THE RIDER THROUGH RELATIVITY


By Herman George Scheffauer


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Editors' Note

The story below appeared in issue 3 of "The Double Dealer."

Herman George Scheffauer (1878-1927) was a German-American writer, poet, playwright, journalist, and translator. Scheffauer was encouraged by his mentor, Ambrose Bierce, to quit his day job as an architect in order to focus on writing full time.

"The Rider Through Relativity" is a piece of science fiction concerned with Einstein's theory of relativity. The theory was published in its final form in 1916, just a few years before Scheffauer's story. The contents and grammar have been left as they originally appeared.

The artwork used for this story is from a play Scheffauer wrote titled "The Hollow Head of Mars."

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"My death warrant," said Aurel Sharrington. He stared at the sheet in his hand, glaring white in the electric light that showered from his table lamp. The familiar writing of his old friend Dr. Hameroy, swam and swelled before his eyes. The long angular characters began to resemble, as he thought, lines of dancing skeletons, grotesquely interlocked.

"I have made my final and decisive laboratory test," ran a passage in the letter. "If I did not know that you would damn me for hiding the truth, I would lie and say: there is hope. But your parents named you Aurelius, and I believe you have managed to prove that they did not misname you."

"Dear Mark," murmured Sherrington, with a smile, "the compliment is forced, but he felt obliged to sugarcoat that pill."

He let the letter drop on the desk, and reached for a sheet of paper. The pen thudded into the great crystal inkstand, then whispered over the coarse, hand-made paper:

My Dear Eve: You are free—for I'm going to be free. There's no hope for me, I hear—so there is hope for you. Forgive the drama at the tail-end of my destiny—and be happy with whomever you may feel is necessary. . . .

"How banal!" he muttered, tore the sheets into bits, seized another and wrote:

My Dearest Eve . . .

"That will do," said he, "so far as steel and ink are concerned. She will understand, as an intelligent wife should. The rest—"

He opened a drawer in the desk—a small flat object shone with a dull blue-black lustre—he laid it upon the edge of the desk—a small automatic pistol. "— the rest is steel and fire."

Odd, he thought, that one should be playful, almost witty—considering the occasion. A hangman's humor—or philosophy. The one thing that might reconcile one to remain is that one is constantly making new discoveries—those impressive death-bed sayings preserved so piously may be true after all—the last flare of the expiring match.

Aurel Sharrington had come to a snarl in the threads of his existence. And he was for a Gordian solution—scarcely in keeping with the teachings of the philosopher after whom he had been named. His eye encompassed the triangle made by the two sheets of paper and the sinister weapon.

"Here is my existence geometrically laid out," he mused, "a triangle—the bill for life and the bill for love. They've presented them a bit prematurely considering I am only thirty-three—thirty-three, three and thirty. Good old Hameroy will not bear me a grudge, I hope, for falsifying his forecast and dying of something else. He cannot condemn me to life to serve him as a kind of guinea-pig—it would not be fair."

"As for Eve, she has grown used to living alone. She is Eve's true daughter and will survive. I was never meant to be her Adam. Well, to make a long matter of thirty-three years and God knows how many months of suffering—short—"

His pale thin hand reached for the brutal firearm. He held it fondly in his hands—like a book or a crucifix. His eyes swam with sudden tears—faintness came upon him—the tides of life seemed to be already fleeing from his body before the blow. Through half-opened eyes he saw the shining ring of the muzzle. It fascinated him. Again his lips fashioned words—words scarcely audible:

"The ring of gold meant bondage—for both. This ring of steel means release—for both. It may be as difficult for a rich man to enter heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But here's a tiny orifice through which a poor fool may pass into a good, sound sleep."

His will, springing into one soaring stream of resolution bade his finger fire. And the finger obeyed.

Grey mist. Clouds that wallow, rise and fall. A clanging as of countless anvils. A planetary ringing in the ears—as of a thin, ethereal music, a burning vibration sweet and endless, swelling, dwindling, dying away and returning once more.

"Awake!" said a voice. "You cannot escape the law. You cannot escape life. In the blundering fashion of your fellows you sought to break the thread—by crude mechanical means."

A figure grew plain beside him. It was a tall man clad in a tight-fitting garment which clung to his heroic form like silk and shimmered like silver. His face was august and sorrowfully serene. A radiance seemed to stream from it, a mellow light poured from his great sad eyes. His hair glittered like a crown of crystals and curled into points like flame.

"I know," said Sharrington, "this is fever." Once more he drummed up all his will-power. "This is a hospital—you are a surgeon. Spare yourself a useless job."

