The Professor's Experiment by Edward Page Mitchell
The red wine of Affenthal has this quality, that one half-bottle
makes you kind but firm, two make you talkative and obstinate, and
three, recklessly unreasonable.
If the waiter at the Prinz Carl in Heidelberg had possessed a soul
above drink-money, he might have calculated accurately the effect of
the six half-bottles of Affenthaler which he fetched to the apartment
of the Reverend Dr. Bellglory at the six o'clock dinner for three. That
is to say, he might have deduced this story in advance by observation
of the fact that of the six half-bottles one was consumed by Miss
Blanche Bellglory, two went to the Reverend Doctor, her father, while
the remaining moiety fell to the share of young Strout, remotely of New
York and immediately of Professor Schwank's psycho-neurological section
in the university.
So when in the course of the evening the doctor fell asleep in his
chair, and young Strout took opportunity to put to Miss Blanche a
question which he had already asked her twice, once at Saratoga Springs
and once in New York city, she returned the answer he had heard on two
former occasions, but in terms even more firm, while not less kind than
before. She declared her unalterable determination to abide by her
This was not exactly pleasing to young Strout. He knew better than
anybody else that, while approving him socially and humanly, the doctor
abhorred his opinions. "No man," the doctor had repeatedly said, "who
denies the objective verity of knowledge derived from intuition or
otherwise by subjective methods--no man who pushes noumena aside in his
impetuous pursuit of phenomena can make a safe husband for my
He said the same thing again in a great many words and with much
emphasis, after he awoke from his nap, Miss Blanche having discreetly
"But, my dear Doctor," urged Strout, "this is an affair of the
heart, not of metaphysics; and you leave for Nuremberg tomorrow, and
now is my last chance."
"You are an excellent young man in several respects," rejoined the
doctor. "Abjure your gross materialism and Blanche is yours with all my
heart. Your antecedents are unexceptionable, but you are intellectually
impregnated with the most dangerous heresy of this or any other age. If
I should countenance it by giving you my daughter, I could never look
the Princeton faculty in the face."
"It appears to me that this doesn't concern the Princeton faculty in
the least," persisted Strout. "It concerns Blanche and me."
Here, then, were three people, two of them young and in love with
each other, divided by a question of metaphysics, the most abstract and
useless question that ever wasted human effort. But that same question
divided the schools of Europe for centuries and contributed largely to
the list of martyrs for opinion's sake. The famous old controversy was
now taken up by the six half-bottles of Affenthaler, three of them
stoutly holding ground against the other three.
"No argument in the world," said the doctor's two half-bottles, "can
shake my decision"; and off he went to sleep again.
"No amount of coaxing," said Miss Blanche's half-bottle, two hours
later in the evening, "can make me act contrary to Papa's wishes. But,"
continued the half-bottle in a whisper, "I am sorry he is so
"I don't believe it," retorted Strout's three half-bottles. "You
have no more heart than one of your father's non-individualized ideas.
You are not real flesh and blood like other women. You are simply
Extension, made up of an aggregate of concepts, and assuming to be
Entity, and imposing your unreal existence upon a poor Devil like me.
You are unreal, I say. A flaw in logic, an error of the senses, a
fallacy in reasoning, a misplaced premise, and what becomes of you?
Puff! Away you go into all. If it were otherwise, you would care for
me. What a fool I am to love you! I might as well love a memory, a
thought, a dream, a mathematical formula, a rule of syntax, or anything
else that lacks objective existence."
She said nothing, but the tears came into her eyes.
"Good-by, Blanche," he continued at the door, pulling his hat over
his eyes and not observing the look of pain and bewilderment that
clouded her fair face--"Heaven bless you when your father finally
marries you to a syllogism!"
Strout went whistling from the Prinz Carl Hotel toward his rooms in
the Plöckstrasse. He reviewed his parting with Blanche. "So much
the better, perhaps," he said to himself. "One dream less in life, and
more room for realities." By the clock in the market place he saw that
it was half-past nine, for the full moon hanging high above the
Königstuhle flooded the town and valley with light. Up on the side
of the hill the gigantic ruin of the old castle stood boldly out from
among the trees.
