On the 26th of July, 1899, I went, in the company of my friend Dr. Jacobi, from Lake George to New York. On the Albany night boat I ate a dish of sea-bass for supper. During the night I became ill with pain in the stomach. The next morning at breakfast I informed Dr. Jacobi of my condition. After a short examination Jacobi concluded that this was a case of ptomaine poisoning. Although I did not suffer much he thought it best to accompany me from the steamer to the lower part of the city where I had some business, and it was well that he did so. We first visited the office of the Civil Service Reform League on William Street. There I had a sudden and violent collapse. I tried to say something to Mr. McAneny, the secretary of the League, but I was unable to finish the sentence. I could not stand upon my feet unsupported. With some difficulty I was taken to the elevator and down the doorsteps and put into a hansom cab, the doctor by my side. On the way to my house in 64th Street, which had fortunately been kept open that summer in charge of some servants, I felt as if I were carried through a strange city which I had seen long, long ago in my childhood, but which had been half forgotten and had a sort of spectral appearance. Arrived at my house I was at once taken to bed and trained nurses were sent for. I became clearly conscious again for a little while and it showed me that my condition was very critical and that death might be near.
I have frequently heard it said that under such circumstances the human mind is apt to drift into a review of the course of one's life in the light of approaching death. But such was not the case with me. While observing the arrangements made by Jacobi, I began to think of Napoleon's brilliant campaign of 1796 in Italy which I had studied with great interest years ago as a very young man, and I went in my imagination through all the strategic movements and the actions at Montenotte, Millesino, Dego, Ava, Mondori, and so on — all this with a half-consciousness which kept me aware of what was going on around me.
Jacobi taking my temperature brought me to myself, so that I exchanged some words with him; and then I found myself contemplating the famous scene on the Rütli in Schiller's Wilhelm Tell, when in the deep of night the peasants met to form their union. It troubled me that I could not at once remember the name of the person who administered the oath to them. Finally I had it, and I said to Jacobi “Was it not Rösselmann?” “What Rösselmann?” “The priest who administered the oath on the Rütli.” “Oh, yes, Rösselmann, to be sure.” That quieted me, but at the same time interrupted my dream.
After a little while of clear consciousness caused by the taking of medicine and some words with Jacobi, I found myself watching from an elevated point on the field the battle of Waterloo on the side of the French. I was much troubled by the stubborn fight and the useless sacrifice of forces on the French left around the chateau of Gaumont, and by the failure of the French to strengthen their right for the decisive blow against the British left. I saw the Prussians appearing on the horizon and pouring upon Haucheroit and the woods of Frichermont. I saw Napoleon himself endeavoring to arrest their progress, while Ney was hurling his furious and fruitless cavalry charges upon the squares of British infantry. I witnessed the constant closing in of the Prussian army, the British taking the offensive, the growing disorder among the French, Napoleon in the midst of a square of his grenadiers of the old guard, and finally the horrible event just as history tells the tragic tale — a little confused toward the close but after all well enough connected. Then my mind wandered somewhat indistinctly until a new picture rose up before it. It was the story of Goetz von Berlichingen as told in Goethe's drama. I had never seen that piece acted and as I went through its rapid changes of scene it troubled me how such a story could be satisfactorily put upon the stage.
It was late in the afternoon when I woke up to
entirely clear consciousness, took some light nourishment
and had a few moments intelligent conversation with Jacobi.
Then my fancy took
ings again and I found myself
with the last act of Mozart's opera Don Juan. I imagined
that this act could be much improved, musically as well
as in point of dramatic effect, especially in that part
where the “marble guest” advances visibly from the
background to the centre of the scene. The way I reconstructed
it was this. Don Juan having defied the “marble
guest” to join him at supper, orders Leporello to prepare
for the feast. The table stands well forward on the
stage. The moment has arrived when the “marble guest”
is to appear. But he does not appear in the farthest
background then to advance with ponderous step as Mozart's
opera has it. I have changed all that. I have a cloud
descend upon the centre of the stage rapidly thickening
and entirely obscuring the farther half of it. Meanwhile
for a few seconds the orchestra is silent. Then the steps
of the “marble guest” advancing from a long distance
behind that cloud are marked first by a tap on the kettle
drum, after which thud after thud they grow stronger and
stronger, all the instruments gradually dropping in with
an accumulating crescendo, interwoven with a plaintive
running cantabile by a single clarinet, until at last the
crescendo culminates in a shrieking, crashing dissonance
by the whole orchestra, when suddenly the cloud disappears
and the “marble guest” is revealed standing in the centre
of the scene in a bluish light concentrated upon that one
figure. Then dead silence for a few moments whereupon
the action continues. I worked out this scheme in minute
detail and I was very much pleased iwth the idea that in
this way, far more than by Mozart's arrangement, the
audience would be worked up to the highest pitch of gruesome
expectation and that the sudden apparition of the
“marble guest” would be overwhelming in its effect.
When I woke up from this dream I remembered it clearly from beginning to end, and I have often thought of it since as an idea that was not at all bad.
Thus I spent the first day of my illness — feverish enough not to have control of my thoughts, but always able to remember the imaginings of my wandering mind. Towards evening my temperature, which had been dangerously high, began to go down, and during the night I had snatches of sleep with dreams of a more ordinary kind. Dr. Jacobi, who with great self-sacrifice was constantly at my bedside, told me afterwards that during that first day he had considered my condition quite critical. He had been prepared for the worst and telegraphed for my children. To myself the thought of death never occurred.