April, 1863 and relating to the Fall of 1836
Worthington continued: “I returned to the gathered party for the end of Mr. Crosse’s lecture. Upon my entrance into the room I saw Santiago waiting for me at the back of the room next to the rear windows. A subtle nod brought me to him. His first question, as he casually tucked open again the window’s drape, was if I had encountered any unusual person or animal. But then something in the darkness outside drew his attention. Moving swiftly, he slipped to the door of the house and out into the rain. Within minutes he returned, wiping the rain from his coat’s sleeves, and then he listened attentively to a summary of my findings.
“At the end of the lecture we lingered till the crowd had all left, on purpose staying out of the view of the businessmen and the mysterious Wilshire. Santiago congratulated Mr. Crosse on his excellent presentation, and then asked him why he had not spoken about his most recent chemical experiments.
“The expression that crossed our host’s face was one of regret. Because of our question, he assumed we were fellow scientists, perhaps from the Royal Society, to whom he had sent preliminary reports. He confided in us that he had to be careful in the future how he presented those findings and his speculations on what they might mean. Already some of the local gossips, and at least one newspaper, had construed that he believed he had created life. Of course he did not believe that possible but surely, in some way, the electric agency had contributed to the vitality of his creatures.”
Worthington paused for a moment. By now Bernice had noticed the peculiar way he would fix his eyes on some object on the wall as he recalled his memories. It was evidently a habit he had taught himself, for he did not remember things as ordinary people did. It was clear that he was reciting the events exactly as they happened. She had heard of such genius before but had never been in its presence.
“He looked at us earnestly. ‘I have exercised the utmost care to avoid every possibility of contamination,’ he said, leaning back onto the desk that still held many of the demonstration apparatus from that evening. And then he continued almost apologetically:
“‘It was by mere chance that I selected this volcanic substance, choosing it for its partial porosity. I do not believe that it had the slightest effect in the production of the insects.’ He was referring to the rock that resided in the second funnel, the one connected to the voltaic battery. He then proceeded to give us a detailed description of his experiment.
“To make the fluid in the top basin, he started with a piece of black flint fired to a red heat and then rapidly quenched in water to render it friable. After crushing it to a powder, he measured out two ounces of it and strongly mixed it in a pestle with 6 ounces of carbonate of potassa. Again heating this powder for 15 minutes in a black lead crucible in an air-furnace, he obtained a fused compound that was then poured on an iron plate. There, while still warm it was reduced to a powder again. ‘At this point’, he said, ‘this is silicate of potassa with perhaps some Alumina from the crucible, a soluble glass. After dilution with boiling water I slowly add hydrochloric acid to supersaturation’.
“It was that solution that he subjected to a long continued electric action by dripping it slowly onto the volcanic rock. ‘My object,’ he explained, ‘was to form, if possible, crystals of silica at one of the poles of the battery, through the intervention of the porous stone. But I failed in accomplishing this by those means.’ His eyes became lost in the room as he retold his experience.
“‘On the 14th day from the commencement of the experiment, I observed, through a lens, a few small white excrescences projecting from about the middle of the electrified stone, and directly under the dropping of the fluid above. On the 18th day, these projections enlarged, and 7 or 8 filaments, each of them longer than the excrescence from which it grew, made their appearance on each of them. On the 22nd day, these appearances were more elevated and distinct, and on the 26th day, each figure assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail.
“‘Till this period I had no notion that these appearances were any other than an incipient mineral formation; but it was not until the 28th day, when I plainly perceived these little creatures move their legs, that I felt any surprise; and I must own that when this took place, I was not a little astonished. I endeavored to detach, with the point of a needle, one or two of them from its position on the stone, but they immediately died, and I was obliged to wait patiently for a few days longer, when they separated themselves from the stone, and moved about at pleasure, although they had been, for some time after their birth, apparently averse to motion.
“‘In the course of a few weeks, about a hundred of them made their appearance on the stone. I observed that at first each of them fixed itself for a considerable time in one spot, appearing, as far as I could judge, to feed by suction; but when a ray of light from the sun was directed upon it, it seemed disturbed, and removed itself to the shaded part of the stone. Out of about a hundred insects, not above 5 or 6 were born on the south side of the stone. I examined them with the microscope, and observed that the smaller ones appeared to have only 6 legs, but the larger ones 8.
“‘As a learned natural philosopher from Paris has confirmed, these little mites are what they appear to be, of the genus Acarus, but of a species not hitherto observed, covered in long bristles finer than any microscope can resolve.’
