Gladiator

Philip Wylie

Preview: Issue 1 of 26

I

Once upon a time in Colorado lived a man named Abednego Danner and his wife, Matilda. Abednego Danner was a professor of biology in a small college in the town of Indian Creek. He was a spindling wisp of a man, with a nature drawn well into itself by the assaults of the world and particularly of the grim Mrs. Danner, who understood nothing and undertook all. Nevertheless these two lived modestly in a frame house on the hem of Indian Creek and they appeared to be a settled and peaceful couple.

The chief obstacle to Mrs. Danner's placid dominion of her hearth was Professor Danner's laboratory, which occupied a room on the first floor of the house. It was the one impregnable redoubt in her domestic stronghold. Neither threat nor entreaty would drive him and what she termed his "stinking, unchristian, unhealthy dinguses" from that room. After he had lectured vaguely to his classes on the structure of the Paramecium caudatum and the law discovered by Mendel, he would shut the door behind himself, and all the fury of the stalwart, black-haired woman could not drive him out until his own obscure ends were served.

It never occurred to Professor Danner that he was a great man or a genius. His alarm at such a notion would have been pathetic. He was so fascinated by the trend of his thoughts and experiments, in fact, that he scarcely realized by what degrees he had outstripped a world that wore picture hats, hobble skirts, and straps beneath its trouser legs. However, as the century turned and the fashions changed, he was carried further from them, which was just as well.

On a certain Sunday he sat beside his wife in church, singing snatches of the hymns in a doleful and untrue voice and meditating, during the long sermon, on the structure of chromosomes. She, bolt upright and overshadowing him, like a coffin in the pew, rigid lest her black silk rustle, thrilled in some corner of her mind at the picture of hell and salvation.

Mr. Danner's thoughts turned to Professor Mudge, whose barren pate showed above the congregation a few rows ahead of him. There, he said to himself, sat a stubborn and unenlightened man. And so, when the weekly tyranny of church was ended, he asked Mudge to dinner. That he accomplished by an argument with his wife, audible the length of the aisle.

They walked to the Danner residence. Mrs. Danner changed her clothes hurriedly, basted the roast, made milk sauce for the string beans, and set three places. They went into the dining-room. Danner carved, the home-made mint jelly was passed, the bread, the butter, the gravy; and Mrs. Danner dropped out of the conversation, after guying her husband on his lack of skill at his task of carving.

Mudge opened with the usual comment. "Well, Abednego, how are the blood-stream radicals progressing?"

His host chuckled. "Excellently, thanks. Some day I'll be ready to jolt you hidebound biologists into your senses."

Mudge's left eyebrow lifted. "So? Still the same thing, I take it? Still believe that chemistry controls human destiny?"

"Almost ready to demonstrate it," Danner replied.

"Along what lines?"

"Muscular strength and the nervous discharge of energy."

Mudge slapped his thigh. "Ho ho! Nervous discharge of energy. You assume the human body to be a voltaic pile, eh? That's good. I'll have to tell Gropper. He'll enjoy it."

Danner, in some embarrassment, gulped a huge mouthful of meat. "Why not?" he said. "Look at the insects--the ants. Strength a hundred times our own. An ant can carry a large spider--yet an ant is tissue and fiber, like a man. If a man could be given the same sinews--he could walk off with his own house."

"Ha ha! There's a good one. Maybe you'll do it, Abednego."

"Possibly, possibly."

"And you would make a splendid piano-mover."

"Pianos! Pooh! Consider the grasshoppers. Make a man as strong as a grasshopper--and he'll be able to leap over a church. I tell you, there is something that determines the quality of every muscle and nerve. Find it--transplant it--and you have the solution."

Mirth overtook Professor Mudge in a series of paroxysms from which he emerged rubicund and witty. "Probably your grasshopper man will look like a grasshopper--more insect than man. At least, Danner, you have imagination."

"Few people have," Danner said, and considered that he had acquitted himself.

His wife interrupted at that point. "I think this nonsense has gone far enough. It is wicked to tamper with God's creatures. It is wicked to discuss such matters--especially on the Sabbath. Abednego, I wish you would give up your work in the laboratory."

Danner's cranium was overlarge and his neck small; but he stiffened it to hold himself in a posture of dignity. "Never."

His wife gazed from the defiant pose to the locked door visible through the parlour. She stirred angrily in her clothes and speared a morsel of food. "You'll be punished for it."

Later in the day Mudge and Gropper laughed heartily at the expense of the former's erstwhile host. Danner read restively. He was forbidden to work on the Sabbath. It was his only compromise. Matilda Danner turned the leaves of the Bible and meditated in a partial vacuum of day-dreams.

On Monday Danner hastened home from his classes. During the night he had had a new idea. And a new idea was a rare thing after fourteen years of groping investigation. "Alkaline radicals," he murmured as he crossed his lawn. He considered a group of ultra-microscopic bodies. He had no name for them. They were the "determinants" of which he had talked. He locked the laboratory door behind himself and bent over the microscope he had designed. "Huh!" he said. An hour later, while he stirred a solution in a beaker, he said: "Huh!" again. He repeated it when his wife called him to dinner. The room was a maze of test tubes, bottles, burners, retorts, instruments. During the meal he did not speak. Afterwards he resumed work. At twelve he prepared six tadpole eggs and put them to hatch. It would be his three hundred and sixty-first separate tadpole hatching.

