Reflections by Neil McGowan

 I had the idea for the following story when listening to a programme on the radio. The music was Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, but it was the interval feature that really piqued my interest, talking about the great writers of Gothic fiction. The premise dropped into my mind almost immediately, and the subject matter gave me an opportunity to try and write in that style.

It was harder than I'd expected - much more exposition and over-writing than contemporary fiction; once I finished the first draft, the challenge was to pull back some of the padding, but still try and retain a sense of the period.

I thought this might make an interesting read for Halloween, so without further ado, please enjoy 'Reflections'.


There are moments in one's life when two unrelated and seemingly disparate ideas come together in a moment that makes one sit up and take notice. Out of such moments can come great works of science, or art, or literature; it all depends upon one's individual aptitude. One has merely to think of Stephenson's steam locomotive; the humble bicycle; or the photograph. All things that we now take for granted, but which were, in their day, profound and revolutionary. A common thread of determination runs through all of these great ideas, driven by men for whom the betterment of their fellow man was uppermost in their thoughts, and for whom the resistance to change was merely another problem to be solved.

Such were the thoughts running through my head as I raced back to my lodgings. My hands itched for a pen and ink, and a series of mathematical equations and possible solutions tortured my brain whilst my legs carried me through the halls of Edinburgh University. It seemed far too long – although it was probably only a few minutes – before I dashed into my rooms. Neglecting even the door, I made straight for the desk and, with hands that trembled with excitement, I jotted down the key formula in my head before they faded. I covered two pages, then a third, not even blotting them in my haste before moving on to the next sheet.

At last, it was done. I unfolded myself from the cramped position I'd been writing in and took a deep breath. Mopping perspiration from my forehead, my eyes scanned my notes. I could feel the excitement bubbling inside. It would work, I was sure of it. I suspected there would be experimentation ahead, and careful refinement of the equations; but with the rigorous application of scientific methodology it would triumph.

It would be time-consuming, of course. There were still my studies to consider; these could not be neglected for the pursuit of a dream, so I would need to conduct my research at night. And there was my relationship with the wonderful Miss Emma Burke, with whom I was courting. We were engaged to be married as soon as my studies were completed in just a few more years, and no-one was more thrilled at the prospect than I.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I should go back to the beginning, and perhaps you'll understand my reasoning better.

My name is Douglas Collins and at the start of this tale, I was studying the sciences at Edinburgh University. I was particularly taken with the physical sciences, much more so than the biological ones – I was far too squeamish for a career in medicine, despite my father's hope that I would become a reputable surgeon like him. Instead, I studied the mysteries of the material world, finding pleasure in the ordered logic of well-engineered machinery and the purity of mathematical proofs.

My relationship with Miss Burke was the complete opposite of this – instead of calm precision, our love burned like an unshielded candle, wild and dancing in the breeze of life. That we shared many interests only strengthened my admiration for her. Her love of the opera was matched by her natural curiosity. She was equally at home playing themes from Beethoven or Wagner on the piano, or discussing scientific concepts in some detail. Indeed, it was she who encouraged my researches, arguing the world was progressing at an ever-increasing technological pace and would need strong and gifted inventors more and more; it was she who convinced me I could be one of those making priceless contributions to the betterment of mankind.

On that fateful day, the one that set all of this in motion, I was attending a lecture on the potential applications of the newly-tamed electric power. It was a subject that intrigued me, but it was a chance remark from a rival of mine at the end of the lecture that provided the spark for those ideas to come together and present me with a dizzying possibility.

"You know, this new-fangled harnessing of electricity is all very well, but what is the point? I mean, apart from parlour tricks?" John McGrath grinned his usual insufferable grin as he threw the question at me in an off-hand manner.

I managed to smile whilst gritting my teeth mentally. John was a mediocre student at best, with very little interest in the sciences and even less aptitude. Most students would have been removed from the course if they behaved as John did, but as his family were wealthy patrons of the University, the lecturers turned a blind eye to his apathy. As long as he turned up to most of the lectures and submitted a few papers, his failings were overlooked.

John himself was more interested in the ladies, and rumour had it he spent much of his free time in places of dubious moral standing, drinking and cavorting with women of doubtful virtue.

I tell you this so you will understand why I had little time for John. His insouciance irritated me; for, had he applied himself, he would have made a fine scientist, as he was possessed of a first-rate brain. Squandering such a talent in gin was nothing short of a crime, as far as I was concerned.