"The useless task was yours," said the stranger," and an evil task. This is not a hospital nor am I a surgeon. Yet in my way I have effected cures. I saw you—by a science you could not comprehend—and I transported you hither. In our world physical intervention as you know it in yours, is no longer necessary. We work with other forces."

The voice was full of the resonant harmonies of precious metal. Never before had Sharrington heard such a voice nor so strange an accent. It might have been the English of another age, and yet the idiom was modern.

"You are my guest, my passenger."

"Your guest—your passenger? Whose? Where? In what? You have interfered—I had an important engagement—"

"My name does not matter," said the strange being. "It is distinguished if not honoured among men. You are in the cabin of the "Stellar Shuttle." The "Stellar Shuttle" is an astroplane—such as are in common use in our system. It is impelled by intensified waves of ether and its maximum speed exceeds by far the speed of your sun's waves of light. We have mastered forces which are as yet unrevealed to you, even though you are upon the threshold of revelation. I am an inhabitant of Ypranil, the largest planet in the system of Sirius. Our powers, the fruit of millions of years of development might seem almost divine to you. Yet there are worlds that are further advanced upon the eternal spiral than even Ypranil."

"The environment," said Aurel Sharrington, "is more than uncanny—but I am used to hoaxes—"

The majestic figure, with a profound melancholy written upon its face, reached forth in the luminous haze and touched something that shone upon what seemed a wall. There was a faint clatter and a flash, a thin and singing note. A dark well opened before Sharrington's eyes and in this there span what appeared to be a globe of hollow crystal or a bubble with a surface of the most intense and brilliant black. The enclosure of the well thrilled with unimaginable vibrations. Across the dark, apparently liquid surface of the bubble, a small and ruddy disc swam into sight.

"What is that?" asked Sharrington.

"The planet called Earth which you were so anxious to leave," said the luminous being. "You have left it."

"I see the outlines of continents," said Sharrington, "the splashing, spatulate shape of North America, the triangle of South America—like a Newfoundland's head. But our kinematographic science is so well developed that this trick is mere child's play."

"We are travelling slowly," said the white figure, "look again."

A blush of silvery lustre swept over the spinning globe. Over its surface, like smoke taking shape, like an image emerging out of blurred distances into focus, he saw a landscape quiver into view. It grew larger and more distinct, the edges pitched mistily away at the sides, the top and bottom. Still enlarging, a city loomed up, silhouettes of buildings, domes and towers whirled by, familiar in shape, yet strange in aspect. Now a street appeared—he knew it—it was his own. People passed to and fro along this street, automobiles, an electric car, wagons. The door of his house opened; he saw himself descend the steps in the purple-tinted light.

"It is an interesting bit of stained film," said he, "presumably taken from an aeroplane."

"We have overtaken a ray of light that left that spot on Earth two days ago," said the stranger quietly. "We are travelling somewhat more slowly than this ray. Were we travelling at the same speed, the life you see would be fixed in simultaneousness—that is it would stand still as in a photograph—thus:"

The movement in the street was petrified on the instant, frozen in action as in a photograph.

"Naturally," said Sharrington, "the machine has been stopped."

"We are travelling at the speed of 298,000 of your miles per a second of your time—that is the speed of your sunlight. But that is as nothing to the velocities of the ether vibrations."

Sharrington's sight, hearing, smell and touch seemed to blend into one. He felt himself transfused as in a core of ardent and intolerable light. And the thought came to him that this must indeed be death, and that it might even be some limbo in the "vast obscure," some hell.

He saw the same street, but now a house was being built close to his father's house. He gave a cry—he remembered the building of that house years ago; it was before the era of films. A street car, drawn by horses, came swaying down the street. He saw his mother descend the steps—he bent his burning eyes upon the spinning mirror—how young she looked! how beautiful she was! He saw himself, a school boy in knee-breeches, running up to embrace her.

With incredible swiftness, with winging stretches of darkness and light, the mysterious sphere or bubble flashed and glittered and each was a day or a night recaptured from eternity.

"We are advancing slowly against the transpired Earth-rays," said the traveller from Ypranil. "They are breaking against our cosmic mirror like waves against the prow of a boat. We move at will and at ease—whithersoever we please—it is all a matter of computation."

Sharrington passed his hand across his eyes. "I am dazed," he said, "it is all a dream and an evil one—it is all vanity."

"It is all relativity," said the other.

