Text: excerpted from Chapter 5 of Novel Notes (1893). This work was first published in the Sept. 1892 issue of The Idler, edited by JKJ and Robert Barr. The title "The Man of Science" is given to this piece by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert, editors of Victorian Ghost Stories (Oxford UP), who include it in their anthology.
I met a man in the Strand one day that I knew very well, as I thought,
though I had not seen him for years. We walked together to Charing
Cross, and there we shook hands and parted. Next morning, I spoke
of this meeting to a mutual friend, and then I learnt, for the first
time, that the man had died six months before.
The natural inference was that I had mistaken one man for another,
an error that, not having a good memory for faces, I frequently fall
into. What was remarkable about the matter, however, was that
throughout our walk I had conversed with the man under the
impression that he was that other dead man, and, whether by
coincidence or not, his replies had never once suggested to me my
As soon as I finished, Jephson, who had been listening very
thoughtfully, asked me if I believed in spiritualism "to its fullest
"That is rather a large question," I answered. "What do you mean by
'spiritualism to its fullest extent'?"
"Well, do you believe that the spirits of the dead have not only the
power of revisiting this earth at their will, but that, when here,
they have the power of action, or rather, of exciting to action?
Let me put a definite case. A spiritualist friend of mine, a
sensible and by no means imaginative man, once told me that a table,
through the medium of which the spirit of a friend had been in the
habit of communicating with him, came slowly across the room towards
him, of its own accord, one night as he sat alone, and pinioned him
against the wall. Now can any of you believe that, or can't you?"
"I could," Brown took it upon himself to reply; "but, before doing
so, I should wish for an introduction to the friend who told you the
story. Speaking generally," he continued, "it seems to me that the
difference between what we call the natural and the supernatural is
merely the difference between frequency and rarity of occurrence.
Having regard to the phenomena we are compelled to admit, I think it
illogical to disbelieve anything we are unable to disprove."
"For my part," remarked MacShaughnassy, "I can believe in the
ability of our spirit friends to give the quaint entertainments
credited to them much easier than I can in their desire to do so."
"You mean," added Jephson, "that you cannot understand why a spirit,
not compelled as we are by the exigencies of society, should care to
spend its evenings carrying on a laboured and childish conversation
with a room full of abnormally uninteresting people."
"That is precisely what I cannot understand," MacShaughnassy agreed.
"Nor I, either," said Jephson. "But I was thinking of something
very different altogether. Suppose a man died with the dearest wish
of his heart unfulfilled, do you believe that his spirit might have
power to return to earth and complete the interrupted work?"
"Well," answered MacShaughnassy, "if one admits the possibility of
spirits retaining any interest in the affairs of this world at all,
it is certainly more reasonable to imagine them engaged upon a task
such as you suggest, than to believe that they occupy themselves
with the performance of mere drawing-room tricks. But what are you
leading up to?"
"Why, to this," replied Jephson, seating himself straddle-legged
across his chair, and leaning his arms upon the back. "I was told a
story this morning at the hospital by an old French doctor. The
actual facts are few and simple; all that is known can be read in
the Paris police records of sixty-two years ago.
"The most important part of the case, however, is the part that is
not known, and that never will be known.
"The story begins with a great wrong done by one man unto another
man. What the wrong was I do not know. I am inclined to think,
however, it was connected with a woman. I think that, because he
who had been wronged hated him who had wronged him with a hate such
as does not often burn in a man's brain, unless it be fanned by the
memory of a woman's breath.
"Still that is only conjecture, and the point is immaterial. The
man who had done the wrong fled, and the other man followed him. It
became a point-to-point race, the first man having the advantage of
a day's start. The course was the whole world, and the stakes were
the first man's life.
"Travellers were few and far between in those days, and this made
the trail easy to follow. The first man, never knowing how far or
how near the other was behind him, and hoping now and again that he
might have baffled him, would rest for a while. The second man,
knowing always just how far the first one was before him, never
paused, and thus each day the man who was spurred by Hate drew
nearer to the man who was spurred by Fear.
"At this town the answer to the never-varied question would be:-
"'At seven o'clock last evening, M'sieur.'
"'Seven--ah; eighteen hours. Give me something to eat, quick, while
the horses are being put to.'
"At the next the calculation would be sixteen hours.
"Passing a lonely chalet, Monsieur puts his head out of the window:-
"'How long since a carriage passed this way, with a tall, fair man
"'Such a one passed early this morning, M'sieur.'
"'Thanks, drive on, a hundred francs apiece if you are through the
pass before daybreak.'
"'And what for dead horses, M'sieur?'
"'Twice their value when living.'
"One day the man who was ridden by Fear looked up, and saw before
him the open door of a cathedral, and, passing in, knelt down and
prayed. He prayed long and fervently, for men, when they are in
sore straits, clutch eagerly at the straws of faith. He prayed that
he might be forgiven his sin, and, more important still, that he
might be pardoned the consequences of his sin, and be delivered from
his adversary; and a few chairs from him, facing him, knelt his
enemy, praying also.
"But the second man's prayer, being a thanksgiving merely, was
short, so that when the first man raised his eyes, he saw the face
of his enemy gazing at him across the chair-tops, with a mocking
smile upon it.
"He made no attempt to rise, but remained kneeling, fascinated by
the look of joy that shone out of the other man's eyes. And the
other man moved the high-backed chairs one by one, and came towards
"Then, just as the man who had been wronged stood beside the man who
had wronged him, full of gladness that his opportunity had come,
there burst from the cathedral tower a sudden clash of bells, and
the man, whose opportunity had come, broke his heart and fell back
dead, with that mocking smile still playing round his mouth.
