Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1861–1889
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889
 
The Ablest Man in the World
By Edward Page Mitchell (1852–1927)
 
[Born in Bath, Me., 1852. Died in New London, Conn., 1927. From the Story by that Title.—The New York Sun. 1879.]

FISHER now had an opportunity to observe the personal characteristics of the Russian Baron. He was a young man of about thirty-five, with exceedingly handsome and clear-cut features, but a peculiar head. The peculiarity of his head was that it seemed to be perfectly round on top—that is, its diameter from ear to ear appeared quite equal to its anterior and posterior diameter. The curious effect of this unusual conformation was rendered more striking by the absence of all hair. There was nothing on the Baron’s head but a tightly fitting skull cap of black silk. A very deceptive wig hung upon one of the bedposts.
  1
  Being sufficiently recovered to recognize the presence of a stranger, Savitch made a courteous bow.  2
  “How do you find yourself now?” inquired Fisher, in bad French.  3
  “Very much better, thanks to Monsieur,” replied the Baron, in excellent English, spoken in a charming voice. “Very much better, though I feel a certain dizziness here.” And he pressed his hand to his forehead.  4
  The valet withdrew at a sign from his master, and was followed by the porter. Fisher advanced to the bedside and took the Baron’s wrist. Even his unpractised touch told him that the pulse was alarmingly high. He was much puzzled, and not a little uneasy at the turn which the affair had taken. “Have I got myself and the Russian into an infernal scrape?” he thought. “But no—he’s well out of his teens, and half a tumbler of such whiskey as that ought not to go to a baby’s head.”  5
  Nevertheless, the new symptoms developed themselves with a rapidity and poignancy that made Fisher feel uncommonly anxious. Savitch’s face became as white as marble—its paleness rendered startling by the sharp contrast of the black skull cap. His form reeled as he sat on the bed, and he clasped his head convulsively with both hands, as if in terror lest it burst.  6
  “I had better call your valet,” said Fisher, nervously.  7
  “No, no!” gasped the Baron. “You are a medical man, and I shall have to trust you. There is something—wrong—here.” With a spasmodic gesture he vaguely indicated the top of his head.  8
  “But I am not—” stammered Fisher.  9
  “No words!” exclaimed the Russian, imperiously. “Act at once—there must be no delay. Unscrew the top of my head!”  10
  Savitch tore off his skull cap and flung it aside. Fisher had no words to describe the bewilderment with which he beheld the actual fabric of the Baron’s cranium. The skull cap had concealed the fact that the entire top of Savitch’s head was a dome of polished silver.  11
  “Unscrew it!” said Savitch again.  12
  Fisher reluctantly placed both hands upon the silver skull and exerted a gentle pressure toward the left. The top yielded, turning easily and truly in its threads.  13
  “Faster!” said the Baron, faintly. “I tell you no time must be lost.” Then he swooned.  14
  At this instant there was a sound of voices in the outer room, and the door leading into the Baron’s bed-chamber was violently flung open and as violently closed. The new-comer was a short, spare man of middle age, with a keen visage and piercing, deep-set little gray eyes, He stood for a few seconds scrutinizing Fisher with a sharp, almost fiercely jealous regard.  15
  The Baron recovered his consciousness and opened his eyes.  16
  “Dr. Rapperschwyll!” he exclaimed.  17
  Dr. Rapperschwyll, with a few rapid strides, approached the bed and confronted Fisher and Fisher’s patient. “What is all this?” he angrily demanded.  18
  Without waiting for a reply he laid his hand rudely upon Fisher’s arm and pulled him away from the Baron. Fisher, more and more astonished, made no resistance, but suffered himself to be led, or pushed, toward the door. Dr. Rapperschwyll opened the door wide enough to give the American exit, and then closed it with a vicious slam. A quick click informed Fisher that the key had been turned in the lock.  19
 
  The next morning Fisher met Savitch coming from the Trinkhalie. The Baron bowed with cold politeness and passed on. Later in the day a valet de place handed to Fisher a small parcel, with the message: “Dr. Rapperschwyll supposes that this will be sufficient.” The parcel contained two gold pieces of twenty marks.  20
  Fisher gritted his teeth. “He shall have back his forty marks,” he muttered to himself, “but I will have his confounded secret in return.”…  21
 
  The Polish countess abundantly redeemed her promise, throwing in for good measure many choice bits of gossip and scandalous anecdotes about the Russian nobility, which are not relevant to the present narrative. Her story, as summarized by Fisher, was this:  22
  The Baron Savitch was not of an old creation. There was a mystery about his origin that had never been satisfactorily solved in St. Petersburg or in Moscow. It was said by some that he was a foundling from the Vospitatelnoi Dom. Others believed him to be the unacknowledged son of a certain illustrious personage nearly related to the House of Romanoff. The latter theory was the more probable, since it accounted in a measure for the unexampled success of his career from the day that he was graduated at the University of Dorpat.  23
  Rapid and brilliant beyond precedent this career had been. He entered the diplomatic service of the Czar, and for several years was attached to the legations at Vienna, London, and Paris. Created a Baron before his twenty-fifth birthday for the wonderful ability displayed in the conduct of negotiations of supreme importance and delicacy with the House of Hapsburg, he became a pet of Gortchakoff’s and was given every opportunity for the exercise of his genius in diplomacy. It was even said in well-informed circles at St. Petersburg that the guiding mind which directed Russia’s course throughout the entire Eastern complication, which planned the campaign on the Danube, effected the combinations that gave victory to the Czar’s soldiers, and which meanwhile held Austria aloof, neutralized the immense power of Germany, and exasperated England only to the point where wrath expends itself in harmless threats, was the brain of the young Baron Savitch. It was certain that he had been with Ignatieff at Constantinople when the trouble was first fomented, with Shouvaloff in England at the time of the secret conference agreement, with the Grand Duke Nicholas at Adrianople when the protocol of an armistice was signed, and would soon be in Berlin behind the scenes of the Congress, where it was expected that he would outwit the statesmen of all Europe, and play with Bismarck and Disraeli as a strong man plays with two kicking babies.  24
  But the countess had concerned herself very little with this handsome young man’s achievements in politics. She had been more particularly interested in his social career. His success in that field had been not less remarkable. Although no one knew with positive certainty his father’s name, he had conquered an absolute supremacy in the most exclusive circles surrounding the imperial court. His influence with the Czar himself was supposed to be unbounded. Birth apart, he was considered the best parti in Russia. From poverty and by the sheer force of intellect he had won for himself a colossal fortune. Report gave him forty million roubles, and doubtless report did not exceed the fact. Every speculative enterprise which he undertook, and they were many and various, was carried to sure success by the same qualities of cool, unerring judgment, far-reaching sagacity, and apparently superhuman power of organizing, combining, and controlling, which had made him in politics the phenomenon of the age.  25
  About Dr. Rapperschwyll? Yes, the countess knew him by reputation and by sight. He was the medical man in constant attendance upon the Baron Savitch, whose high-strung mental organization rendered him susceptible to sudden and alarming attacks of illness. Dr. Rapperschwyll was a Swiss—had originally been a watchmaker or artisan of some kind, she had heard. For the rest, he was a commonplace little old man, devoted to his profession and to the Baron, and evidently devoid of ambition, since he wholly neglected to turn the opportunities of his position and connections to the advancement of his personal fortunes.  26
  Fortified with this information, Fisher felt better prepared to grapple with Rapperschwyll for the possession of the secret. For five days he lay in wait for the Swiss physician. On the sixth day the desired opportunity unexpectedly presented itself.  27
  Half way up the Mercuriusberg, late in the afternoon, he encountered the custodian of the ruined tower, coming down. “No, the tower was not closed. A gentleman was up there, making observations of the country, and he, the custodian, would be back in an hour or two.” So Fisher kept on his way.  28
  The upper part of this tower is in a dilapidated condition. The lack of a stairway to the summit is supplied by a temporary wooden ladder. Fisher’s head and shoulders were hardly through the trap that opens to the platform, before he discovered that the man already there was the man whom he sought. Dr. Rapperschwyll was studying the topography of the Black Forest through a pair of field-glasses.  29
  Fisher announced his arrival by an opportune stumble and a noisy effort to recover himself, at the same instant aiming a stealthy kick at the topmost round of the ladder, and scrambling ostentatiously over the edge of the trap. The ladder went down thirty or forty feet with a racket, clattering and banging against the walls of the tower.  30
  Dr. Rapperschwyll at once appreciated the situation. He turned sharply around, and remarked with a sneer, “Monsieur is unaccountably awkward.” Then he scowled and showed his teeth, for he recognized Fisher.  31
  “It is rather unfortunate,” said the New Yorker, with imperturbable coolness. “We shall be imprisoned here a couple of hours at the shortest. Let us congratulate ourselves that we each have intelligent company, besides a charming landscape to contemplate.”  32
  The Swiss coldly bowed, and resumed his topographical studies. Fisher lighted a cigar.  33
  “I also desire,” continued Fisher, puffing clouds of smoke in the direction of the Teufelmühle, “to avail myself of this opportunity to return forty marks of yours, which reached me, I presume, by a mistake.”  34
  “If Monsieur the American physician was not satisfied with his fee,” rejoined Rapperschwyll, venomously, “he can without doubt have the affair adjusted by applying to the Baron’s valet.”  35
  Fisher paid no attention to this thrust, but calmly laid the gold pieces upon the parapet, directly under the nose of the Swiss.  36
  “I could not think of accepting any fee,” he said, with deliberate emphasis. “I was abundantly rewarded for my trifling services by the novelty and interest of the case.”  37
  The Swiss scanned the American’s countenance long and steadily with his sharp little gray eyes. At length he said, carelessly:  38
  “Monsieur is a man of science?”  39
  “Yes,” replied Fisher, with a mental reservation in favor of all sciences save that which illuminates and dignifies our national game.  40
  “Then,” continued Dr. Rapperschwyll, “Monsieur will perhaps acknowledge that a more beautiful or more extensive case of trephining has rarely come under his observation.”  41
  Fisher slightly raised his eyebrows.  42
  “And Monsieur will also understand, being a physician,” continued Dr. Rapperschwyll, “the sensitiveness of the Baron himself, and of his friends upon the subject. He will therefore pardon my seeming rudeness at the time of his discovery.”  43
  “He is smarter than I supposed,” thought Fisher. “He holds all the cards, while I have nothing—nothing, except a tolerably strong nerve when it comes to a game of bluff.”  44
  “I deeply regret that sensitiveness,” he continued, aloud, “for it had occurred to me that an accurate account of what I saw, published in one of the scientific journals of England or America, would excite wide attention, and no doubt be received with interest on the Continent.”  45
  “What you saw?” cried the Swiss, sharply. “It is false. You saw nothing; when I entered you had not even removed the”——  46
  Here he stopped short and muttered to himself, as if cursing his own impetuosity. Fisher celebrated his advantage by tossing away his half-burned cigar and lighting a fresh one.  47
  “Since you compel me to be frank,” Dr. Rapperschwyll went on, with visibly increasing nervousness, “I will inform you that the Baron has assured me that you saw nothing. I interrupted you in the act of removing the silver cap.”  48
  “I will be equally frank,” replied Fisher, stiffening his face for a final effort. “On that point, the Baron is not a competent witness. He was in a state of unconsciousness for some time before you entered. Perhaps I was removing the silver cap when you interrupted me”——  49
  Dr. Rapperschwyll turned pale.  50
  “And, perhaps,” said Fisher, coolly, “I was replacing it.”  51
  The suggestion of this possibility seemed to strike Rapperschwyll like a sudden thunderbolt from the clouds. His knees parted, and he almost sank to the floor. He put his hands before his eyes, and wept like a child, or, rather, like a broken old man.  52
  “He will publish it! He will publish it to the court and to the world!” he cried, hysterically. “And at this crisis”——  53
  Then, by a desperate effort, the Swiss appeared to recover to some extent his self-control. He paced the diameter of the platform for several minutes, with his head bent and his arms folded across the breast. Turning again to his companion, he said:  54
  “If any sum you may name will”——  55
  Fisher cut the proposition short with a laugh.  56
  “Then,” said Rapperschwyll, “if—if I throw myself on your generosity”——  57
  “Well?” demanded Fisher.  58
  “And ask a promise, on your honor, of absolute silence concerning what you have seen?”  59
  “Silence until such time as the Baron Savitch shall have ceased to exist?”  60
  “That will suffice,” said Rapperschwyll. “For when he ceases to exist I die. And your conditions?”  61
  “The whole story, here and now, and without reservation.”  62
  “It is a terrible price to ask me,” said Rapperschwyll, “but larger interests than my pride are at stake. You shall hear the story.  63
  “I was bred a watchmaker,” he continued, after a long pause, “in the Canton of Zurich. It is not a matter of vanity when I say that I achieved a marvellous degree of skill in the craft. I developed a faculty of invention that led me into a series of experiments regarding the capabilities of purely mechanical combinations. I studied and improved upon the best automata ever constructed by human ingenuity. Babbage’s calculating machine especially interested me. I saw in Babbage’s idea the germ of something infinitely more important to the world.  64
  “Then I threw up my business and went to Paris to study physiology. I spent three years at the Sorbonne and perfected myself in that branch of knowledge. Meanwhile, my pursuits had extended far beyond the purely physical sciences. Psychology engaged me for a time; and then I ascended into the domain of sociology, which, when adequately understood, is the summary and final application of all knowledge.  65
  “It was after years of preparation, and as the outcome of all my studies, that the great idea of my life, which had vaguely haunted me ever since the Zurich days, assumed at last a well-defined and perfect form.”  66
  The manner of Dr. Rapperschwyll had changed from distrustful reluctance to frank enthusiasm. The man himself seemed transformed. Fisher listened attentively and without interrupting the relation. He could not help fancying that the necessity of yielding the secret, so long and so jealously guarded by the physician, was not entirely distasteful to the enthusiast.  67
  “Now attend, Monsieur,” continued Dr. Rapperschwyll, “to several separate propositions which may seem at first to have no direct bearing on each other.  68
  “My endeavors in mechanism had resulted in a machine which went far beyond Babbage’s in its powers of calculation. Given the data, there was no limit to the possibilities in this direction. Babbage’s cogwheels and pinions calculated logarithms, calculated an eclipse. It was fed with figures, and produced results in figures. Now, the relations of cause and effect are as fixed and unalterable as the laws of arithmetic. Logic is, or should be, as exact a science as mathematics. My new machine was fed with facts, and produced conclusions. In short, it reasoned; and the results of its reasoning were always true, while the results of human reasoning are often, if not always, false. The source of error in human logic is what the philosophers call the ‘personal equation.’ My machine eliminated the personal equation; it proceeded from cause to effect, from premise to conclusion, with steady precision. The human intellect is fallible; my machine was, and is, infallible in its processes.  69
  “Again, physiology and anatomy had taught me the fallacy of the medical superstition which holds the gray matter of the brain and the vital principle to be inseparable. I had seen men living with pistol balls imbedded in the medulla oblongata. I had seen the hemispheres and the cerebellum removed from the crania of birds and small animals, and yet they did not die. I believed that, though the brain were to be removed from a human skull, the subject would not die, although he would certainly be divested of the intelligence which governed all save the purely involuntary actions of his body.  70
  “Once more: a profound study of history from the sociological point of view, and a not inconsiderable practical experience of human nature, had convinced me that the greatest geniuses that ever existed were on a plane not so very far removed above the level of average intellect. The grandest peaks in my native country, those which all the world knows by name, tower only a few hundred feet above the countless unnamed peaks that surround them. Napoleon Bonaparte towered only a little over the ablest men around him. Yet that little was everything, and he overran Europe. A man who surpassed Napoleon, as Napoleon surpassed Murat, in the mental qualities which transmute thought into fact, would have made himself master of the whole world.  71
  “Now, to fuse these three propositions into one: suppose that I take a man, and, by removing the brain that enshrines all the errors and failures of his ancestors away back to the origin of the race, remove all sources of weakness in his future career. Suppose, that in place of the fallible intellect which I have removed, I endow him with an artificial intellect that operates with the certainty of universal laws. Suppose that I launch this superior being, who reasons truly, into the hurly-burly of his inferiors, who reason falsely, and await the inevitable result with the tranquillity of a philosopher.  72
  “Monsieur, you have my secret. That is precisely what I have done. In Moscow, where my friend Dr. Duchat had charge of the new institution of St. Vasili for hopeless idiots, I found a boy of eleven whom they called Stépan Borovitch. Since he was born, he had not seen, heard, spoken or thought. Nature had granted him, it was believed, a fraction of the sense of smell, and perhaps a fraction of the sense of taste, but of even this there was no positive ascertainment. Nature had walled in his soul most effectually. Occasional inarticulate murmurings, and an incessant knitting and kneading of the fingers were his only manifestations of energy. On bright days they would place him in a little rocking-chair, in some spot where the sun fell warm, and he would rock to and fro for hours, working his slender fingers and mumbling forth his satisfaction at the warmth in the plaintive and unvarying refrain of idiocy. The boy was thus situated when I first saw him.  73
  “I begged Stépan Borovitch of my good friend Dr. Duchat. If that excellent man had not long since died he should have shared in my triumph. I took Stépan to my home and plied the saw and the knife. I could operate on that poor, worthless, useless, hopeless travesty of humanity as fearlessly and as recklessly as upon a dog bought or caught for vivisection. That was a little more than twenty years ago. To-day Stépan Borovitch wields more power than any other man on the face of the earth. In ten years he will be the autocrat of Europe, the master of the world. He never errs; for the machine that reasons beneath his silver skull never makes a mistake.”  74
  Fisher pointed downward at the old custodian of the tower, who was seen toiling up the hill.  75
  “Dreamers,” continued Dr. Rapperschwyll, “have speculated on the possibility of finding among the ruins of the older civilizations some brief inscription which shall change the foundations of human knowledge. Wiser men deride the dream, and laugh at the idea of scientific kabbala. The wiser men are fools. Suppose that Aristotle had discovered on a cuneiform-covered tablet at Nineveh the few words, ‘Survival of the Fittest.’ Philosophy would have gained twenty-two hundred years. I will give you, in almost as few words, a truth equally pregnant. The ultimate evolution of the creature is into the creator. Perhaps it will be twenty-two hundred years before the truth finds general acceptance, yet it is not the less a truth. The Baron Savitch is my creature, and I am his creator—creator of the ablest man in Europe, the ablest man in the world.  76
  “Here is our ladder, Monsieur. I have fulfilled my part of the agreement. Remember yours.”  77
 
 
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