The great Mendax transmitter [short story by Erle Cox, 27 March 1920]

[Editor: This short story by Erle Cox was published in The Australasian (27 March 1920).]

The great Mendax transmitter.

By Erle Cox.

He lives a retired, misanthropic life, in spite of his big income. Partly, I think, because he is without exception the vilest-mannered man in the Commonwealth, and partly because of his undisguised contempt of the rest of his fellow-creatures. At any rate, I believe I am the only person with whom he retained even an approach to friendship, and, if the truth be confessed, I kept up my connection with him more as a wholesome but disagreeable tonic, rather than from admiration for his personal qualities.

Although the name of Major Mendax may not be well known in Australia outside a chosen few, scientists all over the world regard him with unbounded admiration, probably because they have only met him in writing, for he corresponds with half the learned societies in the world, and liberally insults the other half on paper.

Some kind of mental kink has made him an all-embracing scientific genius, and has given him the right to a score or so of letters after his name, which he snorts at and never uses. When any problem has tangled the brains of the thinkers beyond all hope of unravelment Mendax is usually called on as the last court of appeal.

“I expect you over this afternoon, as I suppose otherwise you will be wasting your time in some idiotic way. — M.M.” This is a fair sample of his usual form of invitation. The mere fact of his having taken the trouble to write, however, indicated something passing strange; so in this instance I pocketed my pride and obeyed the summons.

I found him working about some machinery in the great garden that surrounds his laboratory, and his sole acknowledgment of my presence was a grunt as he went on with his occupation. I wandered round curiously inspecting, but without understanding. There were four or five coops, containing a variety of domestic fauna, chiefly cats, dogs, and poultry, watched over by Mendax’s own cross-grained Newfoundland, “Savage,” whose manners were a fair copy of his master’s.

The objects which chiefly attracted my attention, however, were two structures standing side by side that rather resembled sentry-boxes with doors. On the top of each was a porcelain insulator, with wires attached, that disappeared amongst the trees of the garden. Each sentry-box, too, was connected by thick, curly wires to the machinery on which Mendax was working.

While I stood surveying them he came over to me. “Well, what do you make of it?” he snapped.

“Private telephone?” I ventured.

He repeated my words with a scornful expletive added. “That, you idiot, is an organic transmitter.”

I tried to look intelligent, but, under his searching gaze, failed miserably.

“I’ll show you what I mean,” he said, shortly, and, opening one of the crates, he drew forth a loudly protesting brown Leghorn rooster and approached me. “See that bird? Well, mark it somehow so as you will know it again.” I took my penknife and cut a nick in one of its wing pinions. Then Mendax opened the door of one of the sentry-boxes, and, after dropping the fowl in, he smartly locked it again.

“Now!” he said, indicating the two structures, “this near one with the bird is the transmitter, the other is the receiver, and they are four miles apart.” As a matter of fact, they were only 6in. apart, and I said so, pointedly. “I mean electrically, you jackass. There are four miles of wire run in and out of the garden connecting them. Electrically they are as far apart as from here to the G.P.O. See?” I nodded comprehension.

“Now watch,” he went on, walking over to the machinery. “This is a motor,” he said, pointing to one part, “and this is a dynamo”, indicating another, “and I start it so.”

Here he performed certain evolutions, and the whole contraption woke into angry, buzzing life, that even in the daylight showed evil blue sparks. For about three minutes it hummed savagely, while Mendax watched a hand on a dial move slowly over its face, then he shut off the current with a snap, and, with an expression of triumph, opened the door of the transmitter.

I gasped. The bird had disappeared. Then he opened the receiver, and on the floor stood the missing rooster, looking as astonished as I doubtless did. In fact, Mendax made a caustic comment on the similarity of our expressions.

“You see what happened?” he asked.

“I’m shot if I do?” I answered.

“Well, this old bird,” he said, taking the still dazed victim up by the legs, “has been dissolved, for want of a better expression, and sent along those four miles of wires and reconstructed in the receiver, and that, my friend, is what an organic transmitter is. It’s my own invention.” There was an inventor’s pride in his voice.

“Why organic?” I asked, as that seemed to me to be an intelligent question.

“Speaks for itself,” he answered scornfully. “It can only transmit substances of organic structure, of animal or vegetable origin, generally speaking. I can’t send along any things of inorganic origin, such as minerals.”

The possibilities were staggering, and moved me to inquire how the miracle was accomplished.

