KO. SO -A Chemical Romance Edit

By Gaston Bergeret Edit

Translated by Edyth Kirkwood, from the French, for Short Stories 1899

Cornelius had passed a sleepless night. After eating a hearty dinner he had drunk some very strong tea, which had kept him awake and upset his nerves completely. He felt excessively agitated ; his cerebral faculties, naturally active, had attained the highest degree of tension, and he arose in an unhealthy frame of mind. A little package of chlorate of potash had been sent him the day before as a sample of a new process of manufacture, and now lay on the table before him. He gazed at it and fell into meditation. 

Chlorate of potash, KOClOS, is not in itself interesting. It appears under the form of rhomboidal splinters, slimy and colorless, and has an insipid taste. Its industrial uses are limited. But what attracted the attention of Cornelius was that, thanks to its mineral nature, it seemed to be exempt from pain. 

"I am a sensitive being, intelligent and free," said Cornelius to himself, "and I pass my life in suffering. I have to pay for the least of my pleasures with sickness, remorse, or some sort of sacrifice, and here is an inanimate being which, it is true, cannot enjoy, but which is also incapable of suffering. Upon what do I found my pretentions to be superior to it? Why is organic matter held to be better than inorganic matter? And, after all, such words are devoid of sense. There is not, there cannot be, inorganic matter. Chlorate of potash is not organized like a vegetable or an animal, but it is organized in its own fashion. There are even as many varieties of organization in the mineral kingdom as in the others ; each variety has its own manner of crystallizing, which belongs to it, and in which it glories; each has its properties, which we only half-understand, but of which it is fully aware. More than that. Each has its preferences. Does' not the gravity of bodies attract them toward the centre of the earth even more powerfully than we are attracted by pleasure? Who can ever know the delight experienced by a falling body? And their laws. They are as reasonable and not less inflexible than our social laws, for minerals also live in society. This that lies before me, KOClOS, as we call it, is a group. There are potassium, chlorate and oxygen in a given proportion under the social regulation — chlorate of potash." 

Arrived at this point of his reasoning, Cornelius felt annoyed by the complication of the phenomenon lying before him. To argue more at his ease he would have preferred a simple substance. Simple substances are rare in civilization, nearly everything about us is composite. Still, he had the luck to find one. It was some sulphur which had been thrown into a drawer. The greater part of it had been employed sometime before in extinguishing a fire in the chimney ; but there was enough left to render evident the superiority of simple bodies as compared to compound. For once, having let himself go, Cornelius did not content himself with considering minerals equal to other created beings. He felt drawn by a paradoxical sympathy toward simple substances which in a way represent the primitive and truly crude state of matter. 

"This bit of sulphur, for example, called S in chemical nomenclature, is very pretty, and of a delicate yellow. It is applied to many useful purposes. I consider it highly superior to the chlorate of potash. Why? Because it is a simple substance," 

As he murmured these words Cornelius fingered the sulphur above the paper over which was spread the chlorate of potash, and some of the yellow powder fell on the whitish crystals. Mechanically he rubbed the chlorate of potash between his fingers and for an instant mingled the two substances so that presently there lay before him a pale yellow powder of homogeneous aspect in which the most experienced eye would have been incapable of discerning the primitive elements. 

“Strange concurrence of phenomena!" resumed Cornelius. "Is it possible to admit that a superior will has foreordained from all eternity the mingling I have just — without any motive — accomplished? A manufacturer has combined in a determined proportion potash composed of oxygen and potassium and chloride acid, which he first formed with chloride and oxygen and sent me a sample in hope that my approval would procure him lucre. Now, it chances that I have sulphur at hand solely because my chimney was on fire. This meeting is purely fortuitous. And yet hazard is merely a veil with which we cover our ignorance of causes. The unanimous consent of peoples is in accord with all the laws of induction, to recognize a Providence which knows and directs all things. Therefore, all these events have taken place, and I myself have experienced this indisposition only to concur in the accomplishment of an act which from all time has been decreed in the designs of the government of the universe. It was necessary that these dissimilar elements drawn from divers points of the globe should meet to-day in this mixture, and it is for such a result that engineers learn chemistry, that chimneys take fire, and that honest men fall ill. Is that admissible? If the mingling be an accident, it is as much as to deny the existence of God ; if it be a necessity, my free will is engulfed. But perhaps I am wrong when I imagine the result is out of proportion to the means employed. The combining of this chlorate of potash and this sulphur is nothing to me ; but to them it is enormously important. They were separate ; now they are united, and a new being is born. Yes, a new being essentially different from the two elements which compose it, for chlorate of potash is not explosive, nor is sulphur and their union constitutes a substance highly explosive — a simple percussion against this powder would cause it to go off." 

Cornelius was startled. A moment later he smiled as he reflected that he had just made a marriage. KOClOS was the woman. Chlorate of potash has a romantic novelesque sound almost like a woman*s name, consequently S, the sulphur, was the man, the simple, coarser substance, more crude, but more ardent. 

“And, after all," he thought, "they must be delighted, especially now that it is so recent. It is remarkable that one is always pleased at the moment of forming a new association. It is only when one wants to break it that the bother begins. This poor sulphur was evidently lonely, and as for chlorate of potash, although she was already a composite body, long habit had made of her a single being, eager for a companion. What proves the advantage of their association is that by this fact they have acquired an important property which distinguishes them from vulgar bodies. Isolated, celebates, they were neutral, individuals without influence ; together they are formidable and, consequently, respectable. And it is I who have given them this new existence." 

Cornelius, contemplating the effect of his good deed, imagined that sulphur thanked him, while chlorate of potash gazed at him tenderly. 

Yet it was at that very instant that Cornelius was seized by a wicked idea. Doubtless he had just formed a new substance recognizable by special properties; but it was only a simple mixture. It would have been very difficult to dissociate this powder so as to gather separately the grains of sulphur and the grains of chlorate of potash, but it was still not impossible, merely a question of time and means ; for all those grains were only juxtaposed and mingled together. There was no chemical combination. Now, in its present condition the mixture was interesting, but a chemical combination would make it even more so, for it would manifest a more complete phenomenon, one more intimately linked with the mysterious depths of life. 

Cornelius called his valet and told him to go out for some sulphuric acid. 

“Sulphuric acid!" exclaimed the man, stupefied. 

"Yes; two sous' worth of sulphuric acid from the chemist. Quick !" 

Five minutes later the man brought a phial of sulphuric acid, which he deposited on the table with the precaution : 

"Monsieur is aware that this stuff burns?" he said, curious to know what his employer was going to do with the acid and the yellowish powder spread over a sheet of paper. 

"Yes, yes, I know," replied Cornelius, already absorbed in the work he was about to accomplish. 

"Monsieur wishes me to assist him?" 

"No ; you may go." 

But during these instants of waiting Cornelius was seized with scruples, and already he hesitated. Had he really the right to exercise, by a simple caprice of his will, a decisive influence over the destiny of two beings whom accident or Providence had thrown in his way. He did not feel responsible for chlorate of potash. He had received her as she was sent to him, and whether S was happy or miserable was unimportant. But from the moment that he had taken it on himself to unite them, he f could not divest himself from all interest in their fate. He felt sure that the product was pleased to be compounded, because it is in the nature of all beings to seek each other, to associate, to complicate themselves more and more. Progress is nothing but a superior complication, so after having united this pair, to separate them from malice or simple curiosity would surely be an act of gratuitous iniquity, and the longer he contemplated this powder, the more he fancied he perceived the affinity of its two parts. Their personalities appeared to him more distinct and expressive, and seemed to exchange sentiments. 

"I am here!" S seemed to say. 

