URLs for Books

Your last ebook:

You dont read ebooks at this site.

Total ebooks on site: about 25000

You can read and download its for free!

Ebooks by authors: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 
Rhodes, W. H. (William Henry) / Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales, and Sketches
(This file was made from images produced by the North
Carolina History and Fiction Digital Library.)





Transcriber's Notes:

1. Passages in italics are surrounded by _underscores_.

2. Words in Bold are surrounded by =equal= signs.

3. Words in both Bold and Gothic Font are surrounded by bars and equal
signs |=text=|.

4. Any footnotes in the original text have been placed directly under
the paragraph or passage containing their anchors.

5. The following words with the [oe] ligature appeared in the original
text: manoeuvre, Croesus, oesophagus. The ligature has been removed for
the purpose of this e-text.

6. A list of minor punctuation and spelling error corrections is located
at the end of this e-text.




CAXTON'S BOOK:

A COLLECTION OF

ESSAYS, POEMS, TALES AND SKETCHES.


BY THE LATE
W. H. RHODES.


_EDITED BY DANIEL O'CONNELL._


SAN FRANCISCO:
A. L. BANCROFT AND COMPANY.
1876.


Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1876,
BY SUSAN RHODES,
In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington, D.C.


SAN FRANCISCO:
A. L. BANCROFT AND COMPANY,
PRINTERS AND BINDERS.




PREFACE.


The sketches and poems in this volume were written at a time when the
author was engaged in the practice of a laborious profession. It was the
intention of Mr. Rhodes to collect them from the various newspapers and
periodicals in which they had appeared, and publish them in book-form
whenever he could obtain a respite from his arduous duties. But before
he carried out his long-cherished object he died, in the prime of his
manhood and the ripeness of his literary life. Many of his poems were
written for the monthly gatherings of the Bohemian Club. There, when
Caxton's name was announced, his literary friends thronged about him,
confident of the rich treat the brain of their beloved poet had provided
for them. His wit was keen and sparkling, without a shade of malice; and
many an anecdote, that began with some delightful absurdity, closed in a
pathos that showed the great versatility of Caxton's genius. The Case of
Summerfield, which is perhaps the most ingenious of the tales in that
peculiar vein, was widely copied and warmly praised for the originality
of its plan and the skill of its execution. The editor of this work has
observed, as far as lay in his power, the intention of the author in
the selection of those compositions which Mr. Rhodes had put aside for
compilation. With such a mass and variety of material (for Caxton had
been a busy worker) it was difficult to select from productions all of
which were excellent. Few liberties have been taken with them; for,
indeed, Caxton was himself so conscientious in the arrangement and
correction of his manuscript, that, with the exception of some slight
and unimportant alterations, this book goes before his friends and the
public in the same order as the author would have chosen had he been
spared to perform the task.




IN MEMORIAM.


At the time when, according to custom, Mr. Rhodes's death was formally
announced to the several Courts of Record in San Francisco, one of the
learned Judges urged the publication of his writings in some form which
would give the bar a permanent memorial of one of it's most esteemed
members, and to them their proper place in American literature. This has
been accomplished by the present volume. It is sincerely to be hoped
that while it will largely add to Mr. Rhodes's reputation, it may also
serve to furnish a most interesting family some substantial aid in the
struggle with life, from which the beloved husband and tender father has
unhappily been removed.

William Henry Rhodes was born July 16, 1822, in Windsor, North Carolina.
His mother died when he was six years old, and his father, Col. E. A.
Rhodes, sent him to Princeton, New Jersey, to be educated at the seat of
learning established there. Col. Rhodes was subsequently appointed
United States Consul at Galveston, Texas, and without completing his
college course, the son followed his father to his new home. There he
diligently pursued his studies. He found many young men like himself,
ambitious and zealous in acquiring information, and these he associated
with himself in literary and debating clubs, where the most important
matters of natural science and political economy were discussed. The
effect of this self-bestowed education was most marked. It remained with
him all his life. He was thoroughly versed in the political history of
the country, and possessed an amount of knowledge concerning the career,
motives and objects of politics, parties and public men, which, had he
ever chosen to embark in public life, would have made him distinguished
and successful. No one ever discussed with him the questions connected
with the theory of our government without a thorough respect for the
sincerity of his convictions, and the ability with which they were
maintained. He was, in theory, a thorough partisan of the Southern
political and constitutional school of ideas, and never abandoned them.
But he advocated them without passion or apparent prejudice, and at all
times shrunk from active connection with politics as a trade. He was an
idealist in law, in science and government, and perhaps his early
training, self-imposed and self-contained, had much to do with his
peculiarities.

