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The Argonaut, San Francisco, California, 24 January 1885

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Robert Duncan Milne (1844-1899)

THE Scottish-born author Robert Duncan Milne, who lived and worked in San Fransisco, may be considered as one of the founding-fathers of modern science-fiction. He wrote 60-odd stories in this genre before his untimely death in a street accident in 1899, publishing them, for the most part, in The Argonaut and San Francisco Examiner.

In its report on Milne's demise (he was struck by a cable-car while in a state of inebriation) The San Fransico Call of 17 December 1899 summarised his life as follows:

"Mr. Milne was the son of the late Rev. George Gordon Milne, M.A., F.R.S.A., for forty years incumbent of St. James Episcopal Church, Cupar-Fife. and nephew of Duncan James Kay, Esq., of Drumpark, J.P. and D.L. of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, through which side of the house, and by maternal ancestry (through the Breadalbane family), he was lineally descended from King Robert the Bruce.

"He received his primary education at Trinity College, Glenalmond, where he distinguished himself by gaining first the Skinner scholarship, which he held for a period of three years; second, the Knox prize for Latin verse, the competition for which is open to a number of public echools in England and Ireland, and thirdly, the Buccleuch gold medal as senior and captain of the school, of the eleven of which he was also captain.

"From Glenalmond Mr. Milne proceeded to Oxford, where he further distinguished himself by taking honors, also rowing in his college eight and playing in its eleven.

"After leaving the university he decided to visit California, a country then beginning to be more talked about than ever, and he afterward made the Pacific Coast his residence. In 1874 Mr. Milne invented and exhibited in the Mechanics' Fair at San Francisco a working model of a new type of rotary steam engine, which was pronounced to be the wonder of the fair.

"While in California Mr. Milne for a long time gained distinction as a writer of short stories and verse which appeared in current periodicals. The character of his work was well defined by Mrs. Gertrude Atherton, who said:

"'He has an extravagant imagination, but under it is a reassuring and scientific mind. He takes such a premise as a comet falling into the sun, and works out a terribly realistic series of results: or he will invent a drama for Saturn which might well have grown out of that planet's conditions. His style is so good and so convincing that one is apt to lay down such a story as the former, with an anticipation of nightmare, if comets are hanging about. His sense of humor and literary taste will always stop him the right side of the grotesque.'"


A caricature showing Robert Duncan Milne and a San Francisco cable-car.

"THE magic of the nineteenth century!" I exclaimed. "The term is so variously employed that it becomes necessary for me to know how you apply it before we can comprehend each other exactly."

"Well," responded Ashley, "I take it to mean the production of phenomena by natural means, which nevertheless seem supernatural, or beyond the present scope of applied science."

"As, for instance?" I inquired.

"Well, as, for instance, the faculty of intercommunication between persons separated by immense distances without the medium, say, of a tangible, physical telegraphic wire."

"But, in that case," I remarked, "and granting, for the sake of argument, that the intercommunication you describe might be carried on without the medium of a wire, how would you explain it?"

"By supposing," returned Ashley, "the existence of a real and actual medium whereby communications can be transmitted, though such medium is imperceptible to our ordinary senses, and cannot be weighed or measured by ordinary scientific instruments."

"But what reason have you," I objected, "for presuming the existence of any such medium at all?"

"The very best reason," he answered; "the actual experience of the past."

"You do not mean that you, personally, have communicated with—in short, transmitted messages to, and received messages from—distant persons without the use of ordinary telegraphic wires?" I asked.

"There is nothing so extraordinary in that. You must surely have witnessed the application of that law in the case of clairvoyants and trance mediums."

"Ah!" returned I. "But we were not talking of clairvoyants and trance mediums. Phenomena like these can be referred to a purely mental source. We were talking, I thought, of a real and actual medium, which could be proved to be such."

"Certainly; proved by results. Inferentially, that is to say, though the laws of its working still remain secret," replied my friend.

"I should like to witness such results myself," I said. "You can do so by coming with me this evening," replied Ashley.

So it was agreed upon between the young physician, in whose room I then was, and myself, that we should meet again that evening at a certain spot, and afterward proceed to investigate the phenomena we had been talking about.

"And the fair Julia?" I remarked, inquiringly, changing the subject.