Yet John himself was a generous man, free with his coin, and treating everyone as his friend. That he behaved so with me only irritated me more.

"I think it's fascinating," I said after a pause. "Think of the advances in science it makes possible. Imagine the possibilities for, oh, let's say, the investigation of a crime!" I warmed to the subject despite my innate dislike of John. "The new electric light could illuminate the darkest of crime scenes, allowing for the discovery of clues that might have been missed."

John pursed his lips. "You have a point," he said, a faraway look in his eye. "But it's still good old-fashioned detective work that catches criminals. Now if there was a way it could recreate the face of a murderer, say, then I'd be interested."

I scoffed. "Such a thing is beyond science," I said. "Without witnesses, there are only three sources of the killer's identity: God, the victim, and the murderer himself." I ticked them off on my fingers. "The murderer will not want to be hanged for his crimes, so he will remain silent. The victim cannot tell us, for obvious reasons. And God, well, He works in mysterious ways; but I doubt He would inform us directly. Nay, He would guide us to clues that may allow us, through the application of logic and science, to discern the killer's true identity."

John shrugged, his mind clearly drifting to other, more pleasurable thoughts. "Perhaps," he said. "But if it could magnify the eye sufficiently…"

"What?" My brow furrowed.

"The eye of the victim holds an image of the last sight, which in our – hypothetical, I might add – murder, would be the killer! Magnify the eye and you'll get an image of the guilty party that's as good as a photograph."

He said more, before making his goodbyes and leaving. I didn't hear him; my mind had made one of those remarkable leaps of logic and connected thoughts of electrical current to images. Calculations began to fill my brain, and that was when I rushed to my rooms.

"Douglas!" Emma scolded me. "You haven't heard a word I've been saying!"

I hung my head in shame. She was right, of course; my mind was still filled with my great idea. "Pray, forgive me, my dear. I have a particularly difficult problem in my research, and it's occupying what little brain I have." I made a conscious effort to remain in the here and now and fixed my gaze upon her. "Now," I said with a smile, "tell me again."

"Oh, Douglas, you are such a dear." Emma blotted her lips daintily with a napkin. "I was merely saying how much I enjoyed Mr Mahler's latest work last night. A fine composer with a great future ahead of him." She reached out and brushed the back of my hand. "But come, if it's bothering you, why not share your problem? I'm only a woman, with a poor grasp of the more advanced principles of science; but it may help to use me as a sounding board. After all, if you can express your problem in words, hearing it may well provide a new way of looking at it and could lead to the breakthrough you so desire."

"Well, only if you promise to stop me before I bore you to tears," I said. She smiled and agreed, and so encouraged, I continued. "It's a very simple idea, really. I want to combine the principles of photography with electrical power and create an image from a past moment."

Her eyes did that funny thing they did when she was concentrating and avoiding furrowing her brow. "You mean, create a photographic picture of an event from when no camera was there?"

"Exactly! But I want to take it one stage further!" I outlined the bare bones of my conversation with John, skipping over my general dislike of him – he was known to her through his patronage of the opera – and emphasising the parts about a corpse's eyes holding an image of its murderer.

She gave a delicate shudder. "How frightfully clever," she said. "But you said you were having problems. It sounded to me as though you knew exactly what to do."

"Well, that's the rub of it," I said. "I've been over my calculations at least a hundred times. It ought to work – indeed, it should work! – but it fails every time. Before I can begin to form an image, the original medium becomes so damaged it's not possible to extract anything of use from it!"

"Well, maybe you need to try a different medium."

She was right, as she so often was. We talked late into the evening, until it was time for me to take my leave. I bustled into my rooms, and, after removing my hat and coat, I got straight to work without even pausing to change.

Circumstances over the few days meant I had no opportunity to meet with Miss Burke, so I threw myself into my work. With each test, I grew closer to developing a way of extracting images of prior events from an inert source.

The next link in this unfortunate chain of events occurred later that afternoon. I'd been struggling to pay attention all day, lack of sleep catching up on me. I managed to catch forty winks during lunch, but by three o'clock I was unable to stop myself yawning. To my embarrassment, the lecturer noticed and acidly asked if the subject matter (applied mathematics) was boring me! I mumbled an apology with burning cheeks, to a soft susurration of laughter and redoubled my efforts in concentrating on the algebraic equations under discussion.

Afterwards, I was the subject of much ribald jesting. I took most of this in good humour until, "You must be having fun with that lady friend of yours." David Carruthers grinned at me and winked.