Then, one day in June, Danner crossed the campus with unusual haste. Birds were singing, a gentle wind eddied over the town from the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, flowers bloomed. The professor did not heed the reburgeoning of nature. A strange thing had happened to him that morning. He had peeped into his workroom before leaving for the college and had come suddenly upon a phenomenon.

One of the tadpoles had hatched in its aquarium. He observed it eagerly, first because it embodied his new idea, and second because it swam with a rare activity. As he looked, the tadpole rushed at the side of its domicile. There was a tinkle and a splash. It had swum through the plate glass! For an instant it lay on the floor. Then, with a flick of its tail, it flew into the air and hit the ceiling of the room.

"Good Lord!" Danner said. Old years of work were at an end. New years of excitement lay ahead. He snatched the creature and it wriggled from his grasp. He caught it again. His fist was not sufficiently strong to hold it. He left it, flopping in eight-foot leaps, and went to class with considerable suppressed agitation and some reluctance. The determinant was known. He had made a living creature abnormally strong.

When he reached his house and unlocked the door of the laboratory, he found that four tadpoles, in all, had hatched. Before they expired in the unfamiliar element of air, they had demolished a quantity of apparatus.

Mrs. Danner knocked on the door. "What's been going on in there?"

"Nothing," her husband answered.

"Nothing! It sounded like nothing! What have you got there? A cat?"

"No--yes."

"Well--I won't have such goings on, and that's all there is to it."

Danner collected the débris. He buried the tadpoles. One was dissected first. Then he wrote for a long time in his notebook. After that he went out and, with some difficulty, secured a pregnant cat. A week later he chloroformed the tabby and inoculated her. Then he waited. He had been patient for a long time. It was difficult to be patient now.

When the kittens were born into this dark and dreary world, Mr. Danner assisted as sole obstetrician. In their first hours nothing marked them as unique. The professor selected one and drowned the remainder. He remembered the tadpoles and made a simple calculation.

When the kitten was two weeks old and its eyes opened, it was dieting on all its mother's milk and more besides. The professor considered that fact significant. Then one day it committed matricide.

Probably the playful blow of its front paw was intended in the best spirit. Certainly the old tabby, receiving it, was not prepared for such violence from its offspring. Danner gasped. The kitten had unseamed its mother in a swift and horrid manner. He put the cat out of its misery and tended the kitten with trepidation. It grew. It ate--beefsteaks and chops, bone and all.

When it reached three weeks, it began to jump alarmingly. The laboratory was not large enough. The professor brought it its food with the expression of a man offering a wax sausage to a hungry panther.

On a peaceful Friday evening Danner built a fire to stave off the rigours of a cold snap. He and Mrs. Danner sat beside the friendly blaze. Her sewing was in her lap, and in his was a book to which he paid scant attention. The kitten, behind its locked door, thumped and mewed.

"It's hungry," Mrs. Danner said. "If you must keep a cat, why don't you feed it?"

"I do," he answered. He refrained, for politic reasons, from mentioning what and how much he fed it. The kitten mewed again.

"Well," she repeated, "it sounds hungry."

Danner fidgeted. The laboratory was unheated and consequently chilly. From its gloomy interior the kitten peered beneath the door and saw the fire. It sensed warmth. The feline affinity for hearths drew it. One paw scratched tentatively on the door.

"It's cold," Mrs. Danner said. "Why don't you bring it here? No, I don't want it here. Take it a cover."

"It--it has a cover." Danner did not wish to go into that dark room.

The kitten scratched again and then it became earnest. There was a splitting, rending sound. The bottom panel of the door was torn away and it emerged nonchalantly, crossing the room and curling up by the fire.

For five minutes Mrs. Danner sat motionless. Her eyes at length moved from the kitten to her husband's quivering face and then to the broken door. On his part, he made no move. The kitten was a scant six inches from his foot. Mrs. Danner rose. She went to the door and studied the orifice, prying at it with her fingers as if to measure the kitten's strength by her own. Then she turned the key and peered into the gloom. That required either consummate nerve or great curiosity. After her inspection she sat down again.

Ten minutes passed. Danner cleared his throat. Then she spoke. "So. You've done it?"

"Done what?" he asked innocently.

"You've made all this rubbish you've been talking about strength--happen to that kitten."

"It wasn't rubbish."

"Evidently."

At that crisis Mr. Danner's toe trembled and the kitten, believing it a new toy, curled its paws over the shoe. There was a sound of tearing leather, and the shoe came apart. Fortunately the foot inside it was not hurt severely. Danner did not dare to budge. He heard his wife's startled inhalation.

Mrs. Danner did not resume her sewing. She breathed heavily and slow fire crept into her cheeks. The enormity of the crime overcame her. And she perceived that the hateful laboratory had invaded her portion of the house. Moreover, her sturdy religion had been desecrated. Danner read her thoughts.