“My dear fellow,” came the characteristic answer: “If I explained for a week you haven’t the intelligence to understand me, and if I thought you had the intelligence, I wouldn’t explain.”

I swallowed the tribute for the sake of my unsatisfied curiosity.

“Just think,” he went on, after seeing that I was properly humble. “With a proper plant it will be possible to send from here all over the world all the produce we now export by water, and in a few minutes instead of weeks and if we can transmit living animals, why not human beings?” Here a suspicion crossed my mind, but I kept it to myself. “A man could step into a transmitter in his own home, and his wife could switch him into his own office in three minutes. Great, isn’t it?”

I didn’t feel so sure on the point. I had a lively recollection of one or two previous experimental inventions of his and their results.

“Look here, Mendax!” I asked as severely as I could, “Have you had any accidents with this contribution to culture yet?”

He grinned broadly. “I had one about a month ago. l found a stray fox terrier, so I put him through, and somehow I got a short circuit.”

“What happened to the pup?” I put in.

He thought for a while. “Well, to tell the truth, I’m hanged if I know. About a week after the electricians at the G.P.O. called me in to investigate a trouble in the telephone wires down this way that had floored them. The subscribers could not hear themselves speak for a sound that resembled the howling of a dog. I couldn’t help them, but I had my suspicions. Still, accidents will happen, but I’ve fixed that trouble now, so there’s no danger.”

I looked up and found him staring at me with an expression I didn’t like, and my suspicions of his intentions became a certainty. “Suppose,” I asked, “that the door of the transmitter opened while the dynamo was working?”

“Humph! Can’t say, but I’ve guarded against that. You see it locks automatically, and can’t be opened until the process is complete. Anything else?”

“Yes!” I spat out savagely “If you think you’ll get me to risk my life in that blame machine, it’s the biggest mistake you ever made.”

He didn’t try to hide his contempt as he looked at me. “Pshaw! you miserable cocktail! Why, I put through a sheep the other day, and it came through safely. You haven’t the pluck of that old rooster there.”

The argument waxed warm and painfully personal, but my resolution was adamant, and I wound up by asking him why he didn’t try it on himself. He explained, with vitriolic comments on my intelligence, that he would be glad to do so if he thought I had sense enough to work the dynamo. I could see that he was on his mettle, and for half an hour he explained to me just what I had to do.

It was simple enough; I was just to lock him in the transmitter, start the machinery, and keep it going until the hand on the dial pointed to zero, and then to shut off instantly. Also, I was to move quickly, as the transmitter had no ventilation, and he didn’t went to be suffocated by an idiot of my calibre. I remembered afterwards that “Savage,” his dog, with all his master’s love of a row, was standing by, apparently enjoying our discussion.

After making me send through a rabbit and then a cat as an experiment, Mendax placed himself in the transmitter, giving me fair warning of his vengeance if I bungled the operation. Then came the catastrophe. Just as I threw the door shut, “Savage,” who had been intently watching his master, sprang in beside him, and the door slammed. I knew it was automatically locked until the machine had done its work, and he might suffocate before I could break it open.

A dozen horrible possibilities flashed through my mind, but I jumped to the dynamo and jerked over the lever. The thing buzzed and spat viciously as I watched the hand creep over the dial, scarcely daring to breathe and trying to collect my paralysed wits.

At last the moment came, and I switched off the current and flung open the receiver. He was standing there, but the first glance I had I scarcely restrained a semi-hysterical shout of laughter. To begin with, he was absolutely dishevelled. His clothing was hanging loosely about him, his collar was at his feet, and the eyeglass that he was never without was missing. But that was not the worst.

On either side of his face hung the two long, silky ears of “Savage,” and from his shirt cuffs protruded unmistakably, and hung dejectedly, that worthy animal’s two fore paws. And the dog. Try and imagine a well-bred Newfoundland with two very red over-sized human ears projecting from his head, and with his fore legs terminating in two large red human hands, set plantigrade wise.

I have as much sympathy for the sufferings of human beings as the next man, but, try as I would, the laughter came uppermost, and I sat back on a chicken coop and let it come. He looked at his paws and he looked at “Savage,” and, hanging clumsily to his falling garments, he ramped and raged in the broad light of day a figure unspeakable, for when he turned I saw protruding from underneath his coat the bushy tail of the astonished dog — the dog who was lying down and licking his new-found hands in dazed amazement.

Never in my life have I listened to anything approaching the heights of florid abuse and reckless denunciation that Mendax hurled at me as he stamped savagely before me. It was an Homeric tirade, and, since all the joy was mine, I bore him no ill-will. In the end he had to stop for want of breath, and I, too, managed to choke back my mirth, that came to the surface every time I looked at that nightmare figure.

