscrutable expression.

It was a bit of a shock to me to find this great teacher gave his mind to the flavour of liqueurs. However, I feigned a great interest in his weakness, for I was drunk enough for such small sycophancy.

He parted the powder between the little glasses, and, rising suddenly, with a strange unexpected dignity, held out his hand towards me. I imitated his action, and the glasses rang. “To a quick succession,” said he, and raised his glass towards his lips.

“Not that,” I said hastily. “Not that.”

He paused, with the liqueur at the level of his chin, and his eyes blazing into mine.

“To a long life,” said I.

He hesitated. “To a long life,” said he, with a sudden bark of laughter, and with eyes fixed on one another we tilted the little glasses. His eyes looked straight into mine, and as I drained the stuff off, I felt a curiously intense sensation. The first touch of it set my brain in a furious tumult; I seemed to feel an actual physical stirring in my skull, and a seething humming filled my ears. I did not notice the flavour in my mouth, the aroma that filled my throat; I saw only the grey intensity of his gaze that burnt into mine. The draught, the mental confusion, the noise and stirring in my head, seemed to last an interminable time. Curious vague impressions of half-forgotten things danced and vanished on the edge of my consciousness. At last he broke the spell. With a sudden explosive sigh he put down his glass.

“Well?” he said.

“It’s glorious,” said I, though I had not tasted the stuff.

My head was spinning. I sat down. My brain was chaos. Then my perception grew clear and minute as though I saw things in a concave mirror. His manner seemed to have changed into something nervous and hasty. He pulled out his watch and grimaced at it. “Eleven-seven! And to-night I must--Seven--twenty-five. Waterloo! I must go at once.” He called for the bill, and struggled with his coat. Officious waiters came to our assistance. In another moment I was wishing him good-bye, over the apron of a cab, and still with an absurd feeling of minute distinctness, as though--how can I express it?--I not only saw but felt through an inverted opera-glass.

“That stuff,” he said. He put his hand to his forehead. “I ought not to have given it to you. It will make your head split to-morrow. Wait a minute. Here.” He handed me out a little flat thing like a seidlitz-powder. “Take that in water as you are going to bed. The other thing was a drug. Not till you’re ready to go to bed, mind. It will clear your head. That’s all. One more shake--Futurus!”

I gripped his shrivelled claw. “Good-bye,” he said, and by the droop of his eyelids I judged he too was a little under the influence of that brain-twisting cordial.

He recollected something else with a start, felt in his breast-pocket, and produced another packet, this time a cylinder the size and shape of a shaving-stick. “Here,” said he. “I’d almost forgotten. Don’t open this until I come to-morrow--but take it now.”

It was so heavy that I well-nigh dropped it. “All ri’!” said I, and he grinned at me through the cab window as the cabman flicked his horse into wakefulness. It was a white packet he had given me, with red seals at either end and along its edge. “If this isn’t money,” said I, “it’s platinum or lead.”

I stuck it with elaborate care into my pocket, and with a whirling brain walked home through the Regent Street loiterers and the dark back streets beyond Portland Road. I remember the sensations of that walk very vividly, strange as they were. I was still so far myself that I could notice my strange mental state, and wonder whether this stuff I had had was opium--a drug beyond my experience. It is hard now to describe the peculiarity of my mental strangeness--mental doubling vaguely expresses it. As I was walking up Regent Street I found in my mind a queer persuasion that it was Waterloo station, and had an odd impulse to get into the Polytechnic as a man might get into a train. I put a knuckle in my eye, and it was Regent Street. How can I express it? You see a skilful actor looking quietly at you, he pulls a grimace, and lo!--another person. Is it too extravagant if I tell you that it seemed to me as if Regent Street had, for the moment, done that? Then, being persuaded it was Regent Street again, I was oddly muddled about some fantastic reminiscences that cropped up. “Thirty years ago,” thought I, “it was here that I quarrelled with my brother.” Then I burst out laughing, to the astonishment and encouragement of a group of night prowlers. Thirty years ago I did not exist, and never in my life had I boasted a brother. The stuff was surely liquid folly, for the poignant regret for that lost brother still clung to me. Along Portland Road the madness took another turn. I began to recall vanished shops, and to compare the street with what it used to be. Confused, troubled thinking is comprehensible enough after the drink I had taken, but what puzzled me were these curiously vivid phantasm memories that had crept into my mind, and not only the memories that had crept in, but also the memories that had slipped out. I stopped opposite Stevens’, the natural history dealer’s, and cudgelled my brains to think what he had to do with me. A ‘bus went by, and sounded exactly like the rumbling of a train. I seemed to be dipped into some dark, remote pit for the recollection. “Of course,” said I, at last, “he has promised me three frogs to-morrow. Odd I should have forgotten.”

Do they still show children dissolving views? In those I remember one view would begin like a faint ghost, and grow and oust another. In just that way it seemed to me that a ghostly set of new sensations was struggling with those of my ordinary self.