In 1844, he entered Harvard Law School, where he remained for two years.
Here, as at home among his young friends, he was a master-spirit and
leader. He was an especial favorite of his instructors; was noted for
his studious and exemplary habits, while his genial and courteous
manners won the lasting friendship of his classmates and companions. His
fondness for weaving the problems of science with fiction, which became
afterwards so marked a characteristic of his literary efforts, attracted
the especial attention of his professors; and had Mr. Rhodes devoted
himself to this then novel department of letters, he would have become,
no doubt, greatly distinguished as a writer; and the great master of
scientific fiction, Jules Verne, would have found the field of his
efforts already sown and reaped by the young Southern student. But his
necessities and parental choice, conspired to keep him at "the lawless
science of the law;" and literature become an incident of life, rather
than its end and aim. He never really loved the law. He rather lived by
it than in it. He became a good lawyer, but was an unwilling
practitioner. He understood legal principles thoroughly. He loved the
higher lessons of truth and justice, of right and wrong, _fas et nefas_,
which they illustrated; but he bent himself to the necessary details of
professional life--to the money-getting part of it--with a peculiar and
constantly increasing reluctance. The yoke of labor galled him, and
always more severely. An opportunity to speak and write what was most
pleasing to his taste, which set him free as a liberated prisoner of
thought, his untrammeled and wandering imagination extravagantly
interweaving scientific principles, natural forces, and elemental facts,
in some witch's dance of fancy, where he dissolved in its alchemy,
earth, air and water, and created a world of his own, or destroyed that
beneath his feet, was of more value to him, though it brought him no
gain, than a stiff cause in courts which bound him to dry details of
weary facts and legal propositions, though every hour of his time
bestowed a golden reward.

His early professional life was passed in Galveston. He was measurably
successful in it, and won many friends by his gallant and chivalrous
advocacy of the causes intrusted to him. His personal popularity
elevated him to a Probate Judgeship in Texas. This office he filled with
honor; and at the expiration of his term, he returned, after a brief
sojourn in New York, to his native state and town, where he practiced
his profession until 1850. In this year he caught the inspiration of
adventure in the new El Dorado, and sailed for California. From that
time he continued a citizen of this State. He was widely known and
universally respected. He practiced his profession with diligence; but
mind and heart were inviting him to the life and career of a man of
letters; and he was every day sacrificed to duty, as he esteemed it. He
was too conscientious to become indifferent to his clients' interests:
but he had no ambition for distinction as a jurist. He was utterly
indifferent to the profits of his labors. He cared nothing for money, or
for those who possessed it. His real life and real enjoyments were of a
far different sort; and his genius was perpetually bound to the altar,
and sacrificed by a sense of obligation, and a pride which never
permitted him to abandon the profession for which he was educated. Like
many another man of peculiar mental qualities, he distrusted himself
where he should have been most confident. The writer has often discussed
with Mr. Rhodes his professional and literary life, urged him to devote
himself to literature, and endeavored to point out to him the real road
to success. But he dreaded the venture; and like a swift-footed blooded
horse, fit to run a course for a man's life, continued on his way,
harnessed to a plow, and broke his heart in the harness!

William Henry Rhodes will long be remembered by his contemporaries at
the Bar of California as a man of rare genius, exemplary habits, high
honor, and gentle manners, with wit and humor unexcelled. His writings
are illumined by powerful fancy, scientific knowledge, and a reasoning
power which gave to his most weird imaginations the similitude of truth
and the apparel of facts. Nor did they, nor do they, do him justice. He
could have accomplished far more had circumstances been propitious to
him. That they were not, is and will always be a source of regret. That,
environed as he was, he achieved so much more than his fellows, has made
his friends always loyal to him while living, and fond in their memories
of him when dead. We give his productions to the world with
satisfaction, not unmingled with regret that what is, is only the faint
echo, the unfulfilled promise of what might have been. Still, may we
say, and ask those who read these sketches to say with us, as they lay
down the volume: "_Habet enim justam venerationem, quicquid excellit._"

W. H. L. B.




CONTENTS.