“When you’ve finished your asinine cackling perhaps you’ll tie something round my waist for me. I can’t hang on to my togs all day like this,” he said, glaring wildly.

“What the dickens has happened to them?” I asked.

“Oh! you silly cuckoo! Haven’t you sense enough to think that all the inorganic stuff about me has been left behind in the transmitter. Buttons and all. Open it and look, you blithered jackass.”

Sure enough, there was a queer collection on the floor when we examined it. We found his watch and chain, three studs, and his sleeve-links, together with his eyeglass, and all his trouser buttons, mixed with the brass eyelets of his boots and sundry nails. Also there was all the small change and metallic objects from his pockets. Moreover (and this made him renew his eloquence) several small pellets of gold turned out to be the stopping from his teeth.

Apart from his anatomical peculiarities I will allow that Mendax had some cause for annoyance. I improvised a belt from two handkerchiefs, and we sat down with as much calm as we could muster to discuss the crisis, although I nearly wrecked all hope of an amicable settlement, by giggling hysterically when those two unspeakable ears suddenly pricked up straight beside his cap when he thought he heard someone coming.

It was a serious business. Mendax had to allow that the only hope he had of regaining his normal state was by being put through again with the dog, but against this we had to face the possibility of the change becoming worse instead of better, and then where would it end. At last he refused absolutely to take the risk, and in language, as he looked at those awful paws, that was absolutely unprintable.

But it was “Savage” himself who finally altered his decision. In his excitement, Mendax recklessly kicked at the coop on which he was sitting, and broke the door, from which immediately bolted a terrified cat. This was too much for “Savage,” and in spite of his disadvantages he raced madly after it, and cornered it against the fence in full view. Puss fought a short, desperate, but hopeless battle, but before the end left her marks scored across the hands and ears that didn’t belong to the dog, in a dozen crimson furrows.

“See what that infernal brute’s doing to my hands and ears,” Mendax shouted wildly. “Oh! you —” The rest was pure, or rather impure, profanity. I think in his rage he would have killed the dog if he had not been prevented by his obvious helplessness.

Then he decided that, come what might, he would be transmitted again with “Savage,” making me swear, most unwillingly, that if the next change were for the worse I would keep on repeating the operation until I had got him back to his normal shape.

I captured “Savage,” and Mendax took his place in the transmitter, but the dog had soured on the proposal, and it took a wild tussle before I could drag him to his master, and even then in my excitement I came in for a special volley of abuse by jamming Mendax’s tail, or the dog’s, whichever you please, in the door. I expect it was Mendax’s, for he felt the pain; at least, so I judged from his remarks.

At last I had them locked in. The dynamo woke into life at my touch, and the pointer moved slowly to zero. It was with trembling hands I opened the receiver, not knowing what I would find. But the relief was almost worth the anxiety, for both dog and man stood intact with but one slight departure from the normal. Mendax was still wearing the bushy tail, and “Savage” a somewhat cut-off appearance.

I offered to repeat the operation, but my erstwhile friend threatened such a variety of physical violence at the suggestion that I did not press the point, and was told to mind my own qualified business when I asked him how he would manage. Indeed, he became so abusive that, even allowing for everything, I walked off and left him, vowing I was finished with him so long as I lived.

A few days later I met his housekeeper, who informed me that Major Mendax had gone to a private hospital to undergo a slight operation. I guessed what it was. About 12 months later I was paying an unprofessional visit to a well-known surgeon. In his study over the mantelpiece I saw hanging on the wall the tail of a Newfoundland dog. As an experiment, I asked what use he had for it. “My dear fellow, if I told you the history of that, you’d say I am mad, so I’ll say nothing.” But I knew.

As for the transmitter, well, Mendax and I pass as strangers now, so I am not aware of his intentions, but he may put it on the market yet.

The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.), 27 March 1920, pp. 640-641

Also published in:
The Canowindra Star and Eugowra News (Canowindra, NSW), 2 April 1920, p. 4

[Editor: Added a closing quotation mark after: “See?”; “but” and “gaze” (“but, under his searching gaze, failed miserably”); “this is a dynamo”. Added a question mark after “human beings” (replacing a full stop). Added a comma after: “Still” (“Still, accidents”); “Well” and “truth” (Well, to tell the truth); “Why” (“Why, I put”). Changed “wasked off” to “walked off”.]

[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]

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