Caroline's Storybook

Experiments On The Nature Of Odyle
Conducted In Vienna In 1844
By Karl, Baron Von Reichenbach
And Mlle Adelaide Nowotny

by Caroline Ashbee

The afternoon was hot and the air in the bedroom was parched and desiccating. As there always is in the bedrooms of young women who are invalids, there was the faint stench of sour milk mixed with violets and ammonia. Mlle Adelaide Nowotny was lying in a deep armchair beside the window, a book, unattended to, open on her lap. She had a slight figure and a small plain face, pinched-nosed and narrow-lipped, thin, her complexion skimmed-milk pale, bluish over delicate bones, with large, blue-circled, brown eyes, and with an incongruously luxuriant mass of dark brown curly hair, spilling down her shoulders. She was still wearing her nightdress beneath an elaborate white dressing gown, flounced, frilled, and laced, the dressing gown of a courtesan, an unlikely garment on the fragile body of a permanent invalid. Her only foot, in its little silken slipper peeped out, like a timid little mouse, from beneath the gown. Her crutches, forks of dark-stained wood with U-shaped crosspieces, were lying on the floor beside her chair. The sun, streaming through the windows, lay in lozenges upon the floor. Day after day, as the hours passed by, it swept over the carpet bleaching a faded swath through the Greek-key pattern; it glinted from the domed heads of the brass upholsterers' tacks that held the velvet, old-rose, faded, covering the padding on the crutches where they went under her arms. Her visitor, Dr Baron Karl von Reichenbach, severe, in black tailed-coat and trousers, was sitting in an armchair facing her, drinking tea.

'I slept very badly again: I sleep very badly.' she said, 'There is no discomfort, just a want of vital energy, so that in the daytime I have no strength and at nighttime weariness, but no sleep.'

'Your life, Mademoiselle, is like a pendulum clock: the weights are raised up, and in place on the chain, free to fall, but until the pendulum is perturbed from its still central point, the weights remain suspended, and the clock cannot work. If the pendulum were displaced even a little so that it began to swing, the weights would begin to fall, and the clock start to tick.

'I have come to understand the forces that control the energies of life and my treatment will displace the pendulum of your vitality, and your days will become vigorous and your nights will pass in healthy sleep.'

'Oh, if only it could be so.'

'With your permission, I will begin the experiments.' So saying he stood up, picked up his enormous leather portmanteau and carried it to the table. He opened it and began to lay out scientific apparatus and some mineralogical specimens. One of the machines was so large that it had to be assembled from its constituent parts before it could be operated. First of all, he bolted together a polished box-wood frame that supported an axle which was connected, through a train of brass gears, to a crank; then he unpacked a large disc of glass and mounted it in the vertical plane on the axle. The disk was arranged so that in rotation it rubbed silken sheets which were connected through coils of wire to brass rods with spherical terminals. Other apparatus included a collection of jars of different sizes, covered with tinfoil and with bright brass terminals, and a collection of magnets of different shapes and sizes.

'It was good of you to arrange for the table to be set up here. It makes my work much easier.' he said.

Beside the table were two dining chairs.

'If you would be good enough to come to the table ...' Mlle Nowotny reached for her crutches, stood up gracefully, swung herself to the table, and sat down.

Some smells become unnoticeable almost as they are experienced, the nose having registered the smell, catalogues it, recognizes its significance, and ignores it; but certain smells are persistent. Dr von Reichenbach was becoming mildly nauseated as he smelt, and continued to smell lactic acid, violets, and ammonia.

'Would it be possible to open a window. The experiments will benefit from a little fresh air.' he lied diplomatically.

'Alas, no, I am susceptible to the slightest draught. I was prostrated for a month last year after my maid left the door of my room an inch ajar by mistake.'

Reichenbach lit the candle in a little lantern with a dark slide.

'The first experiment is to determine your sensitivity. Patients, when they are in a neurasthenic state are sensitive to phenomena invisible to persons in a normal state of health. With your permission I will close the blinds.'

He closed the blinds and lit his way back to the table with the lantern, then he replaced the slide and they were in darkness.

'How strange,' she thought listlessly, 'to be sitting here, unchaperoned, in the dark, with a man.' He was sitting close enough for her to smell the cigar smoke that saturated his clothes and the rose-water that scented his pomade.

She could make out his outline in the residual light that leaked round the edges of the blinds. He picked up something from the table.

'Certain young women can see flames playing at the poles of magnets when they are ... periodically ... unwell. Can you see the flames?'

