Strout was stretched upon a reclining chair, his coat and waistcoat off.
Professor Schwank stood over him. In his hand was a hollow cone, rolled from a newspaper. He held the cone by the apex: the broad aperture at the base was closely pressed against Strout's face, covering all but his eyes and forehead.
"By long, steady, regular inspiration," said the professor, in a soothing, monotonous voice. "That is right; that is right; thatis—right—there—there—there!"
With every inhalation Strout drew in the pleasant, tingling coldness of the ether fumes. At first his breathing was forced: at the end of each inspiration he experienced for an instant a sensation as if mighty waters were rushing through his brain. Gradually the period of the rushing sensation extended itself, until it began with the beginning of each breath. Then the ether seemed to seize possession of his breathing, and to control the expansions and contractions of his chest independently of his own will. The ether breathed for him. He surrendered himself to its influence with a feeling of delight.
The rushings became rhythmic, and the intervals shorter and shorter. His individuality seemed to be wrapped up in the rushings, and to be borne to and fro in their tremendous flux and reflux. "I shall be gone in one second more,"
he thought, and his consciousness sank in the whirling flood.
Professor Schwank nodded to Dr. Diggelmann. The doctor nodded back to the professor.
Dr. Diggelmann was a dry little old man, who weighed hardly more than a hundred pounds. He wore a black wig, too large for his head. His eyes were deep set under corrugated brows, while strongly marked lines running from the corners of his nostrils to the corners of his mouth gave his face a lean, sardonic expression, in striking contrast with the jolly rotundity of Professor Schwank's visage. Dr. Diggelmann was taciturn but observant. At the professor's nod, he opened his case of surgical instruments and selected a scalpel with a keen curved blade, and also a glittering piece of steel which looked like an exaggerated auger bit with a gimlet handle. Having satisfied himself that these instruments were in good condition, he deliberately rolled up the sleeves of his coat and approached the unconscious Strout.
"About on the median line, just behind the junction of the corona' and sagittal sutures," whispered Professor Schwank eagerly.
"Yes. I know—I know," replied Diggelmann.
He was on the point of cutting away with his scalpel some of the brown hair that encumbered operations on the top of Strout's head, when the door was quickly opened from the outside and a young lady, attended by a maid, entered without ceremony.
"I am Blanche Bellglory," the young lady announced to the astonished savants, as soon as she had recovered her breath. "I have come to—"
At this moment she perceived the motionless form of Strout upon the reclining chair, while the gleaming steel in Dr. Diggelmann's hand caught her alert eyes. She uttered a little shriek and ran toward the group.
"Oh, this is terrible!" she cried. "I am too late, and you have already killed him."
"Calm yourself, I beg you," said the polite professor. "No circumstance is terrible to which we are indebted for a visit from so charming a young lady."
"So great an honor!" added Dr. Diggelmann, grinning diabolically and rubbing his hands.
"And Herr Strout," continued the professor, "is unfortunately not yet trephined. As you entered, we were about beginning the operation."
Miss Bellglory gave a sob of relief and sank into a chair.
In a few well-chosen words the professor explained the theory of his experiment, dwelling especially upon the effect it was expected to have on the fortunes of the young people. When he finished, the American girl's eyes were full of tears, but the firm lines of her mouth showed that she had already resolved upon her own course.
"How noble in him," she exclaimed, "to submit to be trephined for my sake! But that must not be. I can't consent to have his poor, dear head mutilated. I should never forgive myself. The trouble all originates from my decision not to marry him without Papa's approval. With my present views of duty, I cannot alter that decision. But don't you think," she continued, dropping her voice to a whisper, "that if you should trephine me, I might see my duty in a different light?"
"It is extremely probable, my dear young lady," replied the professor, throwing a significant glance at Dr. Diggelmann, who responded with the faintest wink imaginable.
"Then," said Miss Blanche, arising and beginning to remove her bonnet, "please proceed to trephine me immediately. I insist on it."
"What's all this?" demanded the deep voice of the Reverend Dr. Bellglory, who had entered the room unnoticed, piloted by Fritz. "I came as rapidly as I could, Blanche, but not early enough, it appears, to learn the first principles of your singular actions."
"My papa, gentlemen," said Miss Bellglory.
The two Germans bowed courteously. Dr. Bellglory affably returned their salutation.
"These gentlemen, Papa," Miss Blanche explained, "have kindly undertaken to reconcile the difference of opinion between poor George and ourselves by means of a surgical operation. I don't at all understand it, but George does, for you see that he has thought best to submit to the operation, which they were about to begin when I arrived. Now, I cannot allow him to suffer for my obstinacy; and, therefore, dear Papa, I have requested the gentlemen to trephine me instead of him."
Professor Schwank repeated for Dr. Bellglory's information the explanation which he had already made to the young lady. On learning of Strout's course in the matter, Dr. Bellglory was greatly affected.