"And so he lay there.
'Then the man who had done the wrong rose up and passed out,
"What became of the body of the other man is not known. It was the
body of a stranger who had died suddenly in the cathedral. There
was none to identify it, none to claim it.
"Years passed away, and the survivor in the tragedy became a worthy
and useful citizen, and a noted man of science.
"In his laboratory were many objects necessary to him in his
researches, and, prominent among them, stood in a certain corner a
human skeleton. It was a very old and much-mended skeleton, and one
day the long-expected end arrived, and it tumbled to pieces.
"Thus it became necessary to purchase another.
"The man of science visited a dealer he well knew--a little
parchment-faced old man who kept a dingy shop, where nothing was
ever sold, within the shadow of the towers of Notre Dame.
"The little parchment-faced old man had just the very thing that
Monsieur wanted--a singularly fine and well-proportioned 'study.'
It should be sent round and set up in Monsieur's laboratory that
"The dealer was as good as his word. When Monsieur entered his
laboratory that evening, the thing was in its place.
"Monsieur seated himself in his high-backed chair, and tried to
collect his thoughts. But Monsieur's thoughts were unruly, and
inclined to wander, and to wander always in one direction.
"Monsieur opened a large volume and commenced to read. He read of a
man who had wronged another and fled from him, the other man
following. Finding himself reading this, he closed the book
angrily, and went and stood by the window and looked out. He saw
before him the sun-pierced nave of a great cathedral, and on the
stones lay a dead man with a mocking smile upon his face.
"Cursing himself for a fool, he turned away with a laugh. But his
laugh was short-lived, for it seemed to him that something else in
the room was laughing also. Struck suddenly still, with his feet
glued to the ground, he stood listening for a while: then sought
with starting eyes the corner from where the sound had seemed to
come. But the white thing standing there was only grinning.
"Monsieur wiped the damp sweat from his head and hands, and stole
"For a couple of days he did not enter the room again. On the
third, telling himself that his fears were those of a hysterical
girl, he opened the door and went in. To shame himself, he took his
lamp in his hand, and crossing over to the far corner where the
skeleton stood, examined it. A set of bones bought for three
hundred francs. Was he a child, to be scared by such a bogey!
"He held his lamp up in front of the thing's grinning head. The
flame of the lamp flickered as though a faint breath had passed over
"The man explained this to himself by saying that the walls of the
house were old and cracked, and that the wind might creep in
anywhere. He repeated this explanation to himself as he recrossed
the room, walking backwards, with his eyes fixed on the thing. When
he reached his desk, he sat down and gripped the arms of his chair
till his fingers turned white.
"He tried to work, but the empty sockets in that grinning head
seemed to be drawing him towards them. He rose and battled with his
inclination to fly screaming from the room. Glancing fearfully
about him, his eye fell upon a high screen, standing before the
door. He dragged it forward, and placed it between himself and the
thing, so that he could not see it--nor it see him. Then he sat
down again to his work. For a while he forced himself to look at
the book in front of him, but at last, unable to control himself any
longer, he suffered his eyes to follow their own bent.
"It may have been an hallucination. He may have accidentally placed
the screen so as to favour such an illusion. But what he saw was a
bony hand coming round the corner of the screen, and, with a cry, he
fell to the floor in a swoon.
"The people of the house came running in, and lifting him up,
carried him out, and laid him upon his bed. As soon as he
recovered, his first question was, where had they found the thing--
where was it when they entered the room? and when they told him they
had seen it standing where it always stood, and had gone down into
the room to look again, because of his frenzied entreaties, and
returned trying to hide their smiles, he listened to their talk
about overwork, and the necessity for change and rest, and said they
might do with him as they would.
"So for many months the laboratory door remained locked. Then there
came a chill autumn evening when the man of science opened it again,
and closed it behind him.
"He lighted his lamp, and gathered his instruments and books around
him, and sat down before them in his high-backed chair. And the old
terror returned to him.
"But this time he meant to conquer himself. His nerves were
stronger now, and his brain clearer; he would fight his unreasoning
fear. He crossed to the door and locked himself in, and flung the
key to the other end of the room, where it fell among jars and
bottles with an echoing clatter.
"Later on, his old housekeeper, going her final round, tapped at his
door and wished him good-night, as was her custom. She received no
response, at first, and, growing nervous, tapped louder and called
again; and at length an answering 'good-night' came back to her.
"She thought little about it at the time, but afterwards she
remembered that the voice that had replied to her had been strangely
grating and mechanical. Trying to describe it, she likened it to
such a voice as she would imagine coming from a statue.
"Next morning his door remained still locked. It was no unusual
thing for him to work all night and far into the next day, so no one
thought to be surprised. When, however, evening came, and yet he
did not appear, his servants gathered outside the room and
whispered, remembering what had happened once before.
"They listened, but could hear no sound. They shook the door and
called to him, then beat with their fists upon the wooden panels.
But still no sound came from the room.
"Becoming alarmed, they decided to burst open the door, and, after
many blows, it gave way, and they crowded in.
He sat bolt upright in his high-backed chair. They thought at first
he had died in his sleep. But when they drew nearer and the light
fell upon him, they saw the livid marks of bony fingers round his
throat; and in his eyes there was a terror such as is not often seen
in human eyes."
Brown was the first to break the silence that followed. He asked me
if I had any brandy on board. He said he felt he should like just a
nip of brandy before going to bed. That is one of the chief charms
of Jephson's stories: they always make you feel you want a little