A Diagnosis of Death by Ambrose Bierce
'I AM not so superstitious as some of your physicians
--men of science, as you are pleased to be
called,' said Hawver, replying to an accusation that
had not been made. 'Some of you--only a few, I
confess--believe in the immortality of the soul,
and in apparitions which you have not the honesty
to call ghosts. I go no further than a conviction that
the living are sometimes seen where they are not,
but have been--where they have lived so long, perhaps
so intensely, as to have left their impress on
everything about them. I know, indeed, that one's
environment may be so affected by one's personality
as to yield, long afterward, an image of one's self
to the eyes of another. Doubtless the impressing
personality has to be the right kind of personality as
the perceiving eyes have to be the right kind of
eyes--mine, for example.'
'Yes, the right kind of eyes, conveying sensations
to the wrong kind of brains,' said Dr. Frayley,
'Thank you; one likes to have an expectation
gratified; that is about the reply that I supposed
you would have the civility to make.'
'Pardon me. But you say that you know. That is
a good deal to say, don't you think? Perhaps you
will not mind the trouble of saying how you learned.'
'You will call it an hallucination,' Hawver
said, 'but that does not matter.' And he told the
'Last summer I went, as you know, to pass the
hot weather term in the town of Meridian. The relative
at whose house I had intended to stay was ill, so
I sought other quarters. After some difficulty I succeeded
in renting a vacant dwelling that had been
occupied by an eccentric doctor of the name of
Mannering, who had gone away years before, no
one knew where, not even his agent. He had built
the house himself and had lived in it with an old
servant for about ten years. His practice, never very
extensive, had after a few years been given up entirely.
Not only so, but he had withdrawn himself
almost altogether from social life and become a
recluse. I was told by the village doctor, about the
only person with whom he held any relations, that
during his retirement he had devoted himself to
a single line of study, the result of which he had
expounded in a book that did not commend itself to
the approval of his professional brethren, who, indeed,
considered him not entirely sane. I have not
seen the book and cannot now recall the title of it, but
I am told that it expounded a rather startling theory.
He held that it was possible in the case of many a
person in good health to forecast his death with
precision, several months in advance of the event.
The limit, I think, was eighteen months. There were
local tales of his having exerted his powers of prognosis,
or perhaps you would say diagnosis; and it
was said that in every instance the person whose
friends he had warned had died suddenly at the
appointed time, and from no assignable cause. All
this, however, has nothing to do with what I have
to tell; I thought it might amuse a physician.
'The house was furnished, just as he had lived in
it. It was a rather gloomy dwelling for one who was
neither a recluse nor a student, and I think it gave
something of its character to me--perhaps some
of its former occupant's character; for always I felt
in it a certain melancholy that was not in my natural
disposition, nor, I think, due to loneliness. I had no
servants that slept in the house, but I have always
been, as you know, rather fond of my own society,
being much addicted to reading, though little to
study. Whatever was the cause, the effect was dejection
and a sense of impending evil; this was especially
so in Dr. Mannering's study, although that
room was the lightest and most airy in the house.
The doctor's life-size portrait in oil hung in that
room, and seemed completely to dominate it. There
was nothing unusual in the picture; the man was
evidently rather good looking, about fifty years old,
with iron-grey hair, a smooth-shaven face and dark,
serious eyes. Something in the picture always drew
and held my attention. The man's appearance
became familiar to me, and rather "haunted"
'One evening I was passing through this room to
my bedroom, with a lamp--there is no gas in Meridian.
I stopped as usual before the portrait, which
seemed in the lamplight to have a new expression,
not easily named, but distinctly uncanny. It interested
but did not disturb me. I moved the lamp from
one side to the other and observed the effects of the
altered light. While so engaged I felt an impulse to
turn round. As I did so I saw a man moving across
the room directly toward me! As soon as he came
near enough for the lamplight to illuminate the face
I saw that it was Dr. Mannering himself; it was
as if the portrait were walking!
'"I beg your pardon," I said, somewhat coldly,
"but if you knocked I did not hear."
'He passed me, within an arm's length, lifted his
right forefinger, as in warning, and without a word
went on out of the room, though I observed his
exit no more than I had observed his entrance.
'Of course, I need not tell you that this was what
you will call a hallucination and I call an apparition.
That room had only two doors, of which one
was locked; the other led into a bedroom, from
which there was no exit. My feeling on realizing this
is not an important part of the incident.
'Doubtless this seems to you a very commonplace
"ghost story"--one constructed on the regular
lines laid down by the old masters of the art. If that
were so I should not have related it, even if it were
true. The man was not dead; I met him to-day in
Union Street. He passed me in a crowd.'
Hawver had finished his story and both men were
silent. Dr. Frayley absently drummed on the table
with his fingers.
'Did he say anything to-day?' he asked--'anything
from which you inferred that he was not
Hawver stared and did not reply.
'Perhaps,' continued Frayley,' he made a sign, a
gesture--lifted a finger, as in warning. It's a trick
he had--a habit when saying something serious--
announcing the result of a diagnosis, for example.'
'Yes, he did--just as his apparition had done.
But, good God! did you ever know him?'
Hawver was apparently growing nervous.
'I knew him. I have read his book, as will every
physician some day. It is one of the most striking
and important of the century's contributions to medical
science. Yes, I knew him; I attended him in an
illness three years ago. He died.'
Hawver sprang from his chair, manifestly disturbed.
He strode forward and back across the room; then approached his friend, and in a voice
not altogether steady, said: 'Doctor, have you anything
to say to me--as a physician? '
'No, Hawver; you are the healthiest man I ever
knew. As a friend I advise you to go to your room.
You play the violin like an angel. Play it; play something
light and lively. Get this cursed bad business
off your mind.'
The next day Hawver was found dead in his room,
the violin at his neck, the bow upon the string, his
music open before him at Chopin's Funeral March.