"Relativity," murmured Sharrington, and shuddered, he could not say why, "ah, yes. Einstein's Theory—Rutherford and his system of releasing atomic forces."

"All these things we knew and used hundreds of years ago—of our years—which are as many thousands of yours."

"It is terrible! terrible!" cried Sharrington. "Humanity will be lost and damned forever—the dead past will no longer be able to bury its dead."

"Only to your earthly eyes and only because Earth is still a rude, imperfect planet, are these things terrible. The past is not dead—somewhere, if you have but eyes to see it—or instruments—it is always present. Somewhere it lives—as you live now!"

"Unfortunately," said Aurel Sharrington.

"The past is preserved to all eternity," said the mysterious stranger, "it is forever flowing, forever flying through distance. Relatively, the speed of the images projected from the Earth are to some of the speeds which we already master, as the motion of a glacier is to the motion of a cataract. Thus all that is born to light flies on eternally through the dark of interstellar space. Where there is an eye to intercept and gather the ray, it comes to life. Your days and deeds, like my days and deeds, are without end, whether measured by the life of a midge or the life of a planet."

He was silent for a time, then asked:

"Shall we unravel the past? Shall we salvage something of this hidden but indestructible record? Things familiar to you from your own destructible records? Shall we read Time backward? Pursue Life downward towards its source?"

"Wonderful!" cried Sharrington. "You must accept that word as a tribute from me—for my father had taught me that my motto in life was to be nil admirari. Your miracles are plausible because they are scientific. One of our well-known terrestrial writers—unknown, no doubt, in Ypranil, H. G. Wells, has already ventured into this field. He wrote a book called the "Time Machine."

"He wrote it, now you may live it," said the deep and golden voice. "Shall we overleap, overtake decades, centuries, millenia?"

A sudden terror came upon Sharrington.

"Oh, no more of the Earth," he cried. "May the night swallow it up in everlasting mercy. Let no man lift the curtain—let it hide its sorrow, crime, mad-ness, misery and death. Write your own history—or unwrite it. Leave ours alone. It is a tragedy."

The stranger gave no heed.

"We shall pass through the years like level sunlight through a forest. Today, by your mundane calendar it is the 15th of October, 1920. I shall now steer the "Stellar Shuttle" into the light wave of the end of 1918. I shall bring Europe to your view."

Upon the spherical reflector, with its miraculous powers of concentration and magnification, a great waste floated into view—a region bare and hideous—like one vast sore.

"The Sahara!" cried Sharrington.

"Flanders and the Champagne," said, the man from Ypranil.

Great masses of grey troops moved eastward. They resembled an enormous slate-colored serpent whose scales glittered in the sunlight. Narrow channels like the canals of Mars swallowed them up. Ruins began to smoke, out of them arose houses, flaming, spires leaped into the air, church walls erected themselves piecemeal. The buildings burst into puffs of smoke, flame and dust and spat back shells into the throats of howitzers which first bloomed with smoke, and then belched fire. Thousands of rude graves were opened; corpses were borne into battle and came to life. Dead and dismembered men rose from the ground and were whole. They embraced one another and drew swords and bayonets from one another's breasts and ran to cover. Shattered war planes rose flaming from the earth and sailed serenely through the air. The waste of sand blew up and became green. The deep pits and round shellcraters arose under great domes of sand that were showered upon them amidst fountains of flame, and vanished. Levelled forests leaped erect from prostrate trunks and splintered boughs. The roads were black with men, animals and vehicles pushing on towards the cities. Thousands of soldiers embarked and crossed the Channel. Darkened cities sprang to light. Out of the sea wrecks rose foaming, burst into flame. Swimming seamen leaped aboard from bursts of foam, jetsam gathered itself and streamed into the hatches out of the sea. The vessels steamed away, stern first, following a white wake, the wave curling forward at the bows.

A pageant of great capitals ensued. Paris streamed across the dark mirror. A narrow street; an open cafe, an excited crowd, a stout bearded man stretched upon a marble table,—he opens his eyes, is lifted to the floor, leaps into his chair, a puff of smoke, he declaims passionately to an admiring group.

"That is Jean Jaurés," said Sharrington. "I heard him speak once."

London, Amsterdam, Berlin swept by—crowds, traffic, newsboys with flaring papers. Vienna unrolled its glorious concentric streets. Serajevo melted into view, decked in flags and wreaths. A man and a woman lay bleeding in a carriage, again a puff of smoke, they sat up, and bowed to the public.

"What is life—what is death" asked the inhabitant of Ypranil. "Life is but a running thread of light between infinity and infinity. Backwards or forwards—all is one. You have just seen how the Great War ended—ended—as seen from a certain point in space."