"How long I have waited for you!" said KOClOS. "I knew there was something missing in my life, and that it would only be complete the day I met you. Sulphur of my dreams! Your lovely yellow hue entrances me. Beside you the sun seems pale \" 

"I, too," replied S, "I had a presentiment of an intense life where all my faculties would find their normal development. Your presence gives me new strength. Alone, I could scarcely burn, my flame was feeble, almost overpowered by its own smoke; with you, I am capable of great things." 

"Take care," cried KOC1O5, "your violence alarms me. Do not let us, by any imprudence, compromise the happiness of our union." 

"I despise my former state," resumed S. "Were we to be imprisoned, oppressed, it would little matter. There is no obstacle that together we may not overcome. Violence itself 

would but cause the explosion made possible by one mingling. Exquisite grain I how white you are, how crystalline. I have often wondered what the world was made for, but I now understand the mystery of creation. All has been prepared by eternal wisdom to concur with the sacred union outside of which we should never have tasted bliss." 

"We shall see about that!" cried Cornelius, with a satanic laugh. 

And taking every precaution commanded by prudence, he spilled several drops of sulphuric acid, SOgHO, not over the mixture, but on the paper, which was spongy. This method permitted him to observe all the phases of the phenomenon he was about to produce. As soon as the imbibing of the paper approached the space occupied by the powder the effect of the presence of the sulphuric acid began to be manifest. It was as though the conversation of KOClOS with S had suddenly stopped, as happens when a third party arrives in the middle of a chat between intimate friends. But it was not the mere pause of an interrupted conversation which may be resumed ; something more grave had occurred; the very nature of the relations was disturbed as though dissension had arisen between the two beings who had been so closely tied. The mixture was no longer homogeneous ; it had instantly lost its clear yellow color to assume odd, spotted, false tones. A sort of deliquescence seemed to have taken possession of the powder. Cornelius listened attentively, and imagined he heard them still conversing, but in troubled accents. 

"What is the matter, potash of my soul?" said S, anxiously. "I no longer feel between us that sweet affinity which was my joy, and yours as well. I do not know what transformation has altered your character and all your actions toward me, but you are not the same. You seem to be drawn in another direction, you are detaching yourself from me in flakes, and if you are still materially present I may say that your soul is absent." 

"No, no; I assure you," replied KOClOS, rather crossly. "I am still the same, and I have not ceased to be happy in our union ; but there are days when one feels indisposed. Perhaps It is the weather. We may be going to have a storm. It is nothing." 

"It is more serious than you admit, and I regret that you will not explain yourself more frankly. If you have any fault to find with me, I would prefer to know it." 

“No fault at all, dear. You are perfect." 

But KOClOS was not telling the truth. As soon as SO2HO had come upon the scene she had noticed him, and the characteristic odor he diffused. S, habituated to a similar odor, did not perceive the new arrival. She experienced the same delight as she had felt on her first meeting with S ; the same, only more intense, which was quite natural when we remember that sulphuric acid is only sulphur super-oxygenated. 

Her first impulse had been to warn S ; but she feared to offend him by obliging him to compare himself with a product so much richer in oxygen and, consequently, more fascinating. 

"Besides," she said to herself, "with S I know what I have, and I shall not be unhappy. It would be folly to seek adventures." 

It is probable that things would have remained as they were if the sulphuric acid had not, on perceiving chlorate of potash, immediately advanced toward her as fast as the porous paper would permit. And yet it would be unjust to blame him. Cornelius was the true culprit. SO2HO was merely fulfilling the laws of his destiny. What did he care about S? What he wanted was KOClOS. 

