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Rhodes, W. H. (William Henry) / The Case of Summerfield
Produced by David A. Schwan


By William Henry Rhodes

With an Introduction by Geraldine Bonner


The greatest master of the short story our country has known found his
inspiration and produced his best work in California. It is now nearly
forty years since "The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared, and a line of
successors, more or less worthy, have been following along the
trail blazed by Bret Harte. They have given us matter of many kinds,
realistic, romantic, tragic, humorous, weird. In this mass of material
much that was good has been lost. The columns of newspapers swallowed
some; weeklies, that lived for a brief day, carried others to the grave
with them. Now and then chance or design interposed, and some fragment
of value was not allowed to perish. It is matter for congratulation that
the story in this volume was one of those saved from oblivion.

In 1871 a San Francisco paper published a tale entitled The Case of
Summerfield. The author concealed himself under the name of "Caxton," a
pseudonym unknown at the time. The story made an immediate impression,
and the remote little world by the Golden Gate was shaken into startled
and enquiring astonishment. Wherever people met, The Case of Summerfield
was on men's tongues. Was Caxton's contention possible? Was it true
that, by the use of potassium, water could be set on fire, and that
any one possessing this baneful secret could destroy the world? The
plausibility with which the idea was presented, the bare directness
of the style, added to its convincing power. It sounded too real to be
invention, was told with too frank a simplicity to be all imagination.
People could not decide where truth and fiction blended, and the name of
Caxton leaped into local fame.

The author of the tale was a lawyer, W. H. Rhodes, a man of standing and
ability, interested in scientific research. He had written little; what
time he had been able to spare from his work, had been given to studies
in chemistry whence he had drawn the inspiration for such stories as The
Case of Summerfield. With him the writing of fiction was a pastime, not
a profession. He wrote because he wanted to, from the urgence of an idea
pressing for utterance, not from the more imperious necessity of keeping
the pot boiling and of there being a roof against the rain. Literary
creation was to him a rest, a matter of holiday in the daily round of a
man's labor to provide for his own.

His output was small. One slender volume contains all he wrote: a few
poems, half a dozen stories. In all of these we can feel the spell
exercised over him by the uncanny, the terrible, the weirdly grotesque.
His imagination played round those subjects of fantastic horror which
had so potent an attraction for Fitz James O'Brien, the writer whom he
most resembles. There was something of Poe's cold pleasure in
dissecting the abnormally horrible in "The Story of John Pollexfen,"
the photographer, who, in order to discover a certain kind of lens,
experimented with living eyes. His cat and dog each lost an eye, and
finally a young girl was found willing to sell one of hers that she
might have money to help her lover. But none of the other stories shows
the originality and impressively realistic tone which distinguish The
Case of Summerfield. In this he achieved the successful combination of
audacity of theme with a fitting incisiveness of style. It alone rises
above the level of the merely ingenious and clever; it alone of his work
was worth preserving.

Scattered through the ranks of writers, part of whose profession is a
continuous, unflagging output, are these "one story men," who, in some
propitious moment, when the powers of brain and heart are intensified by
a rare and happy alchemy, produce a single masterpiece. The vision
and the dream have once been theirs, and, though they may never again
return, the product of the glowing moment is ours to rejoice in and
wonder at. Unfortunately the value of these accidental triumphs is not
always seen. They go their way and are submerged in the flood of fiction
that the presses pour upon a defenseless country. Now and then one
unexpectedly hears of them, their unfamiliar titles rise to the surface
when writers gather round the table. An investigator in the forgotten
files of magazinedom has found one, and tells of his treasure trove as
the diver of his newly discovered pearl. Then comes a publisher, who,
diligent and patient, draws them from their hiding-places, shakes off
the dust, and gives them to a public which once applauded and has since

Such has been the fate of The Case of Summerfield. Thirty-five years
ago, in the town that clustered along the edge of San Francisco Bay, it
had its brief award of attention. But the San Francisco of that day
was very distant--a gleam on the horizon against the blue line of the
Pacific. It took a mighty impetus to carry its decisions and opinions
across the wall of the Sierra and over the desert to the East. Fame and
reputation, unless the greatest, had not vitality for so long a flight.
So the strange and fantastic story should come as a discovery, the one
remarkable achievement of an unknown author, who, unfortunately, is no
longer here to enjoy an Indian summer of popularity.

Geraldine Bonner.


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
afterward 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 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

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 bloodstained 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

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

"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 oceanbound, 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 center, 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 pygmies 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 today 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 maybe 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
a treeless prairie, and a few minutes afterward 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

"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 pilule 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! Astonished beyond measure at
what I had witnessed, and terrified almost to the verge of insanity, I
approached Summerfield, and tremblingly inquired, "To whom, sir, is
this tremendous secret known?" "To myself alone," he responded; "and now
answer me a question: is it worth the money?"

* * * * *

It is entirely unnecessary to relate in detail the subsequent events
connected with this transaction. I will only add a general statement,
showing the results of my negotiations. Having fully satisfied myself
that Summerfield actually held in his hands the fate of the whole world,
with its millions of human beings, and by experiment having tested the
combustion of sea-water, with equal facility as fresh, I next deemed
it my duty to call the attention of a few of the principal men in San
Francisco to the extreme importance of Summerfield's discovery.