"Yes," said Sharrington, "the gods who turn the crank of the universe care little whether it runs forward or back-ward. All is illusion to us—their slaves, their dupes—all except Light."

A deep sigh broke from the lips of the man from Ypranil. His voice trembled, anguish tore at its mellow music. Torment disturbed his features, tears rolled down his cheeks.

"You can weep!" cried Sharrington, "you have tears then—even in Ypranil?"

"Light!" said the stranger, "the glorious, the eternal. I was once part of light—I was its bearer—now I am fated to roam the inter-stellar cold and darkness—a lonely spark in one vast immensity."

Sharrington gazed at his companion with awe and fascination. And now he knew that he was man. His soul widened. Visions of ineffable splendour, vast and apocalyptic burst upon it.

"Your name!" he exclaimed—"who are you . . . ?"

"I am the Dweller in Ypranil," said the stranger, "but that is only one of my dwellings—for an hour or for an aeon."

A silence. The astral mirror sang and coruscated.

"A sea!" cried Sharrington. "Ah! Sandy Hook! the forts! Manhattan, the Wool worth, the Singer buildings, the Flatiron—"

Plumes of steam soared from the crests of the giant city; banners flew. The streets streamed with human beings, the cars crawled along dragging their shadows. Hundreds of domes and cupolas and spires glittered. This choral in towering stone, this litany of labour—almost he heard its voice. A great emotion overcame Aurel Sharrington. Earth-sick he grew—home-sick—he stretched out his hands to the scene.

"This too," said the Strange Being, "is only the fabric of a dream. I shall increase our speed along this ray—the metropolis will dismantle and dissolve itself."

Skyscraper after skyscraper began to cloud itself in veils of scaffolding. Turrets were unrigged, finials, crests, flagpoles vanished, great ashlars sank into the depths, the steel skeletons emerged, fell apart and melted away. Soon the yawning pits of the excavations were seen, earth and sand leaped out of the carts to meet the shovels of the men who restored them to their place. The soil smoothed itself and burst into grass, children came and gamboled there.

The streets opened and disgorged beams, columns and shining tracks, then engulfed rivers of rock and earth and closed again. The city shrank, great gaps appeared. The roadways and rails of the Manhattan Bridge were taken up, the vertical carriers fell away from the huge cables, the cables writhed from the towers like enormous serpents, the towers disintegrated stone by stone. The Brooklyn Bridge fell apart, girder by girder, strand by strand, stone by stone.

Sometimes the focus or the plane of vision seemed to hover directly above the streets, then again it receded and the details of the Earth's surface broadened into landscapes as seen from some lofty peak, again these dissolved into murky continents that glowed dull red or grey or green. And then, as with a sudden lurch, the spherical shape of the Earth disclosed itself and Sharrington looked upon the familiar outlines of North America and the northern crown of ice. Light and darkness alternated and the days and the years were as the rhythmic breathing of some all-embracing cosmic organism, the winking of some sidereal machine.

Once again the Earth seemed to swoop upward—another war "began." Grant and Lee met at Appomattox Court House to arrange the gigantic duel. The South prepared great battlefields, towards these crawled the wearied and broken armies, blue and grey, collided in a foam of smoke and dust, fire and blood, separated and marched away, all ranks filled and all flags flying. Flaming cities rose phoenix-like, out of the ruins and smiled. Gettysburg leaped to tremendous life then ebbed into the peace of green fields. Vicksburg blazed like a blood-red star, then mirrored itself in the river. The "Monitor" and the "Merrimac" were born in a welter of fire, smoke and foam, disengaged, steamed away and were dismantled on the ways. Bull Run came—the last battle of the war, and ended with the Union troops marching gaily into Washington. The Negro problem was solved.There were jubilees, dancing and feasts upon the plantations.

Sherrington saw caravans of prairie schooners rolling eastward from the Rockies. In California men filled up great gaps in the wounded Earth and cast into them handsful of quartz and gleaming nuggets—frenziedly, as though mad to be rid of the yellow curse.

"There are the giant redwoods," said Sharrington, pointing, "by this devolution one might see them dwindle into saplings."

"They are the oldest living things on your Earth," said his guide, "over three thousand years old. The range of my mirror reaches only to a radius of 960 years."

