I'm going to give you an account of certain occurrences. I shan't attempt to explain them because they're quite beyond me. When you've heard all the facts, some of you may be able to offer suggestions. You must forgive me for going into a certain amount of detail. When you don't understand what you're talking about it's so difficult to know what to leave out.
This business began in the dark ages, before there was any broadcasting. In fact, in 1921.
I'd been staying the week-end with a friend of mine who lives about fifteen miles out of Bristol.
There was another man stopping there, too, who lived at Dawlish. Well, on the Monday morning our host drove us into Bristol in time for the Dawlish man to catch his train, which left a good deal earlier than the London one. Of course, if old Einstein had done his job properly, we could both have gone by the same train. As it was, I had over half an hour to wait. Talking of Einstein, wouldn't it be almost worth while dying young so as to hear what Euclid says to him when they meet--wherever it is?
There was a funny little old sort of curiosity shop in one of the streets I went down, and I stopped to look in the window. Right at the back, on a shelf, was a round brass box, not unlike a powder-box in shape, and it rather took my fancy. I don't know why--perhaps it was because I'd never seen anything quite like it before. That must be why some women buy some hats.
Anyway, the shop window was so dirty that you could hardly see through it, so I went inside to have a closer look. An incredibly old man came out of the back regions and told me all he knew about the box, which wasn't very much. It was fairly heavy, made of brass, round, four inches high, and about three inches in diameter. There was something inside it, which we could hear when we shook it, but no one had ever been able to get the lid off. He'd bought it from a sailor some years before, but couldn't say in the least what part of the world it came from.
"What about fifteen bob?"
I offered him ten, and he took it very quickly, and then I had to sprint back to the station to catch my train. When I got home I took the box up into my workshop and had a proper look at it. It was extremely primitive as regards work, and had evidently been made by hand, and not on a lathe. Also, there had been something engraved on the lid, but it had been taken off with a file. Next job was to get the lid off without doing any damage to it. It was a good deal more than hand tight, and no ordinary methods were any good. I stood it lid downwards for a week in a dish of glycerine as a start, and then made two brass collars, one for the box and one for the lid. At the-end of the week I bolted the collars on, fixed the box in the vice and tried tapping the lid round with a hammer--but it wouldn't start. Then, I tried it the other way and it went at once. That explained why no one had ever been able to unscrew it--it had a left-handed thread on it. Rather a dirty trick--especially to go and do it all those years before.
Well, here it was, unscrewing very sweetly, and I began to feel quite like Howard Carter, wondering what I was going to find. It might go off bang, or jump out and hit me in the face. However, nothing exciting happened when the lid came off. In fact, the box only seemed to be half-full of dust, but at the bottom was a curled-up plait of hair. When straightened out, it was about nine inches long and nearly as thick as a pencil. I unplaited a short length, and found it consisted of some hundreds of very fine hairs, but in such a filthy state (I shoved them under the microscope) that there was nothing much to be seen. So I thought I'd clean them. You may as well know the process--first of all a bath of dilute hydrochloric acid to get the grease off, then a solution of washing soda to remove the acid. Then a washing in distilled water, then a bath of alcohol to get rid of any traces of water, and a final rinsing in ether to top off with.
Just as I took it out of the ether they called me down to the telephone, so I shoved it down on the first clean thing which came handy, namely, a piece of white cardboard, and went downstairs. When I examined the plait later on, the only thing of interest that came to light was the fact that the hairs had all apparently belonged to several different women. The colours ranged from jet-black, through brown, red, and gold, right up to pure white. None of the hair was dyed, which proved how very old it was. I showed it to one or two people, but they didn't seem very enthusiastic, so I put it, and its box, in a little corner cupboard we have, and forgot all about it.
Then the first strange coincidence happened.
About ten days later a pal of mine called Matthews came into the club with a bandage across his forehead. People naturally asked him what was the matter, and he said he didn't know, and what's more the doctor didn't know. He'd suddenly flopped down on his drawing-room floor, in the middle of tea, and lain like a log. His wife was in a fearful stew, of course, and telephoned for the doctor. However, Matthews came round at the end of about five minutes, and sat up and asked what had hit him. When the doctor blew in a few minutes later he was pretty well all right again except for a good deal of pain in his forehead. The doctor couldn't find anything the matter except a red mark which was beginning to show on the skin just where the pain was.
Well, this mark got clearer and clearer, until it looked just like a blow from a stick. Next day it was about the same, except that a big bruise had come up all round the mark. After that it got gradually better. Matthews took the bandage off and showed it me at the club, and there was nothing much more than a bruise with a curved red line down the middle of it, like the track of a red-hot worm.
They'd decided that he'd had an attack of giddiness and must somehow have bumped his head in falling. And that was that.
About a month later, my wife said to me: "We really must tidy your workshop!" And I said: "Must we?" And she said: "Yes, it's a disgrace." So up we went.
Tidying my workshop consists of putting the tools back in their racks, and of my wife wanting to throw away things she finds on the floor, and me saying: "Oh, no, I could use that for so and so."
The first thing we came across was the piece of white cardboard I'd used to put the plait of hair on while I'd run to the telephone that day.
When we came to look at the other side we found it was a flashlight photograph of a dinner I'd been at. You know what happens. Just before the speeches a lot of blighters come in with a camera and some poles with tin trays on the top, and someone says: "Will the chairman please stand?" and he's helped to his feet. Then there's a blinding flash and the room's full of smoke, and the blighters go out again. Later on a man comes round with proofs, and if you are very weak--or near the chairman--you order one print.
Well, this dinner had been the worshipful company of skate-fasteners or something, and I'd gone as the guest of the same bloke Matthews I've already been telling you about, and we'd sat "side by each," as the saying is. My wife was looking at the photograph, and she said: "What's that mark on Mr. Matthews's forehead?" And I looked--and there, sure enough, was the exact mark that he'd come into the club with a month before. Thecurious part being, of course, that the photograph had been taken at least six months before he'd had the funny attack which caused the mark. Now, then--on the back of the photograph, when we examined it, was a faint brown line. This was evidently left by the plait of hair when I'd pinned it out to dry, and it had soaked through and caused the markon Matthews's face. I checked it by shoving a needle right through the cardboard. Of course, this looked like a very strange coincidence, on the face of it. I don't know what your experience of coincidences is--but mine is that they usually aren't.
Anyway, I took the trouble to trace out the times, and I finally established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had pinned the hair out on the photograph between four and a quarter-past on a particular day, and that Matthews had had his funny attack on the same day at about a quarter-past four. That was something like a coincidence. Next, the idea came to me to try it again. Not on poor old Matthews, obviously--he'd already had some--and, besides, he was a friend of mine. I know perfectly well that we are told to be kind to our enemies, and so on--in fact, I do quite a lot of that--but when it comes to trying an experiment of this kind--even if the chances are a million to one against it being a success, I mean having any result--one naturally chooses an enemy rather than a friend. I looked round for a suitable--victim--someone who wouldn't be missed much in case there happened to be another coincidence. The individual on whom my choice fell was the nurse next door.
We can see into their garden from our bathroom window--and we'd often noticed the rotten way she treated the child she had charge of when she thought no one was looking. Nothing one could definitely complain about--you know what a thankless job it is to butt into your neighbour's affairs--but she was systematically unkind, and we hated the sight of her. Another thing--when she first came she used to lean over the garden wall and sneak our roses--at least, she didn't even do that--she used to pull them off their stalks and let them drop--I soon stopped that. I fitted up some little arrangements of fish-hooks round some of the most accessible roses and anchored them to the ground with wires. There was Hell-and-Tommy the next morning, and she had her hand done up in bandages for a week.
Altogether she was just the person for my experiment. The first thing was to get a photograph of her, so the next sunny morning, when she was in the garden, I made a noise like an aeroplane out of the bathroom window to make her look up, and got her nicely. As soon as the first print was dry, about eleven o'clock the same night, I fastened the plait of hair across the forehead with two pins--feeling extremely foolish, as one would, of course, doing an idiotic thing like that--and put it away in a drawer in my workshop. The evening of the next day, when I got home, my wife met me and said: "What do you think--the nurse next door was found dead in bed this morning." And she went on to say that the people were quite upset about it, and there was going to be an inquest, and all the rest of it. I tell you, you could have knocked me down with a brick. I said: "No, not really; what did she die of?" You must understand that my lady wife didn't know anything about the experiment. She'd never have let me try it. She's rather superstitious--in spite of living with me. As soon as I could I sneaked up to the workshop drawer and got out the photograph, and--I know you won't believe me, but it doesn't make any difference--when I unpinned the plait of hair and took it off there was a clearly-marked brown stain right across the nurse's forehead. I tell you, that _did_ make me sit up, if you like--because that made twice--first Matthews and now--now.
It was rather disturbing, and I know it sounds silly, but I couldn't help feeling to blame in some vague way.
Well, the next thing was the inquest--I attended that, naturally, to know what the poor unfortunate woman had died of. Of course, they brought it in as "death from natural causes," namely, several burst bloodvessels in the brain; but what puzzled the doctors was what had caused the"natural causes"--also, she had the same sort of mark on her forehead as Matthews had had. They had gone very thoroughly into the theory that she might have been exposed to X-rays--it _did_ look a bit like that--but it was more or less proved that she couldn't have been, so they frankly gave it up. Of course, it was all very interesting and entertaining, and I quite enjoyed it, as far as one can enjoy an inquest, but they hadn't cleared up the vexed question--did she fall or was she pu--well, had she snuffed it on account of the plait of hair, or had she not? Obviously the matter couldn't be allowed to rest there--it was much too thrilling. So I looked about for someone else to try it on and decided that a man who lived in the house opposite would do beautifully. He wasn't as bad as the nurse because he wasn't cruel--at least, not intentionally--he played the fiddle--so I decided not to kill him more than I could help.