He stopped whistling and gritted his teeth.
"Pshaw!" he said aloud, "one can't take off his convictions like a
pair of uncomfortable boots. After all, love is nothing more nor less
than the disintegration and recombination of certain molecules of the
brain or marrow, the exact laws governing which have not yet been
ascertained." So saying, he ran plump into a portly individual coming
down the street.
"Hallo! Herr Strout," said the jolly voice of Professor Schwank.
"Whither are you going so fast, and what kind of physiology talk you to
"I am walking off three half-bottles of your cursed Affenthaler,
which have gone to my feet, Herr Professor," replied Strout, "and I am
making love to the moon. It's an old affair between us."
"And your lovely American friend?" demanded the fat professor, with
"Departs by the morning train," replied Strout gravely.
"Himmelshitzen!" exclaimed the professor. "And grief has blinded you
so that you plunge into the abdomens of your elders? But come with me
to my room, and smoke yourself into a philosophic frame of mind."
Professor Schwank's apartments faced the university buildings in the
Ludwig-platz. Established in a comfortable armchair, with a pipe of
excellent tobacco in his mouth, Strout felt more at peace with his
environment. He was now in an atmosphere of healthful, practical,
scientific activity that calmed his soul. Professor Schwank had gone
further than the most eminent of his contemporaries in demonstrating
the purely physiological basis of mind and thought. He had gotten
nearer than any other man in Europe to the secrets of the nerve aura,
the penetralia of the brain, the memory scars of the ganglia. His
position in philosophy was the antipodes of that occupied by the
Reverend Dr. Bellglory, for example. The study reflected the
occupations of the man. In one corner stood an enormous Ruhmkorff coil.
Books were scattered everywhere--on shelves, on tables, on chairs, on
the floor. A plaster bust of Aristotle looked across the room into the
face of a plaster bust of Leibnitz. Prints of Gall, of Pappenheim, of
Leeuwenhoek, hung upon the walls. Varnished dissections and wet
preparations abounded. In a glass vessel on the table at Strout's
elbow, the brain of a positivist philosopher floated in yellow alcohol:
near it, also suspended in spirits, swung the medulla oblongata of a
The appearance of the professor himself, as he sat in his arm-chair
opposite Strout, serenely drawing clouds of smoke from the amber
mouthpiece of his long porcelain pipe, was of the sort which, by
promising sympathy beforehand, seduces reserve into confidential
utterances. Not only his rosy face, with its fringe of yellow beard,
but his whole mountainous body seemed to beam on Strout with friendly
good will. He looked like the refuge of a broken heart. Drawn out in
spite of himself by the professor's kindly, attentive smile and
discreet questions, Strout found satisfaction in unbosoming his
troubles. The professor, smoking in silence, listened patiently to the
long story. If Strout had been less preoccupied with his own woes he
might, perhaps, have discovered that behind the friendly interest that
glimmered on the glasses of the professor's gold-bowed spectacles, a
pair of small, steel-gray eyes were observing him with the keen,
unrelenting coldness of scientific scrutiny.
"You have seen, Herr Professor," said Strout in conclusion, "that
the case is hopeless."
"My dear fellow," replied the professor, "I see nothing of the
"But it is a matter of conviction," explained Strout. "One cannot
renounce the truth even to gain a wife. She herself would despise me if
"In this world everything is true and nothing is true," replied the
professor sententiously. "You must change your convictions." "That is
The professor blew a great cloud of smoke and regarded the young man
with an expression of pity and surprise. It seemed to Strout that
Aristotle and Leibnitz, Leeuwenhoek, Pappenheim, and Gall were all
looking down upon him with pity and surprise.
"Impossible did you say?" remarked Professor Schwank. "On the
contrary, my dear boy, nothing is easier than to change one's
convictions. In the present advanced condition of surgery, it is a
matter of little difficulty."