PAGE

_PREFACE_ 3

_IN MEMORIAM_ 5


I. _THE CASE OF SUMMERFIELD_ 13

II. _THE MERCHANTS' EXCHANGE_ 34

III. _THE DESERTED SCHOOLHOUSE_ 37

IV. _FOR AN ALBUM_ 50

V. _PHASES IN THE LIFE OF JOHN POLLEXFEN_ 52

VI. _THE LOVE-KNOT_ 94

VII. _THE AZTEC PRINCESS_ 95

VIII. _THE MOTHER'S EPISTLE_ 154

IX. _LEGENDS OF LAKE BIGLER_ 156

X. _ROSENTHAL'S ELAINE_ 171

XI. _THE TELESCOPIC EYE_ 174

XII. _THE EMERALD ISLE_ 190

XIII. _THE EARTH'S HOT CENTER_ 199

XIV. _WILDEY'S DREAM_ 212

XV. _WHITHERWARD_ 218

XVI. _OUR WEDDING DAY_ 229

XVII. _THE OLD YEAR AND THE NEW_ 231

XVIII. _A PAIR OF MYTHS_ 233

XIX. _THE LAST OF HIS RACE_ 247

XX. _THE TWO GEORGES_ 249

XXI. _MASONRY_ 260

XXII. _POLLOCK'S EUTHANASIA_ 262

XXIII. _SCIENCE, LITERATURE, AND ART DURING THE
FIRST HALF OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY_ 264

XXIV. _THE ENROBING OF LIBERTY_ 276

XXV. _A CAKE OF SOAP_ 279

XXVI. _THE SUMMERFIELD CASE_ 280

XXVII. _THE AVITOR_ 291

XXVIII. _LOST AND FOUND_ 293




[Decoration]


CAXTON'S BOOK.




I.

_THE CASE OF SUMMERFIELD._


The following manuscript was found among the effects of the late
Leonidas Parker, in relation to one Gregory Summerfield, or, as he was
called at the time those singular events first attracted public notice,
"The Man with a Secret." Parker was an eminent lawyer, a man of firm
will, fond of dabbling in the occult sciences, but never allowing this
tendency to interfere with the earnest practice of his profession. This
astounding narrative is prefaced by the annexed clipping from the
"Auburn Messenger" of November 1, 1870:

A few days since, we called public attention to the singular
conduct of James G. Wilkins, justice of the peace for the "Cape
Horn" district, in this county, in discharging without trial a
man named Parker, who was, as we still think, seriously
implicated in the mysterious death of an old man named
Summerfield, who, our readers will probably remember, met so
tragical an end on the line of the Central Pacific Railroad, in
the month of October last. We have now to record another bold
outrage on public justice, in connection with the same affair.
The grand jury of Placer County has just adjourned, without
finding any bill against the person named above. Not only did
they refuse to find a true bill, or to make any presentment, but
they went one step further toward the exoneration of the
offender: they specially _ignored_ the indictment which our
district attorney deemed it his duty to present. The main facts
in relation to the arrest and subsequent discharge of Parker may
be summed up in few words:

It appears that, about the last of October, one Gregory
Summerfield, an old man nearly seventy years of age, in company
with Parker, took passage for Chicago, _via_ the Pacific
Railroad, and about the middle of the afternoon reached the
neighborhood of Cape Horn, in this county. Nothing of any special
importance seems to have attracted the attention of any of the
passengers toward these persons until a few moments before
passing the dangerous curve in the track, overlooking the North
Fork of the American River, at the place called Cape Horn. As our
readers are aware, the road at this point skirts a precipice,
with rocky perpendicular sides, extending to the bed of the
stream, nearly seventeen hundred feet below. Before passing the
curve, Parker was heard to comment upon the sublimity of the
scenery they were approaching, and finally requested the old man
to leave the car and stand upon the open platform, in order to
obtain a better view of the tremendous chasm and the mountains
just beyond. The two men left the car, and a moment afterwards a
cry of horror was heard by all the passengers, and the old man
was observed to fall at least one thousand feet upon the crags
below. The train was stopped for a few moments, but, fearful of a
collision if any considerable length of time should be lost in an
unavailing search for the mangled remains, it soon moved on
again, and proceeded as swiftly as possible to the next station.
There the miscreant Parker was arrested, and conveyed to the
office of the nearest justice of the peace for examination. We
understand that he refused to give any detailed account of the
transaction, only that "the deceased either fell or was thrown
off from the moving train."