The great cities dwindled from the surface of the continent and became groups of huts, of tents, and then the prairies and the forests rolled over them, like a green tide. Herds of buffaloes stormed like dark clouds across the plains. Railway lines were torn up. Mail-coaches lurched and swayed between the ancient towns. Robert Fulton ran the last steamboat down the Hudson. The War of the Revolution rages along the Atlantic seaboard; it closes—the signers of the Declaration of Independence erase their names one by one from the document. Bales of tea leap from the waters of Boston Bay into the hatches of the British merchantman.

New York becomes Nieuw Amsterdam. The British cede it to the Dutch. The Indian chief returns the 24 dollars for which he had sold Manhattan. The Hollanders withdraw. The smoke of wigwams goes up from green Manhattan.

The Pilgrim Fathers leave the land with thanksgivings; the "Mayflower" bursts into sail and wallows her way stern first back to England. The wilderness triumphant,—the sea—savages—rockbound capes—hills, white beaches, swamps, islands rise and fall, flee and fade. The Earth is seized at the end of a flying ray of light and turned like a jewel upon a pin. Cuba,—like an enormous lizard basking in foam, in a field of sapphire. Three caravels moored in a bight. On a shining strand, bright against dark groves of palms, men in glittering armour, in velvet jerkins, priests in cassocks, bearded sailors, golden banners with the Madonna. Half-naked savages in brilliant feathers stand at gaze. Embarkation. The caravels set sail. Columbus leaves San Salvador to discover Europe. A hemisphere is delivered up to oblivion; the violated sea recovers its sanctity and its secrecy.

The Strange Being played upon a number of keys with a rhythmic touch as one plays upon the keyboard of a piano.

Sharrington's life now began to unroll backward before his eyes. He saw himself at school, saw himself playing and even fighting in the fields near his home. He saw his mother all in black and himself standing about a grave in the cemetery. He saw this opened, the coffin lifted out and transported in a hearse to his house. A little while and he was walking the streets hand in hand with his father. His mother came to meet them, holding wide her arms.

A sob broke from him; tears burnt like fiery acids in his eyes. He saw himself as a fair and radiant child of four—of three—of two years, toddling beside his nurse. He saw himself as an infant, as a suckling at his mother's breast in the sunlit garden behind the old house. Then men and women went up and down the front steps and those that came down carried flowers in their hands. The doctor's carriage drove away.

"This is the 4th of August, 1887," said the master of the machine—

"My birthday," said Aurel Sharrington.

"Let us send the astroplane in pursuit of the ray."

The mysterious engine began to wind up the past along this ray, pursuing it into the abysses of space, this time in the direction of flight. And Sharrington saw leaf after leaf of his outward life unfold again—his mother's funeral, his horseback rides in the Park, his meeting, his walks with Eve, their marriage, their honeymoon five hundred miles away. Then the day when he first fell ill, his visits to Mark Hameroy's office, the estrangement between him and Eve. Once he started and almost cried out as he saw Eve leave the doctor's office after he himself had just passed out of the door. The fateful evening came again. He saw himself enter the house and vanish. But he knew that within he was ascending the silent, carpeted steps, sitting brooding over the letters, holding heroic debate with himself, opening the drawer—ah, the weapon still felt cold and heavy in his hand—the shining ring, the ring—the Ring of the Eternal occurrence.

The terrified old housekeeper telephoned to Dr. Hameroy and to Mrs. Sharrington. They came, as if by accident, together, and entered Sharrington's study—Mrs. Barbour remaining below. Dr. Hameroy ran to his friend's side and felt his pulse.

"Dead," said he, "but still warm." Mrs. Sharrington gave a cry.

He twisted the pistol out of the hand that clutched it.

"Unloaded," he said, as he flung it on the desk. "I had seen to that myself."

Eve Sharrington's eyes were fixed upon Hameroy's letter which lay open and disgust broke from her lips. Hameroy snatched the letter and tore it into shreds. And now she saw the other letter: My Dear Eve . . . and began to weep.

"It was the letter that was loaded, Eve," said he, as he caught the woman by the arms and looked into her eyes,—"for our sakes."

She stared at him and was silent. And then he knew that the love that had grown up between them was as dead as the man before them who had been the obstacle to its fulfillment.

Aurel Sharrington was not at all disturbed by this visit from his wife and his friend at this unearthly hour, for to him all hours had become unearthly. He had voyaged into the silences and the secrecies and had returned with the ultimate wisdom of all time. A sweet smile hovered upon his lips; his whole expression seemed to say: "I am content. For I know that not only time and size and space are relative, but that all things are so—life and death and immortality, happiness and sorrow—and love."

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Cover image via Procureur2014 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons