A DIAGNOSIS OF DEATH
by Ambrose Bierce
"I am not so superstitious as some of your
physicians--men of science, as you are pleased
to be called," said Hawver, replying to an
accusation that had not been made. "Some of
you--only a few, I confess--believe in the
immortality of the soul, and in apparitions
which you have not the honesty to call ghosts.
I go no further than a conviction that the
living are sometimes seen where they are not,
but have been--where they have lived so long,
perhaps so intensely, as to have left their
impress on everything about them. I know,
indeed, that one's environment may be so
affected by one's personality as to yield,
long afterward, an image of one's self to
the eyes of another. Doubtless the impressing
personality has to be the right kind of
personality as the perceiving eyes have to
be the right kind of eyes--mine, for example."
"Yes, the right kind of eyes, conveying
sensations to the wrong kind of brain,"
said Dr. Frayley, smiling.
"Thank you; one likes to have an expectation
gratified; that is about the reply that I
supposed you would have the civility to make."
"Pardon me. But you say that you know. That
is a good deal to say, don't you think?
Perhaps you will not mind the trouble of
saying how you learned."
"You will call it an hallucination," Hawver
said, "but that does not matter." And he
told the story.
"Last summer I went, as you know, to pass
the hot weather term in the town of Meridian.
The relative at whose house I had intended
to stay was ill, so I sought other quarters.
After some difficulty I succeeded in renting
a vacant dwelling that had been occupied by
an eccentric doctor of the name of Mannering,
who had gone away years before, no one knew
where, not even his agent. He had built the
house himself and had lived in it with an
old servant for about ten years. His practice,
never very extensive, had after a few years
been given up entirely. Not only so, but he
had withdrawn himself almost altogether from
social life and become a recluse. I was told
by the village doctor, about the only person
with whom he held any relations, that during
his retirement he had devoted himself to a
single line of study, the result of which he
had expounded in a book that did not commend
itself to the approval of his professional
brethren, who, indeed, considered him not
entirely sane. I have not seen the book and
cannot now recall the title of it, but I am
told that it expounded a rather startling
theory. He held that it was possible in the
case of many a person in good health to
forecast his death with precision, several
months in advance of the event. The limit,
I think, was eighteen months. There were
local tales of his having exerted his powers
of prognosis, or perhaps you would say
diagnosis; and it was said that in every
instance the person whose friends he had
warned had died suddenly at the appointed
time, and from no assignable cause. All
this, however, has nothing to do with what
I have to tell; I thought it might amuse
"The house was furnished, just as he had
lived in it. It was a rather gloomy dwelling
for one who was neither a recluse nor a
student, and I think it gave something of
its character to me--perhaps some of its
former occupant's character; for always I
felt in it a certain melancholy that was
not in my natural disposition, nor, I think,
due to loneliness. I had no servants that
slept in the house, but I have always been,
as you know, rather fond of my own society,
being much addicted to reading, though
little to study. Whatever was the cause,
the effect was dejection and a sense of
impending evil; this was especially so in
Dr. Mannering's study, although that room
was the lightest and most airy in the
house. The doctor's life-size portrait in
oil hung in that room, and seemed completely
to dominate it. There was nothing unusual
in the picture; the man was evidently rather
good looking, about fifty years old, with
iron-gray hair, a smooth-shaven face and
dark, serious eyes. Something in the picture
always drew and held my attention. The man's
appearance became familiar to me, and rather
"One evening I was passing through this
room to my bedroom, with a lamp--there is
no gas in Meridian. I stopped as usual before
the portrait, which seemed in the lamplight
to have a new expression, not easily named,
but distinctly uncanny. It interested but
did not disturb me. I moved the lamp from
one side to the other and observed the effects
of the altered light. While so engaged I felt
an impulse to turn round. As I did so I saw
a man moving across the room directly toward
me! As soon as he came near enough for the
lamplight to illuminate the face I saw that
it was Dr. Mannering himself; it was as if
the portrait were walking!
"'I beg your pardon,' I said, somewhat coldly,
'but if you knocked I did not hear.'
"He passed me, within an arm's length, lifted
his right forefinger, as in warning, and without
a word went on out of the room, though I
observed his exit no more than I had observed
"Of course, I need not tell you that this was
what you will call an hallucination and I call
an apparition. That room had only two doors,
of which one was locked; the other led into
a bedroom, from which there was no exit. My
feeling on realizing this is not an important
part of the incident.
"Doubtless this seems to you a very commonplace
'ghost story'--one constructed on the regular
lines laid down by the old masters of the art.
If that were so I should not have related it,
even if it were true. The man was not dead; I
met him to-day in Union street. He passed me
in a crowd."
Hawver had finished his story and both men
were silent. Dr. Frayley absently drummed on
the table with his fingers.
"Did he say anything to-day?" he asked--"anything
from which you inferred that he was not dead?"
Hawver stared and did not reply.
"Perhaps," continued Frayley, "he made a sign,
a gesture--lifted a finger, as in warning. It's
a trick he had--a habit when saying something
serious--announcing the result of a diagnosis,
"Yes, he did--just as his apparition had done.
But, good God! did you ever know him?"
Hawver was apparently growing nervous.
"I knew him. I have read his book, as will
every physician some day. It is one of the
most striking and important of the century's
contributions to medical science. Yes, I knew
him; I attended him in an illness three years
ago. He died."
Hawver sprang from his chair, manifestly
disturbed. He strode forward and back across
the room; then approached his friend, and in
a voice not altogether steady, said: "Doctor,
have you anything to say to me--as a physician?"
"No, Hawver; you are the healthiest man I
ever knew. As a friend I advise you to go to
your room. You play the violin like an angel.
Play it; play something light and lively. Get
this cursed bad business off your mind."
The next day Hawver was found dead in his
room, the violin at his neck, the bow upon
the strings, his music open before him at
Chopin's funeral march.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~