The examination was postponed until the arrival of Parker's
counsel, O'Connell & Kilpatrick, of Grass Valley, and after they
reached Cape Horn not a single word could be extracted from the
prisoner. It is said that the inquisition was a mere farce; there
being no witnesses present except one lady passenger, who, with
commendable spirit, volunteered to lay over one day, to give in
her testimony. We also learn that, after the trial, the justice,
together with the prisoner and his counsel, were closeted in
secret session for more than two hours; at the expiration of
which time the judge resumed his seat upon the bench, and
discharged the prisoner!

Now, we have no desire to do injustice toward any of the parties
to this singular transaction, much less to arm public sentiment
against an innocent man. But we do affirm that _there is, there
must be_, some profound mystery at the bottom of this affair, and
we shall do our utmost to fathom the secret.

Yes, there is a secret and mystery connected with the disappearance of
Summerfield, and the sole object of this communication is to clear it
up, and place myself right in the public estimation. But, in order to do
so, it becomes essentially necessary to relate all the circumstances
connected with my first and subsequent acquaintance with Summerfield. To
do this intelligibly, I shall have to go back twenty-two years.

It is well known amongst my intimate friends that I resided in the late
Republic of Texas for many years antecedent to my immigration to this
State. During the year 1847, whilst but a boy, and residing on the
sea-beach some three or four miles from the city of Galveston, Judge
Wheeler, at that time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, paid
us a visit, and brought with him a gentleman, whom he had known several
years previously on the Sabine River, in the eastern part of that State.
This gentleman was introduced to us by the name of Summerfield. At that
time he was past the prime of life, slightly gray, and inclined to
corpulency. He was of medium height, and walked proudly erect, as though
conscious of superior mental attainments. His face was one of those
which, once seen, can never be forgotten. The forehead was broad, high,
and protuberant. It was, besides, deeply graven with wrinkles, and
altogether was the most intellectual that I had ever seen. It bore some
resemblance to that of Sir Isaac Newton, but still more to Humboldt or
Webster. The eyes were large, deep-set, and lustrous with a light that
seemed kindled in their own depths. In color they were gray, and whilst
in conversation absolutely blazed with intellect. His mouth was large,
but cut with all the precision of a sculptor's chiseling. He was rather
pale, but, when excited, his complexion lit up with a sudden rush of
ruddy flushes, that added something like beauty to his half-sad and
half-sardonic expression. A word and a glance told me at once, this is a
most extraordinary man.

Judge Wheeler knew but little of the antecedents of Summerfield. He was
of Northern birth, but of what State it is impossible to say definitely.
Early in life he removed to the frontier of Arkansas, and pursued for
some years the avocation of village schoolmaster. It was the suggestion
of Judge Wheeler that induced him to read law. In six months' time he
had mastered Story's Equity, and gained an important suit, based upon
one of its most recondite principles. But his heart was not in the legal
profession, and he made almost constant sallies into the fields of
science, literature and art. He was a natural mathematician, and was the
most profound and original arithmetician in the Southwest. He frequently
computed the astronomical tables for the almanacs of New Orleans,
Pensacola and Mobile, and calculated eclipse, transit and observations
with ease and perfect accuracy. He was also deeply read in metaphysics,
and wrote and published, in the old _Democratic Review_ for 1846, an
article on the "Natural Proof of the Existence of a Deity," that for
beauty of language, depth of reasoning, versatility of illustration, and
compactness of logic, has never been equaled. The only other
publication which at that period he had made, was a book that astonished
all of his friends, both in title and execution. It was called "The
Desperadoes of the West," and purported to give minute details of the
lives of some of the most noted duelists and blood-stained villains in
the Western States. But the book belied its title. It is full of
splendid description and original thought. No volume in the language
contains so many eloquent passages and such gorgeous imagery, in the
same space. His plea for immortality, on beholding the execution of one
of the most noted culprits of Arkansas, has no parallel in any living
language for beauty of diction and power of thought. As my sole object
in this communication is to defend myself, some acquaintance with the
mental resources of Summerfield is absolutely indispensable; for his
death was the immediate consequence of his splendid attainments. Of
chemistry he was a complete master. He describes it in his article on a
Deity, above alluded to, as the "Youngest Daughter of the Sciences, born
amid flames, and cradled in rollers of fire." If there were any one
science to which he was more specially devoted than to any and all
others, it was chemistry. But he really seemed an adept in all, and
shone about everywhere with equal lustre.