"No, Blanche!" he said, "our young friend must not be trephined. Although I cannot conscientiously accept him as a son-in-law while our views on the verity of subjective knowledge differ so widely, I can at least emulate his generous willingness to open his intellect to conviction. It is I who will be trephined, provided these gentlemen will courteously substitute me for the patient now in their hands."
"We shall be most happy," said Professor Schwank and Dr. Diggelman in the same breath.
"Thanks! Thanks!" cried Dr. Bellglory, with genuine emotion.
"But I shall not permit you to sacrifice your lifelong convictions to my happiness, Papa," interposed Blanche. The doctor insisted that he was only doing his duty as a parent. The amiable dispute went on for some time, the Germans listening with indifference. Sure of a subject for their experiment at any rate, they cared little which one of the three Americans finally came under the knife. Meanwhile Strout opened his eyes, slowly raised himself upon one elbow, vacantly gazed about the room for a few seconds, and then sank back, relapsing temporarily into unconsciousness.
Professor Schwank, who perceived that father and daughter were equally fixed in their determination, and each unlikely to yield to the other, was on the point of suggesting that the question be settled by trephining both of them, when Strout again regained his senses. He sat bolt upright, staring fixedly at the glass jar which contained the positivist's brain. Then he pressed both hands to his head, muttering a few incoherent words. Gradually, as he recovered from the clutch of the ether one after another of his faculties, his eyes brightened and he appeared to recognize the faces around him. After some time he opened his lips and spoke.
"Marvelous!" he exclaimed.
Miss Bellglory ran to him and took his hand. The doctor hurried forward, intending to announce his own resolution to be trephined. Strout pressed Blanche's hand to his lips for an instant, gave the doctor's hand a cordial grasp, and then seized the hand of Professor Schwank, which he wrung with all the warmth of respectful gratitude.
"My dear Herr Professor," he said, "how can I ever repay you? The experiment is a perfect success."
"But—" began the astounded professor.
"Don't try to depreciate your own share in my good fortune," interrupted Strout. "The theory was yours, and all the triumph of the practical success belongs to you and Dr. Diggelmann's skill."
Strout, still holding Blanche's hand, now turned to her father.
"There is now no obstacle to our union, Doctor," he said. "Thanks to Professor Schwank's operation, I see the blind folly of my late attitude toward the subjective. I recant. I am no longer a positivist. My intellect has leaped the narrow limits that hedged it in. I know now that there is more in our philosophy than can be measured with a metric ruler or weighed in a coulomb balance. Ever since I passed under the influence of the ether, I have been floating in the infinite. I have been freed from conditions of time and space.
I have lost my own individuality in the immensity of the All. A dozen times I have been absorbed in Brahma; a dozen times I have emanated from Brahma, a new being, forgetful of my old self. I have stood face to face with the mystic and awful Om; my world-soul, descending to the finite, has floated calmly over an ocean of Affenthaler. My consciousness leaped back as far as the thirtieth century before Christ and forward as far as the fortieth century yet to come.
There is no time; there is no space; there is no individual existence; there is nothing save the All, and the faith that guides reason through the changeless night. For more than one million years my identity was that of the positivist in the glass jar yonder. Pardon me, Professor Schwank, but for the same period of time yours was that of the celebrated thief in the other jar.
Great heavens! How mistaken I have been up to the night when you, Herr Professor, took charge of my intellectual destiny."
He paused for want of breath, but the glow of the mystic's rapture still lighted up his handsome features. There was an awkward silence in the room for considerable time. Then it was broken by the dry, harsh voice of Dr.
"You labor under a somewhat ridiculous delusion, young gentleman. You haven't been trephined yet."
Strout looked in amazement from one to another of his friends; but their faces confirmed the surgeon's statement.
"What was it then?" he gasped.
"Sulphuric ether," replied the surgeon, laconically.
"But after all," interposed Dr. Bellglory, "it makes little difference what agent has opened our friend's mind to a perception of the truth. It is a matter for congratulation that the surgical operation becomes no longer necessary."
The two Germans exchanged glances of dismay. "We shall lose the opportunity for our experiment," the professor whispered to Diggelmann. Then he continued aloud, addressing Strout: "I should advise you to submit to the operation, nevertheless. There can be no permanent intellectual cure without it. These effects of the ether will pass away."
"Thank you," returned Strout, who at last read correctly the cold, calculating expression that lurked behind the scientist's spectacles. "Thank you, I am very well as I am."
"But you might, for the sake of science, consent—" persisted Schwank.
"Yes, for the sake of science," echoed Diggelmann.
"Hang science!" replied Strout, fiercely. "Don't you know that I no longer believe in science?"
Blanche also began to understand the true motives which had led the German professor to interfere in her love affair. She cast an approving glance at Strout and arose to depart. The three Americans moved toward the door.
Professor Schwank and Dr. Diggelmann fairly gnashed their teeth with rage.
Miss Bellglory turned and made them a low curtsey.
"If you must trephine somebody for the sake of science, gentlemen," she remarked with her sweetest smile, "you might draw lots to see which of you shall trephine the other."