Saturday, 2 May 2020

Early SF story: The Human Brick by Mary C. Francis

It's been a while since i posted some fiction on this blog. So here's a story i read about when i was glancing through The Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of The Scientific Romance in the Munsey Magazines 1912 - 1920, by Sam Moskowitz.

The author, Mary Cornelia Francis, was born in Ohio, started a career in journalism in the Cincinatti newspapers in 1889 and moved to New York by 1895. She visited Cuba, carrying the American flag 400 miles on horseback to present it to Bartolomé Masó, then the Cuban president. She was also an active suffragist and a supporter of William Taft. She worked on his re-election campaign. Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson.

Mary C. Francis, from the collection of the Library of Congress
Mary C. Francis, from the collection of the Library of Congress

During this active life, she also found time to write 10 stories for magazines (9 appeared in the Munsey magazines - All-Story, Cavalier, The Scrap Book and Munsey's Magazine) and four novels. This may have been her only speculative fiction story.

THE HUMAN BRICK BY MARY C. FRANCIS.

JAMES RANDALL'S UNUSUAL BARGAIN WITH CALVIN VAN AUKEN, AND THE ODD FATE THAT BEFELL HIS ASHES.


My name is James Randall, and I am the “Human Brick." I am a man built into a wall in a house in New York City, where I have been for the past ten years, and I know all that goes on about me, for, with brief exceptions, I have never lost consciousness.

I was born and brought up in a New England town, and was educated at Harvard, where I met my lifelong friend and chum, Calvin Van Auken. We both became deeply interested in metaphysics during our college life, and after our graduation we took bachelor apartments in New York, where for four years we were close comrades. Our chief joy was long powwows over the philosophical and metaphysical problems that have vexed the soul of man since the beginning of time, and we were especially interested in the questions, Whence came man? and, Whither does he go?

Plato, Socrates, the Bible, the Nicene Fathers, Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel, besides many ancient and modern authors whose tomes of the religious mysteries are open to but few, all these we read and discussed.

To my mind every mental route led into a cul-de-sac, and I became a materialist, thoroughly committed to the doctrine of annihilation.

Calvin had the more open mind, and finally became convinced of life after death. Many a time we argued all night, and at last we made a solemn compact that each would live up to his doctrines.

If I died first, as my concession to annihilation my body was to be cremated, and one day, as an afterthought, I conceived the idea of having the ashes made into a brick.

On his part Calvin, whether he died before or after me, was to try to communicate with me from the spirit world.

At the end of four years I went to Butte as a civil engineer, and later to China in connection with a railway concession. We corresponded constantly, finally agreeing to try thought transference, which we did with great success. I remained in China two years, and after a short stop in San Francisco on my return trip, I was speeding across the continent, when suddenly I died in Cincinnati.

According to directions which I always carried with me, my body was burned, neatly and with despatch, at the crematory there, and with the assistance of mortar was made into a neat brick. I knew everything that was done, but without any pain or alarm.

I was then packed into a small case, directed to Calvin, and shipped to New York by express. I imagined my reception at our old quarters, as Calvin had 'frequently pointed out the exact niche I was to occupy on a wall-bracket in a corner.

At Trenton the train was wrecked by a head-on collision, and the express-car was reduced to kindling-wood. My box was broken open and I was hurled about fifty feet away, but alighted without injury.

Some hours later I was picked up and carried into a partly demolished day coach, where, with other bricks and half a soap-box, we supported an improvised couch for a dying man.

At Jersey City I was thrown out into the mud—it was raining—and for a week I was trampled on and kicked about. Then, one morning, a passing teamster tossed me into a loose wagon-load of bricks and boards, carted me over to New York, and still whistling merrily, hauled me to a large brickyard, where I was dumped with thousands of others. That was late in the fall. I lay in the brickyard all winter, and early in the spring I was loaded into a wagon, taken up-town to one of the side streets in the Seventies between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, and after some delay a workman carried me up and fixed me firmly in the front wall, just above the third story, where I project a little in the cornice. You could not tell me from any other brick if you were to see me.