"Really!" I shook my head in outrage at these words. "I'll have you know, sir, that the lady in question is of the most virtuous nature. My regrettable lapse of concentration is solely due to a new project I've been working on, one that may well make my reputation in the scientific community!"

Carruthers' smile widened. "That's as may be. But I jest with you, for I know that, in truth, you were not with the lady in question."

I frowned. "How so? Pray, do enlighten me."

Feigning a nonchalance I knew he didn't possess, he replied, "Well, I have it on good authority that our esteemed colleague John McGrath was seen taking leave of her residence last night. And there was no evidence of a chaperone."

"That's outrageous!" I burst out. "Surely your source is mistaken!"

"I doubt it, old boy; I saw it with my own eyes."

I didn't know how to respond to this and left the room shortly afterwards for the privacy of my own chambers. My mind was whirling with confusion. I knew John's reputation with women; surely my dear Miss Burke hadn't succumbed to his charms? No, it must be a mistake. I was convinced it was so.
To set my mind at rest, I decided to call on Miss Burke immediately. I could already see us laughing at the absurdity of it; at the way I'd fallen for what was obviously a practical joke.

Feeling somewhat relieved, I took a hansom cab and hang the expense. The soporific rhythm of wheels over the cobbles coupled with my near-exhaustion lulled me into a state of near-sleep, allowing my mind to wander. It was as we arrived outside Miss Burke's residence that I sat bolt upright. My mind, free of external stimuli, had made the final connections in the puzzle and I had my eureka moment. I sat back and rubbed my eyes, half-convinced that the simplicity of it was a product of my tired brain. Yet checking the calculations and formula confirmed what I'd hardly dared to hope: this time, it would work!

I paid the cabbie, adding a generous tip, and checking my tie and hat as I mounted the steps, I rang the bell.

The seeds of doubt were sown when there was no answer. I tried again, followed by rapping briskly on the door. All was in vain, for the door remained closed to me. Furthermore, I could not discern even the faintest flicker of candlelight through the skylight.

Before I had time to doubt myself and question the legitimacy of my next actions, I twisted the handle and to my surprise, the door opened smoothly. Why was it not locked? Where was the maid? These questions and more remained maddeningly unanswered as I stepped inside, closing the door behind me as I wiped my shoes on the mat. My hat and coat I hung on the stand, before proceeding into the house.
The silence was almost overwhelming. With mounting trepidation, I climbed the stairs to Miss Burke's private chambers. My worst fears were confirmed when I stepped into her bedchamber to see the coverlet rumpled and untidy.

What had happened here? I wasn't sure, but I was starting to get a nasty suspicion. Perhaps John McGrath had paid a visit to Miss Burke last night, and perhaps she hadn't succumbed to his charms as he expected. Could he – was he capable of – taking what he wanted by force? I nodded slowly, answering my own question. UEs, I thought. He was used to getting his own way. The thought of someone telling him no wouldn't occur to him.

It was as I gazed around the room that my gaze happened on the small vanity mirror sitting on the dressing table. At that moment, I knew what to do. I needed proof; perhaps my new theory could provide it. I took the mirror, wrapping it in my handkerchief to prevent any risk of damage. Turning on my heel, I took the stairs at a brisk pace and, pausing only to collect my hat and coat, I set off to return to my rooms.

It took perhaps an hour to set up the experiment. At last, I connected the final wires and stood back, examining my handiwork with a critical eye for any mistakes. The mirror sat in the centre of the workbench, connected to a series of electrical wires that ran to external generating devices, recording instruments, and other bits of scientific equipment. (I won't list the exact requirements here, for fear that someone may try and replicate my experiment.) In front of the mirror lay a large sheet of white paper.
All looked to be in order, so without further ado, I pressed the switch and engaged the power supply. A low hum permeated the room as the electrical current began to be applied to the mirror. Once the requisite level of supply had been reached and was stable, I threw another switch, engaging the rest of my equipment.

It was more successful than I'd ever imagined. A series of fractured jumbles projected from the mirror onto the paper. Shaking with excitement, I manipulated various controls to resolve the image until it was recognisable. Once I had a stable picture, further adjustments allowed me to sweep forwards or backwards in time, displaying the relevant image seen by the mirror at that time!

Once I'd got over the initial shock and excitement, I set to work in discovering what happened to Miss Burke. I set the controls for the previous evening and set them to play.