“Andrew Crosse paused his narrative abruptly and looked into our eyes almost pleadingly. ‘I have never, in thought, word, or deed, given any one a right to suppose that I considered them as a creation, or even as a formation, from inorganic matter. To create is to form a something out of a nothing. To annihilate, is to reduce that something to a nothing. Both of these, of course, can only be the attributes of the Almighty. In fact, I can assure you most sacredly that I have never dreamed of any theory sufficient to account for their appearance.
“‘Again, I have never claimed any merit as attached to these experiments. It was a matter of chance. I was looking for silicious formations, and animal matter appeared instead.’
“Knowing that his critics were going to claim the creatures’ eggs had just been hidden in the microscopic fissures of the volcanic stone, he decided to perform a different kind of experiment, without the mediation of the rock. He filled a glass cylinder with a concentrated solution of silicate of potassa with a bent iron wire, one-fifth of an inch in diameter, plunged some inches into this solution, and connected with the positive pole of the battery, whilst a small coil of fine silver wire joined it with the negative.
“After some months’ electrical action, gelatinous silica enveloped both wires, but in much greater quantity at the positive pole. After about 8 months he removed the wires from the solution to examine them under a lens, and plainly perceived one of these incipient insects upon the gelatinous silica on the silver wire, at a place that would have been about half an inch below the surface of the fluid.
“His gesticulations emphasized both his frustration and surprise. ‘It makes no sense. If a full grown and perfect insect be let fall into any fluid, it is infallibly drowned. Surely the electrical action did not give them birth but it must play a role in their development. As the gentleman from the Academe des Sciences concluded, the mystery is how do they grow in this environment? What do they eat?’ Mr. Crosse exhaled a long breath as he shook his head. ‘Gentlemen, such is the state of affairs. These insects are by no means the great purpose of my experiments but it is the greatest puzzle. I will continue to record my results and eventually deliver them to the Royal Society in hopes that the root of the mystery be ascertained.’
“The man was finally showing the signs of exhaustion from an evening of scientific displays and the strain of communicating his views to the public and possible future benefactors. We bid him good night.”
Worthington closed his eyes as he returned from his memories. He realized he had been sitting too long and, as he stood to stretch his limbs, Bernice rang for tea.
“Doctor, all these details were eventually published by Mr. Crosse in the Transactions of the Electrical Society of London. His Acari appeared everywhere he performed an electrical experiment in that laboratory but nowhere else, not even in the dust in the corners of the room. There was never a trace of eggshells signaling they had been born in the natural way. And once outside their environment they invariably died as if from lack of food.”
Worthington paused as he let the warmth of the tea spread through his body. Bernice and the maid stacked fresh wood in the fireplace. When the maid left, the old soldier continued his tale.
“Once we returned to our hotel room in London, Lord Hallowstone reduced to charcoal and pencil drawings my recollections of the apparatus in the laboratory. Within the week he had obtained an audience with Faraday, holder of Fuller’s Professorship of Chemistry at the Royal Institution and lecturer at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich.
“We met him at the Academy. Between the sketches Lord Hallowstone had drawn and my summary of Mr. Crosses’ procedures, the great Chemical philosopher had more than enough information to nod in assent. Yes, he was familiar with the process of electro-crystallization and Crosse’s controversy. For several minutes he explained to us the principles involved and the best apparatus to use should we chose to perform the work. And he confirmed that, indeed, he himself had seen similar mineral growths in experiments he had performed. But never had those growths come alive.
“That declaration was enough for my master.” The soldier paused his narrative and looked into Bernice’s eyes as he set his cup down.
“Doctor, I perceive you to be one of those people blessed with the ability to judge the character of individuals from the first minutes of an acquaintance. So is my master. His admiration for Professor Faraday is genuine and deep; part of it, undoubtedly, because he appreciates the man’s humble beginnings, but mostly because of his unimpeachable character. Even when his salary was barely 100 pounds a year, Faraday would gladly do work for his government for no pay, as a citizen’s rightful duty. Yet with the same vehemence he refused to develop chemical weapons for England during the Crimean War, citing moral and religious objections.
“‘Did you see his eyes, Fernando?’ The master asked me as we left the Professor. ‘Lady Pollock was right,’ he went on. ‘It is a gleam which no painter could copy. He is a man in love with the work life has given him.’ Since that time, whenever he could arrange to be in London at Christmas time, Lord Hallowstone attended Professor Faraday’s Christmas lectures for children at the Royal Institution.