Many of these characteristics were mentioned by Judge Wheeler at the
time of Summerfield's visit to Galveston, but others subsequently came
to my knowledge, after his retreat to Brownsville, on the banks of the
Rio Grande. There he filled the position of judge of the District Court,
and such was his position just previous to his arrival in this city in
the month of September of the past year.

One day toward the close of last September, an old man rapped at my
office door, and on invitation came in, and advancing, called me by
name. Perceiving that I did not at first recognize him, he introduced
himself as Gregory Summerfield. After inviting him to a seat, I
scrutinized his features more closely, and quickly identified him as the
same person whom I had met twenty-two years before. He was greatly
altered in appearance, but the lofty forehead and the gray eye were
still there, unchanged and unchangeable. He was not quite so stout, but
more ruddy in complexion, and exhibited some symptoms, as I then
thought, of intemperate drinking. Still there was the old charm of
intellectual superiority in his conversation, and I welcomed him to
California as an important addition to her mental wealth.

It was not many minutes before he requested a private interview. He
followed me into my back office, carefully closed the door after him and
locked it. We had scarcely seated ourselves before he inquired of me if
I had noticed any recent articles in the newspapers respecting the
discovery of the art of decomposing water so as to fit it for use as a
fuel for ordinary purposes?

I replied that I had observed nothing new upon that subject since the
experiments of Agassiz and Professor Henry, and added that, in my
opinion, the expensive mode of reduction would always prevent its use.

In a few words he then informed me that he had made the discovery that
the art was extremely simple, and the expense attending the
decomposition so slight as to be insignificant.

Presuming then that the object of his visit to me was to procure the
necessary forms to get out a patent for the right, I congratulated him
upon his good fortune, and was about to branch forth with a description
of some of the great benefits that must ensue to the community, when he
suddenly and somewhat uncivilly requested me to "be silent," and listen
to what he had to say.

He began with some general remarks about the inequality of fortune
amongst mankind, and instanced himself as a striking example of the fate
of those men, who, according to all the rules of right, ought to be near
the top, instead of at the foot of the ladder of fortune. "But," said
he, springing to his feet with impulsive energy, "I have now the means
at my command of rising superior to fate, or of inflicting incalculable
ills upon the whole human race."

Looking at him more closely, I thought I could detect in his eye the
gleam of madness; but I remained silent and awaited further
developments. But my scrutiny, stolen as it was, had been detected, and
he replied at once to the expression of my face: "No, sir; I am neither
drunk nor a maniac; I am in deep earnest in all that I say; and I am
fully prepared, by actual experiment, to demonstrate beyond all doubt
the truth of all I claim."

For the first time I noticed that he carried a small portmanteau in his
hand; this he placed upon the table, unlocked it, and took out two or
three small volumes, a pamphlet or two, and a small, square,
wide-mouthed vial, hermetically sealed.

I watched him with profound curiosity, and took note of his slightest
movements. Having arranged his books to suit him, and placed the vial in
a conspicuous position, he drew up his chair very closely to my own, and
uttered in a half-hissing tone: "I demand one million dollars for the
contents of that bottle; and you must raise it for me in the city of
San Francisco within one month, or scenes too terrible even for the
imagination to conceive, will surely be witnessed by every living human
being on the face of the globe."

The tone, the manner, and the absurd extravagance of the demand, excited
a faint smile upon my lips, which he observed, but disdained to notice.