A shade passed over my friend's countenance as I made this remark. The lady I had referred to was his betrothed, and it required no great amount of observation on my part to perceive that in mentioning her name I had touched a tender cord, and so forebore to prosecute the subject, though entitled by intimacy with both to feel an interest in their mutual relations.

"It is this very matter which troubles me just now," replied my friend, uneasily. "Her letters have latterly been growing less frequent, and I fancy I can detect also a change of style. Her phrases seem less endearing than formerly. It would seem as though a shadow had sprung up between us. You know how I love her, and I am racked with apprehension when I think she is so far away, and exposed to I know not what estranging influences."

"Where are the family now?" I asked, as since the Radcliffes had left San Francisco, some six months before, they had, as I knew, been traveling in Europe, though I was unacquainted with their present location.

"That is what I do not know," replied Ashley, in tremulous tones. "They were in New York two weeks ago, and since then I have had no letter from Julia, though hitherto she has never missed a week without writing."

Julia Radcliffe, the affianced bride of Gerald Ashley, was a charming, sympathetic, and impressionable girl of nineteen summers, the only daughter of one of San Francisco's representative businessmen, who had been traveling with his family, and was now on his return home. Knowing the extent of my friend's affection for the lady, I felt sincere sympathy for him in his present condition.

Presently an idea struck me. Why should not my friend make use of the mode of communication he had just been explaining to me, and thus obtain the information he stood so sadly in need of? If it really possessed the virtue he expressed such confidence in, surely the present was the time to prove it, and I immediately made the suggestion.

"The very thing I had in my mind," he returned, in answer to my observation "when I asked you to accompany me this evening. Professor Vehr is no ordinary scientist, I assure you. Some of the phenomena he produces are of the most extraordinary and startling character."

"Professor Vehr!" I exclaimed, in surprise. "Do you mean Professor Vehr of the Palace Hotel? I have already witnessed some of his remarkable experiments," recalling an episode in which a magic mirror had figured, some few months before. "I will willingly accompany you."

TWO hours later found us in the professor's apartments in the Palace Hotel, where we were cordially welcomed.

"You have repeated your visit," he said, "with a view to further investigate the occult. Good. I shall be happy to oblige you—the more so as I have myself been pursuing the investigations, and have arrived at even more subtile elucidations of the energies conserved in the fluid we call electricity than those which you witnessed in the case of the mirror. There this phenomenon was confined to the reproduction of optical effects, with a certain reaction on the substantial forms of which the figures on the mirror were the simulacra. Now I am able to exert an actual physical control over the voices as well as the minds of distant persons themselves, so as, if necessary, to even transport them from place to place."

"I was struck with the last observation of the professor, and with the resemblance of its claim to that of the adepts of the Oriental Theosophy, and so intimated.

"It is quite true," he said, "that this formulation of the energy I have just hinted at is, in effect, the same as that controlled by the theosophists. It may be, also, that, in one sense, they have arrived at that more complete mastery over nature where the mere effort of mind and will is able to produce effects which I can only obtain in natural corollaries of laws which the world at large possesses. Still, even granting that such is the case, my mode of procedure for obtaining my results does not entail those penalties for their abuse to which explorers into the realms of the occult under purely physical conditions are exposed. There are, however, penalties equally terrible for failure to observe the substantial condition of scientific law—penalties which threaten absolute annihilation of individual identity, so far as the material person or ego can be annihilated"—and so saying, the professor turned toward the alcove which had been the scene of the experiment with the mirror.

It can readily be conceived that, while impressed with the deliberate enunciation and careful phraseology of the professor, I was somewhat at a loss to trace their application to a phenomenon which I had not yet witnessed, strongly tinctured as they were with that transcendental flavor which, while it whets the curiosity, tends rather to obscure than elucidate the subject on which it treats. I was not, therefore, sorry when I saw that our host was busying himself with the arrangement of some apparatus in the alcove, to which Ashley and myself now directed our attention, and waited.