She stared and stared but she could make out nothing.

'Sometimes the flames are very faint. You might be able to see them if you don't look directly at the poles.'

She stared and stared again, but this time she stared at a point a few inches away from the magnet, and he was right.

'Yes, I can see them now.'

'What colour are they?'

'They are very faint, white, I think.'

'That is unusual: usually the north pole is red, the south blue.'

'Oh, yes,' she said, confidently, 'One is reddish, but it is very pale, the other ... I'm not sure.'


They tried another set of experiments with a horse-shoe magnet, a compound bar magnet and an electromagnet. Sometimes she saw the flames, and mists, and sparks from the magnets and also from the crystals; sometimes she did not. In spite of herself she was becoming interested in the experiments. At last Reichenbach was satisfied. He stood up and opened the blinds, and once again the cataract of afternoon sun poured into the bedroom.

Adelaide looked at the doctor, observing the the tall elegant carriage, the high forehead, the short curling hair, the dark, alert, eyes; his clothes: the highest of high collars, the wings pressed against his cheeks, the precisely folded cravat, the whiteness of shirt and waistcoat.

He returned to the table and sat down again and began to speak:

'The phenomena we have been investigating are produced by odyle, the unifying life-force of nature. Every living thing emits odyle and certain organised inorganic materials such as magnets and crystals also do, but more weakly. In health the body emits a very great deal of odyle, so much that it outshines the feebler emissions of magnets and crystals, and a healthy person can no more see the magnetic odyle than he could see a candle flame inter posed between his eye and the Sun; but when the well-springs of health are depleted, the flow of odyle slows down and magnetodyle, and crystallodyle become visible, especially to young women, especially at those ... particular... times, and especially when they are unwell.

'From the tests I have carried out I am happy to be able to tell you that you are less debilitated than I expected and feared. You are much less morb idly sensitive than other patients I have attended.'

Adelaide felt slightly aggrieved: she took satisfaction in being morbidly sensitive, and Reichenbach seemed to be implying that she had no more sensitivity than a milkmaid or a fishwife.

'We can adjust the flow of your odyle using this electrical machine.' he said, pointing to the glass disc in its frame. 'All that is required is a charge from one of the smaller jars. Are you willing to take the treatment?'

'I hope it won't restore me to rude health.' she said pointedly.

'Not at all, all that will be achieved will be the restoration of a sensitive and, if I may say, aristocratic spirit.'

'Very well then, I agree.'

The doctor connected the terminals of the machine to the terminals of one of the smaller jars, and began to crank the handle hard. Because of the gearing, the disc spun round at tremendous speed making a whistling sound. After a minute or two he stopped cranking and the disc gradually slowed down. Then holding a piece of caoutchouc in his fingers he disconnected the jar from the machine.

'It would be best if you were lying down when the charge is delivered.' She stood up and swung herself to the leather sofa, and lay down on it.Reichenbach carried the jar to the sofa.

'Do not be alarmed.' he said, 'There will be a shock to the system. This is analogous to the first swing of the pendulum to set the clock going.'

'Now take hold of the terminals, one in each hand.' She did so,convulsing as the charge passed across her breast, stimulating her heart. She gasped and lay back.

After a moment of two, her breath recovered, she did feel more vigorous.

'The vestige of my leg,' she said, at last, 'is extraordinarily sensitive, has this anything to do with odyle?'

'I suspect it may have: the flow of odyle will be perturbed.'

'Occasionally, I have a convulsion in the stump, which feels much like the charge I have just experienced, and sometimes, when there is a change in the weather, I have the feeling that I am being haunted by my leg. Would this have to do with odyle?'

'It may do, I would have to do experiments to determine the exact relationship.'

'I should be most willing to take part in such experiments.' she said, eagerly. 'Let us begin now.'

'I ... don't', he was becoming flustered, 'I don't ... '

'If I understand correctly what you have been telling me, the ghostly leg is caused by the disturbed flow of odyle, and therefore it might perhaps have its own odylic light. Let us investigate. Close the blinds.'

Reichenbach moved one of the dining chairs so it was close to the sofa, picked up the lantern, and obediently closed the blinds a second time. When he came back to his seat he could see that Mlle Nowotny had opened her robe and drawn up her nightdress revealing the end of the little stump of her right leg.He sat down and closed the dark slide.

'It is sometimes possible to make out emanations of odyle from the skin.' he said, 'Such emanations appear usually as a kind of cloud or static mist. Can you make anything out?'

'No. There is nothing.'