My mind was fully made up that I had a maniac to deal with, and I
prepared to act accordingly. But I ascertained at once that my inmost
thoughts were read by the remarkable man before me, and seemed to be
anticipated by him in advance of their expression.

"Perhaps," said I, "Mr. Summerfield, you would oblige me by informing me
fully of the grounds of your claim, and the nature of your discovery."

"That is the object of my visit," he replied. "I claim to have
discovered the key which unlocks the constituent gases of water, and
frees each from the embrace of the other, at a single touch."

"You mean to assert," I rejoined, "that you can make water burn itself
up?"

"Nothing more nor less," he responded, "except this: to insist upon the
consequences of the secret, if my demand be not at once complied with."

Then, without pausing for a moment to allow me to make a suggestion, as
I once or twice attempted to do, he proceeded in a clear and deliberate
manner, in these words: "I need not inform you, sir, that when this
earth was created, it consisted almost wholly of vapor, which, by
condensation, finally became water. The oceans now occupy more than two
thirds of the entire surface of the globe. The continents are mere
islands in the midst of the seas. They are everywhere ocean-bound, and
the hyperborean north is hemmed in by open polar seas. Such is my first
proposition. My second embraces the constituent elements of water. What
is that thing which we call water? Chemistry, that royal queen of all
the sciences, answers readily: 'Water is but the combination of two
gases, oxygen and hydrogen, and in the proportion of eight to one.' In
other words, in order to form water, take eight parts of oxygen and one
of hydrogen, mix them together, and the result or product is water. You
smile, sir, because, as you very properly think, these are the
elementary principles of science, and are familiar to the minds of every
schoolboy twelve years of age. Yes! but what next? Suppose you take
these same gases and mix them in any other proportion, I care not what,
and the instantaneous result is heat, flame, combustion of the intensest
description. The famous Drummond Light, that a few years ago astonished
Europe--what is that but the ignited flame of a mixture of oxygen and
hydrogen projected against a small piece of lime? What was harmless as
water, becomes the most destructive of all known objects when decomposed
and mixed in any other proportion.

"Now, suppose I fling the contents of this small vial into the Pacific
Ocean, what would be the result? Dare you contemplate it for an instant?
I do not assert that the entire surface of the sea would instantaneously
bubble up into insufferable flames; no, but from the nucleus of a
circle, of which this vial would be the centre, lurid radii of flames
would gradually shoot outward, until the blazing circumference would
roll in vast billows of fire, upon the uttermost shores. Not all the
dripping clouds of the deluge could extinguish it. Not all the tears of
saints and angels could for an instant check its progress. On and onward
it would sweep, with the steady gait of destiny, until the continents
would melt with fervent heat, the atmosphere glare with the ominous
conflagration, and all living creatures, in land and sea and air, perish
in one universal catastrophe."

Then suddenly starting to his feet, he drew himself up to his full
height, and murmured solemnly, "I feel like a God! and I recognize my
fellow-men but as pigmies that I spurn beneath my feet."

"Summerfield," said I calmly, "there must be some strange error in all
this. You are self-deluded. The weapon which you claim to wield is one
that a good God and a beneficent Creator would never intrust to the
keeping of a mere creature. What, sir! create a world as grand and
beautiful as this, and hide within its bosom a principle that at any
moment might inwrap it in flames, and sink all life in death? I'll not
believe it; 't were blasphemy to entertain the thought!"

"And yet," cried he passionately, "your Bible prophesies the same
irreverence. Look at your text in 2d Peter, third chapter, seventh and
twelfth verses. Are not the elements to melt with fervent heat? Are not
'the heavens to be folded together like a scroll?' Are not 'the rocks to
melt, the stars to fall and the moon to be turned into blood?' Is not
fire the next grand cyclic consummation of all things here below? But I
come fully prepared to answer such objections. Your argument betrays a
narrow mind, circumscribed in its orbit, and shallow in its depth. 'Tis
the common thought of mediocrity. You have read books too much, and
studied nature too little. Let me give you a lesson to-day in the
workshop of Omnipotence. Take a stroll with me into the limitless
confines of space, and let us observe together some of the scenes
transpiring at this very instant around us. A moment ago you spoke of
the moon: what is she but an extinguished world? You spoke of the sun:
what is he but a globe of flame? But here is the _Cosmos_ of Humboldt.
Read this paragraph."