II.

YEARS passed. I tried many times to get a mental message through to Calvin, but never succeeded, and our interrupted communication was my only grief.

The house was leased in succession to several families. Then, one day, a man bought it, had it altered and improved within, and moved in with his family. They had been there almost a year when, on the evening of the Fourth of July, a cab drove up and Calvin Van Auken stepped out, came up the steps, and rang the hell.

I almost fell out of the wall. My heart throbbed to bursting, tears blinded my eyes, and a sense of suffocation seized me.

In an agony of affection I called his name at the top of my voice, but he did not hear me. The servant answered the bell and admitted him.

That was about five o'clock. During the interval of the dinner-hour I calmed myself somewhat by a supreme effort of the will, and determined that my mind should communicate with his as of yore, for I realized that if I could speak to him once I should be James Randall in the flesh again.

The women of the family were at the seashore, and about eight o'clock Calvin and his host came out and sat down on the porch to smoke their cigars. Calvin sat facing the house, his chair tipped back against the railing, and peeping through the leaves of the Japanese ivy that almost covered me, I saw him plainly by the red lights of the illumination now lighting up the sky. My emotion was too acute to permit me to think clearly, but while I was struggling for self-control I heard my name mentioned and became calmer.

“That was the last I ever heard of Jim," Calvin was saying. “ I visited the scene of the wreck within twenty-four hours and made a thorough search, but all I ever found was the half-burned cover of the box with my name on it. Think of it! My old friend, a brick, cast out into the world like that. God knows where! I almost hope his belief in annihilation is true. I have tried hundreds of times to get into touch with his mind, but no message comes back. If he were alive in any shape, in any form, he would answer me."

“ Calvin! Calvin!" I shrieked. “ I am not dead! I am alive! I am here! Look up! "

His host knocked the ashes from his cigar. “ He's dead, all right," he said easily. “Besides, telepathy is impossible, even when you're alive."

"It is not impossible; it is a fact," replied Calvin. "I know it is true, 'for Jim and I exchanged thoughts perfectly while he was in China and I here in New York. Unless mind can be destroyed, Jim would respond to my thought. I wish I could speak to him just once more."

III

MY cry of pain rose above the sizz of the sky-rockets. It echoed back from the hills beyond the river, but Calvin, turning his face upward, looked straight at me with his old, far-seeing gaze and relapsed into silence.

For an instant hope revived in me. He would see me! He would recognize me! His voice floated up to me like a death-knell :
“‘ Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’ Jim was always quoting that at me. It was the corner-stone of his belief."

“ Don't worry," was the reply. “ You say your friend was a brick of a good fellow. You remember that immortal saying: ‘There stand the walls of Sparta, and every man a brick.‘ Your chum has gone to the place where all good bricks go."

“ You bet he has! " said Calvin warmly. “ Living or dead, Jim Randall was a brick of a good fellow, and I’ll tell you something: If he were built into that wall ”—he pointed directly toward me—“ he wouldn’t kick on doing his duty just like any other brick."

The reaction of emotion was too great. I had my message. Dear Calvin! I must have fainted. When I recovered consciousness the fireflies were winking in the park and the faint, sweet odor of the woody earth greeted my senses with gentle balm. I never saw him again. Some six weeks later the master of the house read aloud a letter he had just received from a friend in London. Calvin had died at sea, after a brief illness, and his body had been consigned to the deep.

Since then, nothing has interested me much. I see the sun by day, and the moon and stars by night. I get fragrant breaths from the park and reviving whiffs from the river, and I have thought a great deal. I have not yet been able to get a message through to Calvin, but lately it has seemed to me that perhaps I have to begin all over on this new plane of consciousness and just wait.

I still have one hope. In due course of time the elements, or some destructive force, will disintegrate me from my form as a brick and I shall be reduced to dust again. Then, perhaps, a kind wind may blow me out to sea and I shall sink down among the waves and find Calvin, and we will exchange experiences just as we did in the old days.

Leave a note if you enjoyed this story.

PS: After reading this story, I immediately thought of this song.

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