The object which particularly arrested our attention was an immense glass bell, of something the shape and size of a diving bell, which occupied the centre of the alcove. This bell rested, in an inverted position, upon a solid slab of plate-glass, touching its edges upon every side. It reminded one, shall I say, of the receiver of a gigantic air-pump more than anything else. The capacity of this immense bell was, evidently, many hundred gallons, being, as nearly as I can judge, some five feet high by as many in diameter. Another peculiarity which I noted was that it was coated, to a height of about two feet from its base, with some shining opaque metallic substance; and as a metal rod depended from its apex about the same distance into its interior, while its upper end projected about a foot above the bell, I had no difficulty in connecting the apparatus before me with some branch of electricity, as the whole bore a marked resemblance to the known characteristics of a Leyden jar—that reservoir of static electricity whose scientific qualities are too well known to require further description. One other feature was deserving of notice—namely, that through one side of the bell projected the ends of what looked like ordinary telegraphic wires, terminating in those metal handles with which all who have experimented with the induction coil shock battery are familiar.

The professor walked leisurely round the bell, inspecting the metallic coating minutely, as likewise the wires which projected through the sides. Having apparently satisfied himself of the fitness of the apparatus before him, he turned to Ashley and said:

"I received your letter regarding the lady, and shall be happy to assist you, so far as I can, in your search for information, and perhaps, in a still more hazardous experiment, if it becomes necessary, and if you have courage enough to undertake it. The first step, however, will be to ascertain the lady's present position and surroundings."

So saying the professor led the way to the glass bell, which he proceeded to raise from the floor, by means of a rope passing round a drum and through a pulley overhead. After raising it about four feet, he kept it in position by adjusting a ratchet on the drum, and, placing a chair upon the glass slab, requested Ashley to seat himself thereon. Ashley did so, and the professor then put into each of his hands one of the handles terminating the wires which ran through the side of the bell. These wires I now saw ran to the outer wall of the apartment, where they disappeared.

"They are," explained the professor, "merely private connections with our ordinary public telegraph wires. They are, however, under certain conditions, rendered peculiarly sensitive to currents which would be powerless to affect ordinary telegraphic instruments in any manner whatever." Thus saying he loosened the ratchet on the drum, and proceeded to let the glass bell descend till it completely covered Ashley, enclosing him as if in a vase, its edges resting on the glass slab on which his chair was set.

"There is, as you see," explained the professor, in answer, as it were, to an unspoken idea, "no danger of asphyxiation, as the holes through which the side wires and the top rod pass, are by no means tight, this condition not being essential to the success of the experiment."

He then proceeded to take cautiously from a glass jar at one side of the alcove, the end of a piece of thick rubber tubing, a wire at the end of which he attached to a hook on the metallic coating of a bell; and then, from a second glass jar in another corner, a similar piece of tubing, the end of which, by standing on a chair he connected with the end of the rod which projected upward from the apex of the bell. I noticed that these latter india-rubber-coated wires ran out into the street like the simple telegraph wires first mentioned. I noticed, too, that they looked peculiarly similar to the rubber-coated wires used for conveying the fluid which feeds the electric lights in streets and public buildings.

"It is now," said the professor, descending from his chair, after attaching the second wire to the rod at the top of the bell, "that the nicety of our experiment comes in. I have had these insulated wires, from the works of the Electric Lighting Company, brought into my apartments in order to save time and trouble in charging my bell, an operation tedious to accomplish by generating electricity by a plate apparatus in the ordinary manner. Still, the great speed and force with which the fluid is generated and transmitted through these wires necessitates extreme care in manipulation. A degree too much tension might be productive of the most serious consequences to any one confined inside. Still, there is no fear in the first stage of the experiment, and none, if strict care is taken, in the second." So saying, the professor approached the bell with an electrometer, and presently, after disconnecting the rubber-coated wires therefrom, returning them carefully to their respective insulators.

It was now apparent that while we were conversing Ashley had closed his eyes, and was now reclining back in his chair, seemingly in deep sleep, his hands still clasping the handles of the telegraph-wires that ran into the interior of the bell.

"That is the first effect of moderately strong charge of static electricity in the human frame," explained the professor. "It induces a highly wrought condition of the nerves, which in their turn act upon the ganglion of the brain; that, in its turn, reacting again, through the duplex series of nerves, upon the wire held in the left hand, which brings the holder into communication with whatever object enthralls his attention at the time of the trance. The experiment is, in effect, clairvoyance reduced to an art, the mesmeric trance accomplished by scientific means and conditioned by the recognized and accepted laws of electrical science. Your friend is now, as I verily believe, in direct spiritual communication with her who is dearest to his heart—the last object that held possession of his soul before the mesmeric-electric trance overtook him. I will put myself in communication with him and ascertain."