'Sometimes the eyes take a while to gain their sensitivity.'

'No ... wait, I can see something, a glow: it is like a pillar of cloud... It is a long as my leg was ... before.'

'That will be the odyle.'

'It is fading. I cannot see it any more.'

'Let us wait a little longer.' said Reichenbach. They waited but she saw nothing more. Reichenbach opened the blinds and went back to the sofa.

'The vestige is particularly sensitive here.' she said excitedly, opening the robe further, and drawing up her nightdress almost to the hip. She pointed to an area about two inches from the tip of the stump, on the medial side.

'Perhaps you would touch it with the magnet.' He stood up and walked slowly to the table, paused, and picked up the largest of the bar magnets. Uneasy, he walked back slowly to the sofa.

'Are you certain? ...'

'Do it. Do it.' she said excitedly. Gingerly he touched the stump with the pole of the magnet.

'Now the other end, the other pole? Is that what you call it?

'Yes,' he said uncertainly, ' "the other pole." '

'The ends feel different. The first end, pole, felt cold and repelling, the second warm, attracting, somehow. Touch me here.' She pointed at an area still higher on the stump as she drew her nightdress still higher. He glimpsed a black curl of hair and tried not to see it.

'I'm not sure ... '

'Do it. Do it.'

He touched the magnet to her stump at the point she indicated.

'Now the other end.' He did so.

'No, how strange, there's no difference here ... These mysterious polarities, do they run through everything?'

'Yes.' he said bemused.

'North and south, up and down, left and right?'

'Yes, all of these.'

'And the flow of the odyle is reversed?'


'Touch me here with your right hand.' she said pointing to her stump. Mesmerised by now, with no more will power than a rat transfixed by a cobra's glare, he touched the stump. It felt very soft, and cool.

'And now your left hand.'

In spite of himself he was becoming excited.

'The skin here feels quite electric, or would you say, odylic? compared with here.' she drew up the nightdress still further, almost to the waist, and indicating the corresponding position on the thigh of her left leg she said.

'Touch me here, with each hand, one after the other.' By this time he was sweating with lust and apprehensiveness in equal measure.

'Does it feel different?' she asked, 'It does to me.'

'I really couldn't say, Mademoiselle. You must forgive me, Mademoiselle, I have another call to make.' he lied again. 'I really must beg you not to over-excite yourself. Rest now, and I will call on you again in a few days.'

'Promise me you will bring your paraphernalia with you when you come; I am most intrigued by your researches.'

'Oh, I shall, with pleasure.' he replied. 'Your case is unique, but there are many calls on my time.'

As she was rearranging her clothes Adelaide said:

'If you would do me the service of ringing, the maid will show you out.'

As soon as he had left Adelaide rang for the maid again.

'You are to send Josef to Baumgartner's bookshop and tell him to buy me all of the Baron von Reichenbach's books. And make an appointment for my dressmaker to call at 11 o'clock tomorrow morning.'

The following morning the dressmaker arrived and was received in the bedroom.

'I require some new afternoon dresses, six, I think, yes six. In the latest fashion, but in quiet colours, brown, grey, dark green, merino wool, made in the redingote style.'

'Certainly, madame. The new English style is so becoming ...'

'And I wish the skirts to made with an opening on the right-hand side.'

'An opening?'

'An opening that can be buttoned up or unbuttoned, here.'

Adelaide indicated the place, a line about ten inches long, that followed the line of her groin on the right-hand side.

'This is very unusual, madame, but of course we can provide it. How exactly do you want it made?'

'I think that a fly front and buttons will be appropriate.'

'We could make it a decorative feature of the skirt by making a false opening on the other side ...'

'That will not be necessary. I am hardly someone to be concerned with symmetry.' she said coldly.

'Certainly, madame.' The dressmaker wrote the instructions in her notebook.

Some weeks later, when next he visited her, Reichenbach found Adelaide much improved. She received him in the drawing room. She was wearing a fine new afternoon dress of grey merino wool, with long sleeves, a softly fitting high-necked bodice, and a full-length skirt, cut rather narrower than the fashion, so as not to get in the way of her crutches. Her hair was neatly dressed with a centre parting and long ringlets. When he entered the room and she stood up and swung to greet him. She offered him her hand to kiss.

'I am feeling very much better at last,' she said, 'stronger, and happier, I wake at dawn and sleep through the night like a child, and all thanks to you.

