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- The Case of Summerfield - 1/6 -


The Case of Summerfield

By William Henry Rhodes

With an Introduction by Geraldine Bonner

The Introduction

The greatest master of the short story our country has known found his inspiration and produced his best work in California. It is now nearly forty years since "The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared, and a line of successors, more or less worthy, have been following along the trail blazed by Bret Harte. They have given us matter of many kinds, realistic, romantic, tragic, humorous, weird. In this mass of material much that was good has been lost. The columns of newspapers swallowed some; weeklies, that lived for a brief day, carried others to the grave with them. Now and then chance or design interposed, and some fragment of value was not allowed to perish. It is matter for congratulation that the story in this volume was one of those saved from oblivion.

In 1871 a San Francisco paper published a tale entitled The Case of Summerfield. The author concealed himself under the name of "Caxton," a pseudonym unknown at the time. The story made an immediate impression, and the remote little world by the Golden Gate was shaken into startled and enquiring astonishment. Wherever people met, The Case of Summerfield was on men's tongues. Was Caxton's contention possible? Was it true that, by the use of potassium, water could be set on fire, and that any one possessing this baneful secret could destroy the world? The plausibility with which the idea was presented, the bare directness of the style, added to its convincing power. It sounded too real to be invention, was told with too frank a simplicity to be all imagination. People could not decide where truth and fiction blended, and the name of Caxton leaped into local fame.

The author of the tale was a lawyer, W. H. Rhodes, a man of standing and ability, interested in scientific research. He had written little; what time he had been able to spare from his work, had been given to studies in chemistry whence he had drawn the inspiration for such stories as The Case of Summerfield. With him the writing of fiction was a pastime, not a profession. He wrote because he wanted to, from the urgence of an idea pressing for utterance, not from the more imperious necessity of keeping the pot boiling and of there being a roof against the rain. Literary creation was to him a rest, a matter of holiday in the daily round of a man's labor to provide for his own.

His output was small. One slender volume contains all he wrote: a few poems, half a dozen stories. In all of these we can feel the spell exercised over him by the uncanny, the terrible, the weirdly grotesque. His imagination played round those subjects of fantastic horror which had so potent an attraction for Fitz James O'Brien, the writer whom he most resembles. There was something of Poe's cold pleasure in dissecting the abnormally horrible in "The Story of John Pollexfen," the photographer, who, in order to discover a certain kind of lens, experimented with living eyes. His cat and dog each lost an eye, and finally a young girl was found willing to sell one of hers that she might have money to help her lover. But none of the other stories shows the originality and impressively realistic tone which distinguish The Case of Summerfield. In this he achieved the successful combination of audacity of theme with a fitting incisiveness of style. It alone rises above the level of the merely ingenious and clever; it alone of his work was worth preserving.

Scattered through the ranks of writers, part of whose profession is a continuous, unflagging output, are these "one story men," who, in some propitious moment, when the powers of brain and heart are intensified by a rare and happy alchemy, produce a single masterpiece. The vision and the dream have once been theirs, and, though they may never again return, the product of the glowing moment is ours to rejoice in and wonder at. Unfortunately the value of these accidental triumphs is not always seen. They go their way and are submerged in the flood of fiction that the presses pour upon a defenseless country. Now and then one unexpectedly hears of them, their unfamiliar titles rise to the surface when writers gather round the table. An investigator in the forgotten files of magazinedom has found one, and tells of his treasure trove as the diver of his newly discovered pearl. Then comes a publisher, who, diligent and patient, draws them from their hiding-places, shakes off the dust, and gives them to a public which once applauded and has since forgotten.

Such has been the fate of The Case of Summerfield. Thirty-five years ago, in the town that clustered along the edge of San Francisco Bay, it had its brief award of attention. But the San Francisco of that day was very distant - a gleam on the horizon against the blue line of the Pacific. It took a mighty impetus to carry its decisions and opinions across the wall of the Sierra and over the desert to the East. Fame and reputation, unless the greatest, had not vitality for so long a flight. So the strange and fantastic story should come as a discovery, the one remarkable achievement of an unknown author, who, unfortunately, is no longer here to enjoy an Indian summer of popularity.

Geraldine Bonner.