The professor then walked around to the side of the bell where the wires entered the glass, and applied the forefinger of either hand to the orifices. As he did so, Ashley gave a visible start. His eyes, however, still remained closed.

"Have you seen her?" asked the professor, in deliberate tones, bending his spectacled eyes upon Ashley. "Where is she? What do you see?"

"I see a vast building—a collection of vast buildings. I see throngs of people, gayly dressed, walking in and out of them, and parading the beautiful grounds which surround them. It reminds me of the Centennial Exposition of 76."

"He is evidently in New Orleans," observed the professor to me. "I have no question that Miss Radcliffe is there. Do you see the lady?" he continued, addressing my friend.

"Ha! There!" responded Ashley, with animation. "There is Julia with her father and mother, and stay!—there is another there—a tall, handsome man, who has just approached the party. He takes off his hat and bows. He steps to Julia's side. She shrinks a little as he approaches. Mr. and Mrs. Radcliffe smile as he proffers his arm. They walk on. He is bending over Julia and conversing in low, passionate tones. He is telling her that he loves her. She listens to him as in a dream. He presses his suit more vehemently. They have left or lost her father and mother in the crowd. They are now alone in a little Moorish kiosk. He bends down and kisses her, and though she shudders she does not move away. Merciful heavens!" and with a start Gerald Ashley awoke.

The professor eyed him calmly.

"Are you satisfied?" he said.

Great beads of perspiration were standing on Ashley's brow. He looked the picture of agony and apprehension.

"You have been there in spirit," said the professor. "You know and appreciate the position your love is in. Would you regain her? Would you save her to yourself? Do you dare to appear beside her in bodily form, and bring her back with you here, wresting her from the new lover who has gained dominion over her, and whom, if you hesitate now, you will be in a very short time powerless to rival? Do you trust to my art? Believe me, I sympathize with you, and will help you if I can," and the professor looked calmly and steadily into the eyes of the man inside the bell.

"I am willing to encounter any risk," responded Ashley, "to regain the love of my betrothed. What must I do?"

"Simply retain your clasp upon the handles," said the professor, calmly. "Keep your attention fixed, as heretofore, and you will presently be in the kiosk of the New Orleans Exposition, not in spirit as you were a minute ago, but in actual, physical body. When you find yourself there, I leave it to yourself to regain the affections of your betrothed. Leave it to me to bring you both here. Be careful, though, not to loosen your clasp on her hand when the wire sounds the call to return. Go, and fortune attend you."

Ashley again clasped the handles of the wires with a set determination in his face which betokened that he realized and appreciated every detail of the professor's advice. The latter walked with somewhat quicker step than was his wont to the insulators where the wires of the Electric Lighting Company lay, and proceeded to adjust them to their respective places on the bell as before. Presently Ashley's head fell back upon the chair as before, and his eyes closed. The professor took out his watch, looked at it somewhat nervously, approached the bell at intervals with his electrometer, and paced the floor.

"My instrument is based," he explained to me, "on a centigrade scale of my own. It will take some time for a bell of the size you see before you to become fully charged with the fluid, even with my wires, which I have had conveyed almost straight from headquarters; and until the bell is fully charged the experiment cannot be consummated."

We waited patiently for some minutes more, Ashley murmuring meanwhile: "New Orleans; kiosk; I can see her; I can see him but I can not approach her; her father and mother are searching anxiously for her through other portions of the grounds."

Presently my friend became silent. The professor again, for the fifth or sixth time, approached the bell and applied his instrument.

"Hush!" said he. "The tension in the bell is now augmenting rapidly. A short time more and we shall witness the successful accomplishment of our experiment."

As he spoke, I noticed a change taking place in Ashley. Seated there, as he was, his head leaning on the back of his chair, his hands grasping the electrodes, I distinctly saw his form become thin, filmy, and transparent. Moment by moment more thin, filmy, and transparent it grew, till the attenuation was such that even the outline was scarcely visible. The hands alone, of all portions of the body, retained something of their pristine substantiality.

"HE has gone," whispered the professor, with subdued excitement. "We must now gauge the time till we can reasonably presume that he has accomplished his purpose, regaining his betrothed, and take measures for their return—the return of both, for if he be without her little would be gained. She would again, doubtless, as soon as her lover has left her, become amenable to him who gained a dominion over her in the absence of her original lover, and whose supremacy would be restored."

