The madman of genius - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Though in custody Dr. Salvator had not knuckled under. He was as calm and dominating as ever, speaking to the investigator and experts in the condescending accents of an adult addressing a bunch of children. His active nature could not stand idleness. He did a great deal of writing and performed a few brilliant operations in the prison hospital. Among others he operated on the prison governor’s wife for a malignant tumour and saved her life when she had been given up by all other doctors.

The day of the trial came.

The huge Court was packed, those who had not been able to get inside were overflowing the corridors, the square in front of the Law Courts, looking in at the open windows or climbing up the trees for a better view.

Salvator sat in the prisoner’s dock with the calm and dignified demeanour of a judge. Everybody’s eyes were glued on him. The fact that he was going to conduct his own defence only whipped up the audience’s interest.

Ichthyander would, of course, have come in for his share of popular interest but he was not in Court. With the approach of the trial he had been spending more and more time in his water tank, owing to his poor health and everybody’s morbid staring. Besides, in the Salvator case Ichthyander was only a witness for the prosecution, rather in the nature of material evidence, as the chief prosecutor had put it, and his own case was to come up for trial later and separately. It had been arranged that way to meet the bishop’s wish for a speedy conviction for Salvator. Meanwhile evidence against Ichthyander could be prepared. The prosecutor’s agents were paying visits to the pulqueria La Palmera, cautiously but busily recruiting witnesses for the future trial. However, the bishop kept hinting broadly to the prosecutor that by far the best for the unfortunate youth would be to depart this life-and furnish ample proof that a man’s hand could only spoil what God had made.

Speaking on behalf of the experts’ panel Arturo Stein, Professor of Anatomy at the University and an eminent scientist, gave evidence that was listened to with unabated attention.

“On instruction of the Court,” he began, “we examined the animals and the young man called Ichthyander that had all been operated upon by Professor Salvator. We also examined his small but well-appointed surgery and laboratories. In his work Professor Salvator made extensive use not only of the latest techniques, such as eletric dissection and ultraviolet disinfection, but also of a number of instruments unknown to modem plastic surgery. These apparently were made for him according to his own designs. I do not intend to dwell at any length on Professor Salvator’s experiments on animals. In a nutshell, they consisted of a series of operations as daring in conception as they were brilliant in execution. He transplanted tissues, whole organs and limbs, sewed two animals together, changed monorespiratory animals into duorespiratory and vice versa, transformed females into males and experimented in rejuvenation. In Salvator’s orchards we also found children of different Indian tribes ranging in age from a few months to fourteen years.”

“What was the state you found them in?” asked the prosecutor.

“All the children were in excellent condition. Indeed they looked quite happy. Many of them owed Salvator their very lives. The Indians believed in him and brought him their children from far afield.”

A sigh was heard in the hushed hall.

The prosecutor began to fidget. Now that he had got his cue from the bishop the expert’s warm words jarred upon his ears.

“Are you going to suggest that the operations the accused carried out served any justifiable purpose?” he asked the expert.

But the presiding judge, a stem-faced silver-haired man, fearing lest the expert answer in the alternative, hastened to interpose.

“The Court is not interested in the expert’s personal opinions on scientific matters. Please proceed, Professor. What were your findings as to the young man Ichthyander of the Araucanian tribe?”

“We found that Ms body was covered with man-made scales,” Professor Stein continued, “of some unknown material, easy to bend but hard to pierce. We are still awaiting the results of its analysis. When swimming Ichthyander used a pair of goggles fitted with special flint glass with an index of refraction near two which enabled him to see better underwater. When we removed the scales we detected a round hole about four inches in diameter under each shoulder-blade covered with five thin strips, the whole looking similar to a shark’s gills.”

A muffled exclamation of surprise was heard in the hall.

“Yes,” the expert continued, “surprising as it must seem, Ichthyander possesses both human lungs and a shark’s gills. That is why he can live both on land and in water.”

“An amphibian?” the prosecutor said ironically.

“Yes, in fact a human amphibian.”

“But how could Ichthyander come to have a shark’s gills?” asked the presiding judge.

The expert spread his arms abroad.

“That is a puzzle to which only Professor Salvator holds the answer,” he said. “I shall try, however, to sum up our opinion for you. According to the bioge-netic law of Haeckel the organism in its development is to a great extent an epitome of the form-modifications undergone by the successive ancestors of the species in the course of their historic evolution. So it can be safely said that man’s distant forebears once breathed with their gills.”

The prosecutor half-rose in his seat to protest but was motioned back by the presiding judge.

“Here’s some embryology to support it. By the twentieth day an embryonic skull shows a set of four parallel ridges, the so-called visceral arches. But later the human foetus’s would-be gills undergo a transformation: the first visceral arch develops into the acoustic duct with the ossicles and the Eustachian tube, its lower part turning into the lower jaw; the second arch develops into the hyoid bone; the third into the body and two processes of the thyroid cartilage. This is the normal development and we do not consider that Professor Salvator could have arrested it in the case of Ichthyander. There are on record cases of even adults having an unclosed gill-cleft on the throat directly under the lower jaw, the so-called branchial fistula, but there can be no question of their breathing through them. Had there been, however, any interference with the normal development, the gills would have developed at the expense of the organ of hearing and other functions, making Ichthyander into a monster half-fish. But Ichthyander is a normally developed young man with good hearing, a well-pronounced lower jaw and sound lungs, and besides he has full-grown gills. How Ichthyander’s gills and lungs function, what their interaction is, if any, whether his gills get their water via the mouth and lungs or through the two small orifices we discovered on his body directly above each gill-opening — we do not know. Nor could we answer these questions without an autopsy. This is, I repeat again, a puzzle for the solution of which we have to refer to Professor Salvator. Only Professor Salvator can explain to us the origin of the dog-like jaguars and other such animals as well as of the amphibious monkeys, Ichthyander’s doubles.”

“What is your general conclusion?” asked the presiding judge.

The expert, himself a well-known surgeon, said simply:

“Frankly speaking I can’t make head or tail of it. I can only say that what Professor Salvator did, nobody but a man of genius could do. But it does look as if Professor Salvator on reaching his consummate degree of skill, decided that he could take humans or animals to pieces and put them together in any manner or arrangement he thought best. And though he has been doing this, and with brilliance, nonetheless his daring and scope border on what I’m forced to say looks like insanity.”

At this Salvator gave a little contemptuous smile. He had no idea that the experts had resolved to alleviate his lot by pleading his insanity.

“I do not want to produce the impression that such is our considered opinion,” the speaker said, catching sight of Salvator’s smile, “but we do suggest the accused be submitted to expert medical examination.”

“The Court will consider your insanity plea in due time,” said the presiding judge. “Professor Salvator, do you intend to give the Court any explanations of the questions raised by the experts and the prosecutor?”

“Yes,” Salvator said, “I do, and I also intend to make it my last word.”