As he said this he placed before me the _Cosmos_ of Humboldt, and I read
as follows:

Nor do the Heavens themselves teach unchangeable permanency in
the works of creation. Change is observable there quite as rapid
and complete as in the confines of our solar system. In the year
1752, one of the small stars in the constellation Cassiopeia
blazed up suddenly into an orb of the first magnitude, gradually
decreased in brilliancy, and finally disappeared from the skies.
Nor has it ever been visible since that period for a single
moment, either to the eye or to the telescope. It burned up and
was lost in space.

"Humboldt," he added, "has not told us who set that world on fire!"

"But," resumed he, "I have still clearer proofs." Saying this, he thrust
into my hands the last London _Quarterly_, and on opening the book at an
article headed "The Language of Light," I read with a feeling akin to
awe, the following passage:

Further, some stars exhibit changes of complexion in themselves.
Sirius, as before stated, was once a ruddy, or rather a
fiery-faced orb, but has now forgotten to blush, and looks down
upon us with a pure, brilliant smile, in which there is no trace
either of anger or of shame. On the countenances of others, still
more varied traits have rippled, within a much briefer period of
time. May not these be due to some physiological revolutions,
general or convulsive, which are in progress in the particular
orb, and which, by affecting the constitution of its atmosphere,
compel the absorption or promote the transmission of particular
rays? The supposition appears by no means improbable, especially
if we call to mind the hydrogen volcanoes which have been
discovered on the photosphere of the sun. Indeed, there are a few
small stars which afford a spectrum of bright lines instead of
dark ones, and this we know denotes a gaseous or vaporized state
of things, from which it may be inferred that such orbs are in a
different condition from most of their relations.

And as, if for the very purpose of throwing light upon this
interesting question, an event of the most striking character
occurred in the heavens, almost as soon as the spectroscopists
were prepared to interpret it correctly.

On the 12th of May, 1866, a great conflagration, infinitely
larger than that of London or Moscow, was announced. To use the
expression of a distinguished astronomer, a world was found to be
on fire! A star, which till then had shone weakly and
unobtrusively in the _corona borealis_, suddenly blazed up into a
luminary of the second magnitude. In the course of three days
from its discovery in this new character, by Birmingham, at Tuam,
it had declined to the third or fourth order of brilliancy. In
twelve days, dating from its first apparition in the Irish
heavens, it had sunk to the eighth rank, and it went on waning
until the 26th of June, when it ceased to be discernible except
through the medium of the telescope. This was a remarkable,
though certainly not an unprecedented proceeding on the part of a
star; but one singular circumstance in its behavior was that,
after the lapse of nearly two months, it began to blaze up again,
though not with equal ardor, and after maintaining its glow for a
few weeks, and passing through sundry phases of color, it
gradually paled its fires, and returned to its former
insignificance. How many years had elapsed since this awful
conflagration actually took place, it would be presumptuous to
guess; but it must be remembered that news from the heavens,
though carried by the fleetest of messengers, light, reaches us
long after the event has transpired, and that the same celestial
carrier is still dropping the tidings at each station it reaches
in space, until it sinks exhausted by the length of its flight.

As the star had suddenly flamed up, was it not a natural
supposition that it had become inwrapped in burning hydrogen,
which in consequence of some great convulsion had been liberated
in prodigious quantities, and then combining with other elements,
had set this hapless world on fire? In such a fierce
conflagration, the combustible gas would soon be consumed, and
the glow would therefore begin to decline, subject, as in this
case, to a second eruption, which occasioned the renewed outburst
of light on the 20th of August.

By such a catastrophe, it is not wholly impossible that our own
globe may some time be ravaged; for if a word from the Almighty
were to unloose for a few moments the bonds of affinity which
unite the elements of water, a single spark would bring them
together with a fury that would kindle the funeral pyre of the
human race, and be fatal to the planet and all the works that are
thereon.

"Your argument," he then instantly added, "is by no means a good one.
What do we know of the Supreme Architect of the Universe, or of his
designs? He builds up worlds, and he pulls them down; he kindles suns
and he extinguishes them. He inflames the comet, in one portion of its
orbit, with a heat that no human imagination can conceive of; and in
another, subjects the same blazing orb to a cold intenser than that
which invests forever the antarctic pole. All that we know of Him we
gather through His works. I have shown you that He burns other worlds,
why not this? The habitable parts of our globe are surrounded by water,
and water you know is fire in possibility."

