“The Atoms of Chladni,” J. D. Whelpley, 1860 — The narrator has befriended Mrs. Bertaldy, soon revealed to be the widow of the deceased inventor and mathematician, Gustav Mohler. Now that she has passed, he wishes to tell the story of this unfairly maligned woman, to justify a woman “more accomplished than her husband, even in his best days.”
The narrator recounts his first meeting with Mohler, which “preconcerted by [his] friend P—, the savant” in the winter of 1854. Mohler is attempting to interest P— in his inventions, which seem to the narrator to violate “every mechanical law” and reflect Mohler’s lack of common sense. Mohler explains that his inventions are imparted to him by “spiritual communications,” but P— responds contemptuously that “spirits…will not enable you to circumvent God; and it is He, the Maker of the universe, who condemns your invention. It would wreck the universe.” With an air of lunacy, Mohler confides to the narrator that P— is simply a “materialist” who cannot appreciate his inventions, the latest of which is a means “to discover falsehood and treachery.” The invention was communicated to him by the spirit of Chladni, “the Frenchman who discovered the dancing of the atoms.” He explains that the “atoms of the brain…vibrate in geometrical forms, which the soul reads.” P— interrupts Mohler’s excited ravings and the narrator departs.
Several months later, P— talks the narrator into visiting the home of Charles Montague, where a mysterious American woman is visiting. Mrs. Bertaldy, 30 years old and a widow, is reputed to be a delightful conversationalist and a woman of science, but the narrator is put off: “P—, you are a fool. Scientific women are more odious to me than womanish men. The learning of a woman is only a desperate substitute for some last attraction.” When they meet Mrs. Bertaldy, however, it is P— who finds her boring and the narrator who forms a friendship. Although not a “wife hunter,” he seeks out her company and gains her trust. On one occasion, the narrator’s thoughts stray to Mohler, “the spirit-haunted enthusiast, and she instantly senses of whom he is thinking.
At this point, Mrs. Bertaldy reveals that she is Mohler’s widow. The narrator confides that he was thinking of the man because he often wished that his inventions were “real and possible,” which makes Mrs. Bertaldy shudder. She assures him that Mohler was mad, and that at least one of his inventions was perfected before his death: a device to transcribe the sound of speech. The story is then told as her recollection of her marriage to Mohler, which was arranged by their parents when they were both very young. Within five years, Mohler’s preoccupation with his fanciful inventions estranged them, and she was left on her own to travel, study languages and science, and become a woman of the world. Their parents, observing Mohler’s instability and wasteful spending in his scientific pursuits, willed their fortunes to her, a circumstance which forced Mohler to ask his wife for an allowance.
Meanwhile, Bertaldy’s friend and Mohler’s lawyer, Raymond Bosnell, has developed an unrequited passion for Bertaldy. He interferes in the couple’s relationship, fanning Mohler’s suspicions that Bertaldy has transferred her affections to another man. Mohler becomes obsessed with discovering the truth; at the same time, should he catch Bertaldy having an affair, he could divorce her and regain his fortune.
Mohler confronts Bertaldy with his suspicions but she convinces him of her fidelity and the two reconcile, living happily for some time. Mohler offers to re-design her apartment as a gift, and his talented design astonishes and pleases her, though she wonders at the enormous mirror in the center of her room. Bosnell, still hoping to separate the couple, responds to the reconciliation by further insinuating himself into Mohler’s confidence and launching a smear campaign against Bertaldy, which succeeds. All of her friends desert her, her servants become surly, and even Mohler becomes cold.
Only her father’s friend, Charles Montague, a lawyer, will take her in when she finally flees the house dueto a growing sense of danger to her person. Montague discovers that she’s being followed by a private detective, and she confesses that she knows that her correspondence is being read and cataloged. Montague convinces her to learn the secret of the mirror and the mysterious construction that has taken place in the rooms above her own, as he’s certain that the contraption is meant to somehow “take life quietly.” She promises to investigate.
When she returns home, she breaks into the upstairs room and finds the room soundproofed with maize and moss. In the center of the room is a “vast and gloomy apparatus” that she knows is meant to bring her ruin. She examines the machinery and then finds a journal of “months, days…even seconds,” which she is just beginning to read when Bosnell interrupts. She confronts him. At first, Bosnell accuses her of having conversations with a lover, which he claims have been recorded in the journal. But a quick experiment on her part reveals that conversations above the mirror are also recorded. She accuses him of staging the entire deception. Bosnell can’t sustain his menace; he breaks. He explains the purpose of the device, confesses his love for her, and admits that he has helped her husband plot to ruin her, perhaps even poison her. But he blames her for her plight–she drove him to this, as she never once returned his affections.
As he explains, she loses fear of him, as well as of her husband, recognizing them both to be weak and worthy of her contempt. However, when Bosnell tries to blame his behavior on her, her contempt becomes outrage. “Crime upon crime, Raymond. First, an unlawful passion; then treachery to a friend; then hatred for the object of the unlawfully loved; then futile conspiracy to defame, to rob. Do you call that love? Oh, fool!” He insists that it is love, and he begs her to admit that she once loved him. Pity motivates her to accept his apology, and he tells her which papers to destroy to protect her name. Overcome, Bosnell commits suicide. When the truth of Bosnell’s scheme is made apparent to Mohler, he sinks into a childlike stupor and then into madness. As she relates the end of the story to the narrator, she cries for the sake of Bosnell, but for her husband, she can find no pity.
Comments: Interesting story featuring a competent, sensitive, well-educated female protagonist who eventually takes over the narrative. See H. Bruce Franklin’s commentary in Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. Franklin identifies this as a story in which a human is portrayed as a “machine.” Franklin notes that some science fiction proposing inventions is “superceded” by its own success, yet “The Atoms of Chladni” demonstrates “how a story can achieve…respect and still endure as fiction.” Franklin also notes that some writers such as Whelpley may have helped make thier fiction “actual”: “Thomas Alva Edison, as a twelve-year-old newsboy selling Harper’s Monthly…on the Grand Trunk Railroad, was almost undoubtedly hawking the issue that contained ‘The Atoms of Chladni,’ which describes in some detail the basis for several of his inventions.” The story endures as fiction because it “recognizes and dramatizes the very dangers inherent in its conception…Interweavings of mystery, sex, society, and invention lure the reader into excitedly seeking to uncover the great discovery.”
Author: ISFDB entry. Little information is available. Franklin notes that Whelpley “helped Fitz-James O’Brien with the scientific aspects of ‘The Diamond Lens.'” The birth date Harper’s provides (1863) cannot be correct, but it does provide another article link describing him as a “well-known American author and traveler.”