The photograph was rather a bother, because he didn't go out much. You've no idea how difficult it is to get a decent full-face photograph of a man who knows you by sight without him knowing. However, I managed to get one after a fortnight or so. It was rather small and I had to enlarge it, but it wasn't bad considering. He used to spend most of his evenings up in a top room practising, double stopping and what-not--so after dinner I went up to my workshop window, which overlooks his, and waited for him to begin. Then, when he'd really warmed up to his job, I just touched the plait across the photograph--not hard, but--well, like you do when you are testing a bit of twin flex to find out which wire is which, you touch the ends across an accumulator or an H.T. battery. Quite indefensible in theory, but invariably done in practice. (Personally, I always use the electric light mains--the required information is so instantly forthcoming.) Well, that's how I touched the photograph with the plait. The first time I did it my bloke played a wrong note. That was nothing, of course, so I did it again more slowly. This time there was no doubt about it. He hastily put down his fiddle and hung out of the window, gasping like a fish for about five minutes. I tell you, I was so surprised that I felt like doing the same.
However, I pulled myself together, and wondered whether one ought to burn the da--er--plait or not. But there seemed too many possibilities in it for that--so I decided to learn how to use it instead. It would take too long to tell you all about my experiments. They lasted for several months, and I reduced the thing to such an exact science that I could do anything from giving a gnat a headache to killing a man. All this, mind you, at the cost of one man, one woman, lots of wood-lice, and a conscientious objector. You must admit that that's pretty moderate, considering what fun one _could_ have had with a discovery of that kind.
Well, it seemed to me that, now the control of my absent treatment had been brought to such a degree of accuracy, it would be rather a pity not to employ it in some practical way. In other words, to make a fortune quickly without undue loss of life.
One could, of course, work steadily through the people one disliked, but it wouldn't bring in anything for some time.
I mean, even if you insure them first you've got to wait a year before they die, or the company won't pay, and in any case it begins to look fishy after you've done it a few times. Then I had my great idea: Why shouldn't my process be applied to horse-racing? All one had to do was to pick some outsider in a race--back it for all you were worth at about 100 to 1, and then see that it didn't get beaten.
The actual operation would be quite simple. One would only have to have a piece of card-board with photographs of all the runners stuck on it--except the one that was to win, of course--and then take up a position giving a good view of the race.
I wasn't proposing to hurt any of the horses in the least. They were only going to get the lightest of touches, just enough to give them a tired feeling, soon after the start. Then, if my horse didn't seem to have the race well in hand near the finish, I could give one more light treatment to any horse which still looked dangerous.
It stood to reason that great care would have to be taken not to upset the tunning too much. For instance, if all the horses except one fell down, or even stopped and began to graze, there would be a chance of the race being declared void.
So I had two or three rehearsals. They worked perfectly. The last one hardly was a rehearsal because I had a tenner on at 33 to 1, just for luck--and, of course, it came off.
However, it wasn't as lucky as it sounds. Just outside the entrance to the grandstand there was rather a squash and, as I came away I got surrounded by four or five men who seemed to be pushing me about a bit, but it didn't strike me what the game was until one of them got his hand into the breast-pocket of my coat.
Then I naturally made a grab at him and got him just above the elbow with both hands, and drove his hand still further into my pocket. That naturally pushed the pocket, with his hand inside it, under my right arm, and I squeezed it against my ribs for all I was worth.
Now, there was nothing in that pocket but the test tube with the plait of hair in it, and the moment I started squeezing it went with a crunch. I'm a bit hazy about the next minute because my light-fingered friend tried to get free, and two of his pals helped him by bashing me over the head. They were quite rough. In fact, they entered so heartily into the spirit of the thing that they went on doing it until the police came up and collared them.
You should have seen that hand when it did come out of my pocket. Cut to pieces, and bits of broken glass sticking out all over it--like a crimson tipsy cake. He was so bad that we made a call at a doctor's on the way to the police station for him to have a small artery tied up. There was a cut on the back of my head that wanted a bit of attention, too. Quite a nice chap, the doctor, but he was my undoing. He was, without doubt, the baldest doctor I've ever seen, though I once saw a balder alderman.
When he'd painted me with iodine, I retrieved the rest of the broken glass and the hair from the bottom of my pocket and asked him if he could give me an empty bottle to put it in. He said: "Certainly," and produced one, and we corked the hair up in it. When I got home, eventually, I looked in the bottle, but apart from a little muddy substance at the bottom it was empty--the plait of hair had melted away.
Then I looked at the label on the bottle, and found the name of a much-advertised hair restorer.
SFM: Brennan, Edelstein, Kress, Sterling, Sobin, Grant - Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that...