"Don't be angry," he said. Beads of perspiration gathered on his brow.

"Angry!" The kitten stirred at the sound of her voice. "Angry! And why not? Here you defied God and man--and made that creature of the devil. You've overrun my house. You're a wicked, wicked man. And as for that cat, I won't have it. I won't stand for it."

"What are you going to do?"

Her voice rose to a scream. "Do! Do! Plenty--and right here and now." She ran to the kitchen and came back with a broom. She flung the front door wide. Her blazing eyes rested for a moment on the kitten. To her it had become merely an obnoxious little animal. "Scat! You little demon!" The broom came down on the cat's back with a jarring thud.

After that, chaos. A ball of fur lashed through the air. What-not, bird cage, bookcase, morris chair flew asunder. Then the light went out. In the darkness a comet, a hurricane, ricochetted through the room. Then there was a crash mightier than the others, followed by silence.

When Danner was able, he picked himself up and lighted the lamp. His wife lay on the floor in a dead faint. He revived her. She sat up and wept silently over the wreck of her parlour. Danner paled. A round hole--a hole that could have been made by nothing but a solid cannon shot--showed where the kitten had left the room through the wall.

Mrs. Danner's eyes were red-rimmed. Her breath came jerkily. With incredulous little gestures she picked herself up and gazed at the hole. A draught blew through it. Mr. Danner stuffed it with a rug.

"What are we going to do?" she said.

"If it comes back--we'll call it Samson."

And--as soon as Samson felt the gnawing of appetite, he returned to his rightful premises. Mrs. Danner fed him. Her face was pale and her hands trembled. Horror and fascination fought with each other in her soul as she offered the food. Her husband was in his classroom, nervously trying to fix his wits on the subject of the day.

"Kitty, kitty, poor little kitty," she said.

Samson purred and drank a quart of milk. She concealed her astonishment from herself. Mrs. Danner's universe was undergoing a transformation.

At three in the afternoon the kitten scratched away the screen door on the back porch and entered the house. Mrs. Danner fed it the supper meat.

Danner saw it when he returned. It was chasing flies in the yard. He stood in awe. The cat could spring twenty or thirty feet with ease. Then the sharp spur of dread entered him. Suppose someone saw and asked questions. He might be arrested, taken to prison. Something would happen. He tried to analyze and solve the problem. Night came. The cat was allowed to go out unmolested. In the morning the town of Indian Creek rose to find that six large dogs had been slain during the dark hours. A panther had come down from the mountains, they said. And Danner lectured with a dry tongue and errant mind.

It was Will Hoag, farmer of the fifth generation, resident of the environs of Indian Creek, church-goer, and hard-cider addict, who bent himself most mercilessly on the capture of the alleged panther. His chicken-house suffered thrice and then his sheep-fold. After four such depredations he cleaned his rifle and undertook a vigil from a spot behind the barn. An old moon rose late and illuminated his pastures with a blue glow. He drank occasionally from a jug to ward off the evil effects of the night air.

Some time after twelve his attention was distracted from the jug by stealthy sounds. He moved toward them. A hundred yards away his cows were huddled together--a heap of dun shadows. He saw a form which he mistook for a weasel creeping toward the cows. As he watched, he perceived that the small animal behaved singularly unlike a weasel. It slid across the earth on taut limbs, as if it was going to attack the cows. Will Hoag repressed a guffaw.

Then the farmer's short hair bristled. The cat sprang and landed on the neck of the nearest cow and clung there. Its paw descended. There was a horrid sound of ripping flesh, a moan, the thrashing of hoofs, a blot of dribbling blood, and the cat began to gorge on its prey.

Hoag believed that he was intoxicated, that delirium tremens had overtaken him. He stood rooted to the spot. The marauder ignored him. Slowly, unbelievingly, he raised his rifle and fired. The bullet knocked the cat from its perch. Mr. Hoag went forward and picked it up.

"God Almighty," he whispered. The bullet had not penetrated the cat's skin. And, suddenly, it wriggled in his hand. He dropped it. A flash of fur in the moonlight, and he was alone with the corpse of his Holstein.

He contemplated profanity, he considered kneeling in prayer. His joints turned to water. He called faintly for his family. He fell unconscious.

When Danner heard of that exploit--it was relayed by jeering tongues who said the farmer was drunk and a panther had killed the cow--his lips set in a line of resolve. Samson was taking too great liberties. It might attack a person, in which case he, Danner, would be guilty of murder. That day he did not attend his classes. Instead, he prepared a relentless poison in his laboratory and fed it to the kitten in a brace of meaty chops. The dying agonies of Samson, aged seven weeks, were Homeric.

After that, Danner did nothing for some days. He wondered if his formulæ and processes should be given to the world. But, being primarily a man of vast imagination, he foresaw hundreds of rash experiments. Suppose, he thought, that his discovery was tried on a lion, or an elephant! Such a creature would be invincible. The tadpoles were dead. The kitten had been buried. He sighed wearily and turned his life into its usual courses.

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