Strout looked at his respected instructor in blank amazement. "What
you call your convictions," continued the savant, "are matters of
mental constitution, depending on adventitious circumstances. You are a
positivist, an idealist, a skeptic, a mystic, a what-not, why? Because
nature, predisposition, the assimilation of bony elements, have made
your skull thicker in one place, thinner in another. The cranial wall
presses too close upon the brain in one spot; you sneer at the opinions
of your friend, Dr. Bellglory. It cramps the development of the tissues
in another spot; you deny faith a place in philosophy. I assure you,
Herr Strout, we have discovered and classified already the greater part
of the physical causes determining and limiting belief, and are fast
reducing the system to the certainty of science."
"Granting all that," interposed Strout, whose head was swimming
under the combined influence of Affenthaler, tobacco smoke, and
startling new ideas, "I fail to see how it helps my case.
Unfortunately, the bone of my skull is no longer cartilage, like an
infant's. You cannot mold my intellect by means of compresses and
"Ah! there you touch my professional pride," cried Schwank. "If you
would only put yourself into my hands!"
"And what then?"
"Then," replied the professor with enthusiasm, "I should remodel
your intellect to suit the emergency. How, you ask? If a blow on the
head had driven a splinter of bone down upon the gray matter overlaying
the cerebrum, depriving you of memory, the power of language, or some
other special faculty, as the case might be, how should I proceed? I
should raise a section of the bone and remove the pressure. Just so
when the physical conformation of the cranium limits your capacity to
understand and credit the philosophy which your American theologian
insists upon in his son-in-law. I remove the pressure. I give you a
charming wife, while science gains a beautiful and valuable fact. That
is what I offer you, Herr Strout!"
"In other words--" began Strout.
"In other words, I should trephine you," shouted the professor,
jumping from his chair and no longer attempting to conceal his
"Well, Herr Professor," said Strout slowly, after a long pause,
during which he had endeavored to make out why the pictured face of
Gall seemed to wear a look of triumph "--Well, Herr Professor, I
consent to the operation. Trephine me at once--tonight."
The professor feebly demurred to the precipitateness of this course.
"The necessary preparations," he urged. "Need not occupy five minutes,"
replied Strout. "Tomorrow I shall have changed my mind."
This suggestion was enough to impel the professor to immediate
action. "You will allow me," asked he, "to send for my esteemed
colleague in the university, the Herr Dr. Anton Diggelmann?" Strout
assented. "Do anything that you think needful to the success of the
Professor Schwank rang. "Fritz," said he to the stupid-faced Black
Forester who answered the bell, "run across the square and ask Dr.
Diggelmann to come to me immediately. Request him to bring his surgical
case and sulphuric ether. If you find the doctor, you need not
Acting on a sudden impulse, Strout seized a sheet of paper that lay
on the professor's table and hastily wrote a few words. "Here!" he
said, tossing the servant a gold piece of ten marks. "Deliver this note
at the Prince Carl in the morning--mind you, in the morning."
The note which he had written was this:
Blanche: When you receive this I shall have solved the problem in
one way or another. I am about to be trephined under the
superintendence of my friend Professor Schwank. If the intellectual
obstacle to our union is removed by the operation, I shall follow you
to Bavaria and Switzerland. If the operation results otherwise, think
sometimes kindly of your unfortunate
Ludwig-platz; 10:30 P.M.
Fritz faithfully delivered the message to Dr. Diggelmann, and then
hied toward the nearest wine shop. His gold piece dazed him. "A nice,
liberal gentleman that!" he thought. "Ten marks for carrying the letter
to the Prinz Carl in the morning--ten marks, a thousand pfennige; beer
at five pfennige the glass, two hundred glasses!" The immensity of the
prospect filled him with joy. How might he manifest his gratitude? He
reflected, and an idea struck him. "I will not wait till morning," he
thought. "I will deliver the gentleman's letter tonight, at once. He
will say, 'Fritz, you are a prompt fellow. You do even better than you
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;
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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. Diggelmann.
"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
"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
"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."