“I know this is a digression, doctor; but I feel I must tell you this, lest you think that the master has a complete antipathy to religious conviction. For even that he admires in the man. Faraday belongs to a small self-contained Christian sect, the Sandemanians. It is a faith noted for its lack of trappings. They claim it should be enough to believe the teachings of Christ and his apostles, no more, no less. They are also noted for a selfless love of their brethren that is unparalleled in the larger churches but that is also accompanied by a strict code of expectations and an obsession with complete unity.
“Some have wondered, how could a man like Faraday who has exposed so many of the mysteries of nature, who understands more than most that knowledge is never static but always subject to new revelation, ever be bound by such a strict society? The answer is in the humility of the man.”
Worthington smiled at a memory. “Few people know this: He was in trouble with his congregation once. The Queen requested that he dine with her at Windsor, a request he obeyed as a command even though it meant being absent from his congregation’s Sunday service. As a result he lost his eldership, and never complained about it. Fourteen years later his brethren felt he was ready again for the responsibility,” Worthington finished with a chuckle.
The old soldier sat down again. “If Faraday said those minute crystals did not show signs of life, then they could not, end of argument. It followed therefore that something else was different about Andrew Crosse’s work; and if it wasn’t his methods then it was the place.
“That region of the Quantocks is crisscrossed with subterranean tunnels which some claim date back to Roman times. There are also legends of creatures under the ground, much older stories, interwoven with the inevitable tale of the buried trove of gold. A Dr. Farrer searched for that gold in the 1780’s; and, according to his account, he and his servant barely escaped the claws of groaning creatures from the netherworld.
“Lord Hallowstone has learned to tread carefully in those places. It was the sensation of being in the presence of such beings that set him on guard in Crosse’s house. It was that same sixth sense that revealed to the Spanish Captain in the jungles of Brazil that the Guarani caudillo, Sepe Tiarayu, had unwittingly attracted to himself one of the fey, one of the members of the Secret Commonwealth as he calls them.”
“The horse,” Bernice offered.
“They are never what they seem.”
“But he insists he does not believe in supernatural forces.”
“He does not believe they are super-natural. What they appear to be, and what they are, are two different things. He has reached the conclusion that they are simply another race of this world, subject to natural laws just as we are.”
The flash of skepticism that crossed the Doctor’s brow prompted Worthington to continue the story. “We waited for new developments related to the antiquity. As Otis Beaumont, he gently pressed his fellow businessmen for the opportunity to enter into the more esoteric levels of their society. But their refusal kept him away. And the level of suspicion he read in their reaction forced him to maintain that distance.
“All he could do was verify the arrival and dismissal of a train of doctors in linguistics, and archaeologists, and experts in ancient civilizations. That made it clear that no cost was being spared in the attempt to decipher the book. The date each man was brought in and where he was taken, remained a closely guarded secret.
“After eight months, when all natural means for penetrating the book’s secrets were exhausted, an urgent call went out through that mysterious underworld of secret societies for any other means of assistance, with a promise of a share of riches untold as reward. Mediums, seers, adepts from every corner of the world were brought one by one; no Fakir, no priest of Horus even marginally connected to the hidden brotherhoods was left uncalled.
“They came, like the other experts, from around the world, one by one. But after another three months the book still would not yield its secrets and their search seemed to become even more desperate. Sensing that desperation, the master, in the guise of the American tycoon, offered them a logical way to accelerate the inquiry without sacrificing their jealously guarded secret. He offered to create a lithograph of a pair of pages of the book from which a hundred or more copies could be printed. That way they could broaden their search, go beyond the occult brotherhoods and send their request to a hundred experts around the globe all at once. The first to offer a reasonable translation would then be brought in to expound on the entire document.
“He proposed to use the process invented by the Frenchman Joseph Niépce, by which the image in a camera obscura is transferred onto the surface of a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea. The areas of the asphalt exposed to light harden permanently. After this he added his own process, a simple idea, really. He washes off the unhardened bitumen residue and uses the minute relief image that remains, as a mold into which he pours a refined cement of limestone, ash and diatomite. This, once hardened, serves as a lithographing stone.
“After seeing the samples the large American magnate provided, the businessmen agreed. They were desperate. And it was in this way he finally discovered the hiding place of the mysterious book. He proposed to create two images, using two pages from different parts of the book but that could nevertheless be construed to be facing pages. That way he was giving them a check against many of the charlatans that would surely respond, while at the same time affording him an opportunity to inspect the entire book.