'Since we met I have read all your books and I am looking forward to assisting you with your experiments.' She pointed to the table, indicating a collection of magnets and coils and batteries and crystals. 'I have begun a few simple experiments on my own account, following in the path you have laid out. Come, sit down beside me.'

She swung herself to the sofa, sat down, and indicated that he should sit down beside her on her right hand side.

'You are a doctor,' she said next, as she unbuttoned the opening of her skirt, 'so there can be no immodesty.' and she slipped her stump out through the opening.

'You see I have made preparations to make our work as easy as possible.' She cupped her left hand round the end of the stump massaging it gently. With her right hand she reached across Reichenbach's body and took hold of his, and drawing it across his body, placed it on her stump. The skin had a slightly papery, slightly electric feel even to his fingertips, as with increasing excitement he too began to caress the stump.

'You can feel the odyle flowing.' she said dreamily. She slipped her right hand into the opening and he watched it stirring rhythmically beneath her skirt.

'My first discovery ... ' she said thickly, her hand moving faster and faster, 'is that the flow of odyle can be enhanced by ... manual stimulation.'

At the crisis she fell back, and Reichenbach caught her, placing his left arm round her shoulders and supporting her. Then she slumped against him completely relaxed and he held her in his arms, her head resting against his cheek, her shoulder on his breast, her body as fragile and bony as a bird's.

He felt sublimely satisfied, as he might feel when approached with trust by some beautiful wild creature. He defied his feelings of ethical unease. She lay in his arms, and he began to stroke her hair.

'Sometimes,' she murmured, 'the headaches were so terrible it felt as if my head were trying to decapitate itself.'

After a while she sat up.

'Since we met I have been out. I have been for drives in the landau, in the fresh air, to the woods, and I experienced no ill effects, a little tiredness only, and the sleep afterwards has been perfect and refreshing ...

'I have discovered that the vestige of my limb is an exquisitely sensitive organ of sensation. However, the earlier experiments were the most successful. Later, following from the suggestion in one of your papers, I designed and have had a resonator made; that improved the sensitivity for a while. Let me show you.'

She swung to the table and removed an arrangement of brass rods and leather straps. The rods, of different lengths, the longest about eight inches in length, were each divided at one end to form a kind of trident, and were joined at their undivided ends, in parallel with one another, to a kind of metal cap to which, in turn, was attached a set of leather straps. She returned to the sofa and sat down, then she strapped the cap on to her stump so that the rods pointed in direction of its long axis.

'This increased the sensitivity for a while: I found that holding the vestige thus,' she stood up, thrusting the stump forward so that the rods were parallel to the ground, 'enabled me to detect hidden sources of odyle.'

She swung herself about the room.

'The resonator would direct itself towards the source quite involuntarily as I passed by it; but recently it has become unreliable: it works only some of the time, so I conclude that the resonator must be losing its virtue for some reason, wearing out perhaps? or becoming saturated with odyle? or perhaps it is simply that I am doing something wrong.'

She sat down, unstrapped the resonator and passed it Reichenbach who examined it carefully.

'How shameful.' she said smiling, 'I am neglecting my duties as hostess. Let me ring for tea.' She slipped her stump into her skirt, buttoned up the opening, stood up before he could offer to ring for her, swung to the bell-pull beside the fireplace and rang. After a short delay the maid appeared with tea and Viennese chocolate cake. Adelaide took a piece of cake, and holding it in both hands nibbled it like a squirrel, her eyes sparkling as she looked at Reichenbach.

'I hope you will not be too disappointed,' said Reichenbach, 'but you will recall that the sensitivity you have been experimenting with is a morbid one, as I explained on our first meeting. As your health improves the phenomena will decrease in intensity until when you are quite well there will be no phenomena at all: all that will remain will be the delicate sensitivity of the stump to touch, the sensitivity that you have already discovered and made use of with such good effect. Handling the stump, massaging it frequently during the day, and attending to whatever consequential needs arise will be the only treatment necessary to complete the balancing of the odyle, and to ensure a complete cure. I am certain that the regaining of your health and vigour will more than compensate you for the loss of the phenomena. I should take is as a great privilege to attend on you daily to assist with the massage if you feel that this would be helpful.'

Adelaide, melting with happiness, agreed to Reichenbach's suggestion, and the days passed, the weeks passed, with outings together at first to the park and the woods, and then to the Musikverein and the Opera; then a proposal, and in due course Mlle Adelaide Nowotny became the Baroness von Reichenbach, and they lived happily ever after, delighting together to keep her odyle always in balance.

Friday 23rd June 1995
© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995