The images that played out before me set my heart aflame with outrage. Although the picture was grainy and jerked from scene to scene, it was more than good enough to seal John McGrath's fate.
For as I watched, I saw John enter Miss Burke's bedchamber. There was a period of remonstrance – Oh, to have the ability to recall the dialogue spoken! – followed by the most heinous of crimes. John overpowered Miss Burke and forcibly carried her from the room, easily brushing off her game attempts to reject his advances.

For a while, I knew nothing more. My mind descended into a primitive animal rage as I plotted my revenge. He had taken Miss Burke from me; I would ensure he paid for his crimes with his life. Once I was able to think rationally, I began to apply my brain to the problem of how to deal with John McGrath. Various plans were devised, examined, and discarded.

In the end, it was remarkably simple. I broke into his rooms that very night after ascertaining that he was out making merry with friends and waited. In my gloved hands was a length of piano wire.
I heard his return, his voice loud and brash and abrasive as he made his way – somewhat unsteadily, from the sounds of things – back to his room. I was worried he might notice the slight damage to the lock (occasioned by my entry) and be on his guard, but it appeared that ale had dulled his senses.
I allowed enough time for him to close the door before leaping on him from behind and looping the piano wire around his throat. He had time for a startled gasp before the wire bit into his throat as I pulled on the ends with all my might. His body stiffened but there was remarkably little resistance. His hands clawed at his throat, and I felt a warm wetness as my makeshift garotte cut deeper into his neck and first the carotid, then the jugular, was severed. There was a sickening wet crunch as it destroyed his larynx, but by that point, he'd stopped fighting. His body crumpled and I had to release my grip on the garotte as he slumped to the floor, dead. Breathing hard as I stood over his body, I muttered something incoherent before dropping the garotte and leaving the room.

My eyes were blurry with tears as I returned to my rooms and I ignored the shocked gasps from others whom I passed in the corridors. It was only once I reached my private chambers that I realised I was covered in John's blood. In disgust, I set to changing and washing myself, removing all traces of my hideous deed.

It was only when I was freshly attired that I spotted the envelope on my desk, my name written on the front in neat, cursive handwriting that I knew too well. My hands shook as I broke the seal and removed the single sheet of parchment within. I could hear a disturbance down the corridor, running feet coming closer, but I ignored that as I began to read:

My dearest Douglas,
It is with deep regret that I must attend to an elderly aunt in the country. She is very ill, and not long for this world, and I feel it is my duty to make her last days as peaceful as possible Rest assured that my love for you still burns as strong as ever. I will write once I arrive, and every day we are apart will tear at my heart.

In the meantime, I implore you to take care in my absence. I was paid a visit by a friend of yours, one whom I know a little from my patronage of the opera, John McGrath. He is concerned that you are pushing yourself too hard in your studies and are risking your mind and health with the amount of work you burden yourself with.

I must go now; the coach is already waiting for me. My maid is already aboard – no time to straighten the bedcovers, even! – so I dare not write more. I will write as soon as I can to make up for the shortness of this letter. 

Yours, forever and always, 

I became aware of a pounding on my door, one which matched the pounding in my head. As if from afar, I could hear various cries to open up in the name of the law, but the effort required to move was simply too much for me. With the last of my energy, I swept my ghastly invention from the table to crash to the floor.

I was still staring at the letter when they broke down my door and swarmed into the room to arrest me for the murder of John McGrath. I went with them willingly enough.

For I left one vital element out of my calculations. A mirror shows the reverse of anything it sees. A simple mistake, true, but a terrible one, one that I find unbearable to live with.

So, as the candle gutters, barely an inch remaining, I will finish writing my confession. By my calculations, there is perhaps an hour to go before dawn. Sixty minutes, before I take my final walk to the gallows where I will atone for my crime with my life. Perhaps I will find some measure of peace in death, but I fear my crime will follow me to the afterlife. The gates of Heaven will surely be closed to me now, and I prepare myself to burn in hell for eternity.


Bill Kirton said…
Intriguing and fascinating, Neil. Also, as you say, immaculately timed. The ratiocinations about the construction of the equipment/apparatus were matched by the excellent narrative twist revealed by its operation/application. (Sorry, the alternatives I offer reflect the fact that I lack your seeming ease with things technical.) Thanks.
Peter Leyland said…
Well Neil, I did enjoy reading this and it kept me guessing until the end - a masterly achievement. I like the way the plot hinges on the use of science. Very Holmesian. He loved his retort flasks! I also like the way you use the voice of the narrator to tell the story. Thanks for the post.

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