"But how—how"—I stammered—"how is this to be accounted for? What has become of my friend who was seated there but a moment ago?"

"The simplest thing in the world, my dear sir," replied the professor, earnestly. "You desire to know why your friend's body has disappeared. Would you ask the same question had that body been exposed to intense heat? You answer, no; because you say that the most refractory substances—rock or metal—are first melted and then volatilized by heat. Heat, in effect, expands and disintegrates the mass, and decollocates the atoms of every known substance. The static electricity, with which that glass bell is charged, is, in one sense, a correlative of heat, and, in another, a correlative of the physical energy which we call spirit. Is it wonderful, therefore, that the intense force with which that bell is laden should suffice to produce the effects which you now witness? There is nothing wonderful, my dear sir, in any chemical process, no matter how apparently incomprehensible and inexplicable it may be. You have seen a solid block of ice made instantaneously in and projected from a red-hot crucible. Is what is now being done any more incomprehensible than that?"

"Say that the human body you lately saw before you has been volatilized, resolved into its primary elements, and then, through the agency of the psychic power resident within it, has been transmitted to the spot which that psychic power had most in view, along the ordinary telegraph wires which connect us with that spot. Sound waves can be transmitted in this manner by the telephone; light waves are amenable to the same law—why, then, should not this law apply to matter which has been etherealized to the same degree as light and sound? It is but carrying the subject to its legitimate conclusion. But stay! Hush! Here they come!"

AS the professor spoke, I became aware of a dim and shadowy form shaping itself within the bell. As it gained shape I discerned, with what feelings of awe can be imagined, that there was not one form but two. Slowly but gradually the dim form assumed a more bodily and distinct aspect. I came in a very few seconds to realize that the forms which stood before me in the bell were those of Gerald Ashley and his affianced bride, Julia Radcliffe. There could be no doubt about the matter. There they stood in distinct bodily form, but still with a bewildered, dreamy look upon them, as though scarcely awakened from sleep.

"We have triumphed!" said the professor, in low tones, as he mounted on a chair to disconnect the insulated feeding-wire from the rod at the top of the bell, at the same time motioning me to do the same for the other wire. I proceeded to do so as fast as I could, when suddenly a blinding flash passed before my eyes, and a report sounded in my ears like that of a cannon. The last thing I remember seeing was the great glass bell with Gerald Ashley and Julia Radcliffe inside, and Professor Vehr standing on a chair beside it, the whole picture illumined by the brilliant light of an electric flash, and the façade of Market Street distinctly visible through the windows of the apartment.

* * * * *

A WEEK afterward, when I recovered sensibility, I ascertained several things. First, that Professor Vehr had left the city, the lessee of the Palace Hotel vowing that he would never receive another scientist, or permit another private wire from the Electric Lighting Company to enter the building. Secondly, that Doctor Gerald Ashley had not been seen since the eventful night, the strange experiences of which I have just recorded. Thirdly, that on that very day Miss Julia Radcliffe had disappeared from New Orleans, the last time that she had been seen being in a certain kiosk in the Exposition grounds with a Mr. Arthur Livingstone, though that gentleman avers that he saw her approached by some stranger, who claimed an acquaintanceship with her, and with whom she disappeared in the crowd a short time afterward. When Mr. Livingstone was pressed for a description of the gentleman in question, Mr. and Mrs. Radcliffe were at once convinced that it could be no one else but Doctor Gerald Ashley; and while sadly recriminating him for such a hasty and unadvised step as eloping with their daughter, have no doubt that the pair will turn up when it becomes expedient to do so.

As for me, I have taken pains to verify the date of the disappearance of Miss Julia Radcliffe at New Orleans, and find it to be the same day and hour as Dr. Gerald Ashley's and my own visit to Professor Vehr's apartments, on the night of the grand explosion at the palace Hotel. I have arrived at a certain conclusion on the facts, and consider that the most judicious as well as the most sympathetic course I can pursue, under the circumstances, is to place the foregoing facts before the public just as they are; thereby, perhaps, affording that poor solace to the afflicted which consists in the removal of an ill-grounded hope of ever seeing their lost and loved ones again.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.