A leading banker, a bishop, a chemist, two State university professors,
a physician, a judge, and two Protestant divines, were selected by me
to witness the experiment on a large scale. This was done at a small
sand-hill lake, near the seashore, but separated from it by a ridge of
lofty mountains, distant not more than ten miles from San Francisco.
Every single drop of water in the pool was burnt up in less than fifteen
minutes. We next did all that we could to pacify Summerfield, and
endeavored to induce him to lower his price and bring it within the
bounds of a reasonable possibility. But without avail. He began to grow
urgent in his demands, and his brow would cloud like a tempest-ridden
sky whenever we approached him on the subject. Finally, ascertaining
that no persuasion could soften his heart or touch his feelings, a
sub-committee was appointed, to endeavor, if possible, to raise the
money by subscription. Before taking that step, however, we ascertained
beyond all question that Summerfield was the sole custodian of his
dread secret, and that he kept no written memorial of the formula of his
prescription. He even went so far as to offer us a penal bond that his
secret should perish with him in case we complied with his demands.

The sub-committee soon commenced work amongst the wealthiest citizens
of San Francisco, and by appealing to the terrors of a few, and the
sympathies of all, succeeded in raising one-half the amount within
the prescribed period. I shall never forget the woe-begone faces of
California Street during the month of October. The outside world and
the newspapers spoke most learnedly of a money panic--a pressure in
business, and the disturbances in the New York gold-room. But to the
initiated, there was an easier solution of the enigma. The pale spectre
of Death looked down upon them all, and pointed with its bony finger
to the fiery tomb of the whole race, already looming up in the distance
before them. Day after day, I could see the dreadful ravages of this
secret horror; doubly terrible, since they dared not divulge it. Still,
do all that we could, the money could not be obtained. The day preceding
the last one given, Summerfield was summoned before the committee, and
full information given him of the state of affairs. Obdurate, hard and
cruel, he still continued. Finally, a proposition was started, that an
attempt should be made to raise the other half of the money in the city
of New York. To this proposal Summerfield ultimately yielded, but with
extreme reluctance. It was agreed in committee that I should accompany
him thither, and take with me, in my own possession, evidences of the
sums subscribed here; that a proper appeal should be made to the leading
capitalists, scholars and clergymen of that metropolis, and that, when
the whole amount was raised, it should be paid over to Summerfield, and
a bond taken from him never to divulge his awful secret to any human

With this, he seemed to be satisfied, and left us to prepare for his
going the next morning.

As soon as he left the apartment, the bishop rose, and deprecated the
action that had been taken, and characterized it as childish and absurd.
He declared that no man was safe one moment whilst "that diabolical
wretch" still lived; that the only security for us all was in his
immediate extirpation from the face of the earth, and that no amount of
money could seal his lips, or close his hands. It would be no crime,
he said, to deprive him of the means of assassinating the whole human
family, and that as for himself he was for dooming him to immediate

With a unanimity that was extraordinary, the entire committee coincided.

A great many plans were proposed, discussed and rejected, having in view
the extermination of Summerfield. In them all there was the want of
that proper caution which would lull the apprehensions of an enemy;
for should he for an instant suspect treachery, we knew his nature well
enough to be satisfied, that he would waive all ceremonies and carry his
threats into immediate execution.

It was finally resolved that the trip to New York should not be
abandoned, apparently. But that we were to start out in accordance with
the original program; that during the journey, some proper means should
be resorted to by me to carry out the final intentions of the committee,
and that whatever I did would be sanctioned by them all, and full
protection, both in law and conscience, afforded me in any stage of the

Nothing was wanting but my own consent; but this was difficult to

At the first view, it seemed to be a most horrible and unwarrantable
crime to deprive a fellow-being of life, under any circumstances; but
especially so where, in meeting his fate, no opportunity was to be
afforded him for preparation or repentance. It was a long time before
I could disassociate, in my mind, the two ideas of act and intent. My
studies had long ago made me perfectly familiar with the doctrine of the
civil law, that in order to constitute guilt, there must be a union
of action and intention. Taking the property of another is not theft,
unless, as the lawyers term it, there is the animus furandi. So, in
homicide, life may be lawfully taken in some instances, whilst the deed
may be excused in others. The sheriff hangs the felon and deprives him
of existence; yet nobody thinks of accusing the officer of murder. The
soldier slays his enemy, still the act is considered heroical. It does
not therefore follow that human life is too sacred to be taken away
under all circumstances. The point to be considered was thus narrowed
down into one grand inquiry, whether Summerfield was properly to be
regarded as hostis humani generis, the enemy of the human race, or not.
If he should justly be so considered, then it would not only be not a
crime to kill him, but an act worthy of the highest commendation. Who
blamed McKenzie for hanging Spencer to the yard-arm? Yet in his case,
the lives of only a small ship's crew were in jeopardy. Who condemned
Pompey for exterminating the pirates from the Adriatic? Yet, in
his case, only a small portion of the Roman Republic was liable to
devastation. Who accuses Charlotte Corday of assassination for stabbing
Marat in his bath? Still, her arm only saved the lives of a few
thousands of revolutionary Frenchmen.

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