I went on through Euston Road to Tottenham Court Road, puzzled, and a little frightened, and scarcely noticed the unusual way I was taking, for commonly I used to cut through the intervening network of back streets. I turned into University Street, to discover that I had forgotten my number. Only by a strong effort did I recall 11A, and even then it seemed to me that it was a thing some forgotten person had told me. I tried to steady my mind by recalling the incidents of the dinner, and for the life of me I could conjure up no picture of my host’s face; I saw him only as a shadowy outline, as one might see oneself reflected in a window through which one was looking. In his place, however, I had a curious exterior vision of myself sitting at a table, flushed, bright-eyed, and talkative.

“I must take this other powder,” said I. “This is getting impossible.”

I tried the wrong side of the hall for my candle and the matches, and had a doubt of which landing my room might be on. “I’m drunk,” I said, “that’s certain,” and blundered needlessly on the staircase to sustain the proposition.

At the first glance my room seemed unfamiliar. “What rot!” I said, and stared about me. I seemed to bring myself back by the effort, and the odd phantasmal quality passed into the concrete familiar. There was the old glass still, with my notes on the albumens stuck in the corner of the frame, my old everyday suit of clothes pitched about the floor. And yet it was not so real after all. I felt an idiotic persuasion trying to creep into my mind, as it were, that I was in a railway carriage in a train just stopping, that I was peering out of the window at some unknown station. I gripped the bed-rail firmly to reassure myself. “It’s clairvoyance, perhaps,” I said. “I must write to the Psychical Research Society.”

I put the rouleau on my dressing-table, sat on my bed and began to take off my boots. It was as if the picture of my present sensations was painted over some other picture that was trying to show through. “Curse it!” said I; “my wits are going, or am I in two places at once?” Half-undressed, I tossed the powder into a glass and drank it off. It effervesced, and became a fluorescent amber colour. Before I was in bed my mind was already tranquillised. I felt the pillow at my cheek, and thereupon I must have fallen asleep.


I awoke abruptly out of a dream of strange beasts, and found myself lying on my back. Probably everyone knows that dismal, emotional dream from which one escapes, awake indeed, but strangely cowed. There was a curious taste in my mouth, a tired feeling in my limbs, a sense of cutaneous discomfort. I lay with my head motionless on my pillow, expecting that my feeling of strangeness and terror would probably pass away, and that I should then doze off again to sleep. But instead of that, my uncanny sensations increased. At first I could perceive nothing wrong about me. There was a faint light in the room, so faint that it was the very next thing to darkness, and the furniture stood out in it as vague blots of absolute darkness. I stared with my eyes just over the bedclothes.

It came into my mind that someone had entered the room to rob me of my rouleau of money, but after lying for some moments, breathing regularly to simulate sleep, I realised this was mere fancy. Nevertheless, the uneasy assurance of something wrong kept fast hold of me. With an effort I raised my head from the pillow, and peered about me at the dark. What it was I could not conceive. I looked at the dim shapes around me, the greater and lesser darknesses that indicated curtains, table, fireplace, bookshelves, and so forth. Then I began to perceive something unfamiliar in the forms of the darkness. Had the bed turned round? Yonder should be the bookshelves, and something shrouded and pallid rose there, something that would not answer to the bookshelves, however I looked at it. It was far too big to be my shirt thrown on a chair.

Overcoming a childish terror, I threw back the bedclothes and thrust my leg out of bed. Instead of coming out of my truckle-bed upon the floor, I found my foot scarcely reached the edge of the mattress. I made another step, as it were, and sat up on the edge of the bed. By the side of my bed should be the candle, and the matches upon the broken chair. I put out my hand and touched--nothing. I waved my hand in the darkness, and it came against some heavy hanging, soft and thick in texture, which gave a rustling noise at my touch. I grasped this and pulled it; it appeared to be a curtain suspended over the head of my bed.

I was now thoroughly awake, and beginning to realise that I was in a strange room. I was puzzled. I tried to recall the overnight circumstances, and I found them now, curiously enough, vivid in my memory: the supper, my reception of the little packages, my wonder whether I was intoxicated, my slow undressing, the coolness to my flushed face of my pillow. I felt a sudden distrust. Was that last night, or the night before? At anyrate, this room was strange to me, and I could not imagine how I had got into it. The dim, pallid outline was growing paler, and I perceived it was a window, with the dark shape of an oval toilet-glass against the weak intimation of the dawn that filtered through the blind. I stood up, and was surprised by a curious feeling of weakness and unsteadiness. With trembling hands outstretched, I walked slowly towards the window, getting, nevertheless, a bruise on the knee from a chair by the way. I fumbled round the glass, which was large, with handsome brass sconces, to find the blind-cord. I could not find any. By chance I took hold of the tassel, and with the click of a spring the blind ran up.

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