The Case of Summerfield

The following manuscript was found among the effects of the late Leonidas Parker, in relation to one Gregory Summerfield, or, as he was called at the time those singular events first attracted public notice, "The Man with a Secret." Parker was an eminent lawyer, a man of firm will, fond of dabbling in the occult sciences, but never allowing this tendency to interfere with the earnest practice of his profession. This astounding narrative is prefaced by the annexed clipping from the Auburn Messenger of November 1, 1870:

A few days since, we called public attention to the singular conduct of James G. Wilkins, justice of the peace for the "Cape Horn" district, in this county, in discharging without trial a man named Parker, who was, as we still think, seriously implicated in the mysterious death of an old man named Summerfield, who, our readers will probably remember, met so tragical an end on the line of the Central Pacific Railroad, in the month of October last. We have now to record another bold outrage on public justice, in connection with the same affair. The grand jury of Placer County has just adjourned, without finding any bill against the person named above. Not only did they refuse to find a true bill, or to make any presentment, but they went one step further toward the exoneration of the offender; they specially ignored the indictment which our district attorney deemed it his duty to present. The main facts in relation to the arrest and subsequent discharge of Parker may be summed up in few words:

It appears that, about the last of October, one Gregory Summerfield, an old man nearly seventy years of age, in company with Parker, took passage for Chicago, via the Pacific Railroad, and about the middle of the afternoon reached the neighborhood of Cape Horn, in this county. Nothing of any special importance seems to have attracted the attention of any of the passengers toward these persons until a few moments before passing the dangerous curve in the track, overlooking the North Fork of the American River, at the place called Cape Horn. As our readers are aware, the road at this point skirts a precipice, with rocky perpendicular sides, extending to the bed of the stream, nearly seventeen hundred feet below. Before passing the curve, Parker was heard to comment upon the sublimity of the scenery they were approaching, and finally requested the old man to leave the car and stand upon the open platform, in order to obtain a better view of the tremendous chasm and the mountains just beyond. The two men left the car, and a moment afterward a cry of horror was heard by all the passengers, and the old man was observed to fall at least one thousand feet upon the crags below. The train was stopped for a few moments, but, fearful of a collision if any considerable length of time should be lost in an unavailing search for the mangled remains, it soon moved on again, and proceeded as swiftly as possible to the next station. There the miscreant Parker was arrested, and conveyed to the office of the nearest justice of the peace for examination. We understand that he refused to give any detailed account of the transaction, only that "the deceased either fell or was thrown from the moving train."

The examination was postponed until the arrival of Parker's counsel, O'Connell & Kilpatrick, of Grass Valley, and after they reached Cape Horn not a single word could be extracted from the prisoner. It is said that the inquisition was a mere farce; there being no witnesses present except one lady passenger, who, with commendable spirit, volunteered to lay over one day, to give in her testimony. We also learn that, after the trial, the justice, together with the prisoner and his counsel, were closeted in secret session for more than two hours; at the expiration of which time the judge resumed his seat upon the bench, and discharged the prisoner!

Now, we have no desire to do injustice toward any of the parties to this singular transaction, much less to arm public sentiment against an innocent man. But we do affirm that there is, there must be, some profound mystery at the bottom of this affair, and we shall do our utmost to fathom the secret.

Yes, there is a secret and mystery connected with the disappearance of Summerfield, and the sole object of this communication is to clear it up, and place myself right in the public estimation. But, in order to do so, it becomes essentially necessary to relate all the circumstances connected with my first and subsequent acquaintance with Summerfield. To do this intelligibly, I shall have to go back twenty-two years.

It is well known amongst my intimate friends that I resided in the late Republic of Texas for many years antecedent to my immigration to this State. During the year 1847, whilst but a boy, and residing on the sea-beach some three or four miles from the city of Galveston, Judge Wheeler, at that time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, paid us a visit, and brought with him a gentleman, whom he had known several years previously on the Sabine River, in the eastern part of that State. This gentleman was introduced to us by the name of Summerfield. At that time he was past the prime of life, slightly gray, and inclined to corpulency. He was of medium height, and walked proudly erect, as though conscious of superior mental attainments. His face was one of those which, once seen, can never be forgotten. The forehead was broad, high, and protuberant. It was, besides, deeply graven with wrinkles, and altogether was the most intellectual that I had ever seen. It bore some resemblance to that of Sir Isaac Newton, but still more to Humboldt or Webster. The eyes were large, deep-set, and lustrous with a light that seemed kindled in their own depths. In color they were gray, and whilst in conversation absolutely blazed with intellect. His mouth was large, but cut with all the precision of a sculptor's chiseling. He was rather pale, but, when excited, his complexion lit up with a sudden rush of


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