"But all this," I rejoined, "is pure, baseless, profitless speculation."

"Not so fast," he answered. And then rising, he seized the small vial,
and handing it to me, requested me to open it.

I confess I did so with some trepidation.

"Now smell it."

I did so.

"What odor do you perceive?"

"Potassium," I replied.

"Of course," he added, "you are familiar with the chief characteristic
of that substance. It ignites instantly when brought in contact with
water. Within that little globule of potassium, I have imbedded a pill
of my own composition and discovery. The moment it is liberated from the
potassium, it commences the work of decomposing the fluid on which it
floats. The potassium at once ignites the liberated oxygen, and the
conflagration of this mighty globe is begun."

"Yes," said I, "begun, if you please, but your little pill soon
evaporates or sinks, or melts in the surrounding seas, and your
conflagration ends just where it began."

"My reply to that suggestion could be made at once by simply testing the
experiment on a small scale, or a large one, either. But I prefer at
present to refute your proposition by an argument drawn from nature
herself. If you correctly remember, the first time I had the pleasure of
seeing you was on the island of Galveston, many years ago. Do you
remember relating to me at that time an incident concerning the effects
of a prairie on fire, that you had yourself witnessed but a few days
previously, near the town of Matagorde? If I recollect correctly, you
stated that on your return journey from that place, you passed on the
way the charred remains of two wagon-loads of cotton, and three human
beings, that the night before had perished in the flames; that three
slaves, the property of a Mr. Horton, had started a few days before to
carry to market a shipment of cotton; that a norther overtook them on
the treeless prairie, and a few minutes afterwards they were surprised
by beholding a line of rushing fire, surging, roaring and advancing like
the resistless billows of an ocean swept by a gale; that there was no
time for escape, and they perished terribly in fighting the devouring
element?"

"Yes; I recollect the event."

"Now, then, I wish a reply to the simple question: Did the single spark,
that kindled the conflagration, consume the negroes and their charge?
No? But what did? You reply, of course, that the spark set the entire
prairie on fire; that each spear of grass added fuel to the flame, and
kindled by degrees a conflagration that continued to burn so long as it
could feed on fresh material. The pillule in that vial is the little
spark, the oceans are the prairies, and the oxygen the fuel upon which
the fire is to feed until the globe perishes in inextinguishable flames.
The elementary substances in that small vial recreate themselves; they
are self-generating, and when once fairly under way must necessarily
sweep onward, until the waters in all the seas are exhausted. There is,
however, one great difference between the burning of a prairie and the
combustion of an ocean: the fire in the first spreads slowly, for the
fuel is difficult to ignite; in the last, it flies with the rapidity of
the wind, for the substance consumed is oxygen, the most inflammable
agent in nature."

Rising from my seat, I went to the washstand in the corner of the
apartment, and drawing a bowl half full of Spring Valley water, I turned
to Summerfield, and remarked, "Words are empty, theories are ideal--but
facts are things."

"I take you at your word." So saying, he approached the bowl, emptied it
of nine-tenths of its contents, and silently dropped the
potassium-coated pill into the liquid. The potassium danced around the
edges of the vessel, fuming, hissing, and blazing, as it always does,
and seemed on the point of expiring--when, to my astonishment and alarm,
a sharp explosion took place, and in a second of time the water was
blazing in a red, lurid column, half way to the ceiling.

"For God's sake," I cried, "extinguish the flames, or we shall set the
building on fire!"

"Had I dropped the potassium into the bowl as you prepared it," he
quietly remarked, "the building would indeed have been consumed."

Lower and lower fell the flickering flames, paler and paler grew the
blaze, until finally the fire went out, and I rushed up to see the
effects of the combustion.

Not a drop of water remained in the vessel!



Pages: | 1 | | 2 | | 3 | | 4 | | 5 | | 6 | | 7 | | 8 | | 9 | | 10 | | 11 | | 12 | | 13 | | Next |

Main -> Rhodes, W. H. (William Henry) -> Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales, and Sketches