Cornelius, with malignant joy, watched the disturbances he had produced, and found excuses for himself. That minerals have feeling is an evident fact which he could not doubt. Their marked preference for certain combinations, the modifications in their, structure occasioned by heat or electricity, the various ways in which they are affected by light are irrefutable signs of feeling, doubtless more obtuse, though more' durable, than that of vegetables and animals. When one deprives a mineral of the combination for which it has a taste, when one interferes with its vocation, it suffers like any other being hindered in accomplishing its destiny. Now, there was certainly a natural affinity between S and KOClOS, since they met only to develop their faculties. To dissociate them was an act which would cause them, or at least one of them, suffering. S, in this case, was the victim. KOClOS was troubled. She suffered from her false situation ; but, after all, it was merely a crisis to surmount. It was plain that already she longed to detach herself from S in order to rush into the embraces of SO3HO. She had had affinity for S; she had even more for SO2HO. In leaving the first for the second, she merely conformed to the eternal laws which regulate the universe, and by so doing accomplished a duty. Such conduct would not be admissible in the society of men, for it would lead to nothing less than the negation of the holy laws of marriage ; but for minerals there is nothing shocking in it. It is even necessary for the maintenance of good order in the universe. There was consequently no reason for not favoring between SO2HO and KOClOS a meeting which would give them intense satisfaction ; and, despite his knowledge of the fate which attends meddling, Cornelius was decided to carry the affair through. 

"As to S," he reflected, "what can he complain of? It is true that he will be reduced to a nonentitv in this new combination. His little KOClOS is about to be carried off by this great fellow, SO2HO, who looks the rascal he is, and S will only be tolerated in the association as a very insignificant adjunct. But, for his own part, has he nothing on his conscience? For, after all, when he mingled with KOClOS did he not warp the nature of a substance which, up to that date, had lived contentedly? He is now experiencing himself what he had done to another. Who knows if there may not be some demon somewhere who stupidly or wickedly tries such experiments on the hearts of men ? Between these beings, recently unknown to each other, now drawn together by a mischievous caprice, I have already caused and shall further cause sensations and events the origin and end of which they ignore, though they feel the effects. And we, too, when our hearts suffer all the tortures of wounded love, when we are agitated or hopeful, are we not the blind toys of some being whose form cannot be perceived except through senses that we lack ? This demon amuses himself by tearing asunder our most delicate fibres to hear our shrieks, he makes us writhe with despair to see our antics, or lures us by some chimera to laugh at our delusion. Then flinging us down on the heap, scarred and quivering, or glad to have escaped worse, he deliberates within himself if he really has the right to vivisect us thus out of curiosity. Science is but methodical curiosity. And we simple creatures, we don't even know what is happening to us, and we do the very same to others." 

Thus cogitating, Cornelius took the flask of sulphuric acid and prepared to pour out its contents, at arm's length, over the mixture. But a sound of voices again seemed to strike his ear, and he paused to listen. It was SO3HO, who addressed KOClOS : 

"This paper is odious," he said, "it keeps hindering me from reaching you, and imposing obstacles to my passionate impatience. S cannot stop me. Let us but meet and nothing shall part us. Ah ! come, I love you." 

"Oh I think what you are about to do," cried KOClOS- "Up to the present time I have lived without reproach; first in the bosom of a peaceful group, untouched by emotion, and afterward in a more intimate union, where quiet joy was mine. But you appeared, SO2HO. Beloved Vitriol ! if I may dare to give you a name more familiar and expressive, you appeared, and all in my life has changed. I cannot recognize myself; my color has altered, my consistence, formerly dry and flaky, has become undecided in character and made of me a soft substance, susceptible to all influences/* 

"To mine alone!" said SO,, with delirious energy. "This languor which envelops you is only a precursory sign of the great metamorphosis which I shall produce in you. As soon as I seize you in my powerful embrace a grand cataclysm will occur. All that you see about you will fly into pieces, a terrifying noise will fill the air, flashes of light will glitter through space, and a thick cloud will envelop us." 

“What ! must I bid adieu to all that I have loved? Must I see my friends perish around me?" 

"You must. The chemical combination which is about to unite us will not even leave you your name. Hereafter we shall be called by one name : Sulphate* of potash, KO.SOj. You can still recognize yourself — KO, that's you ; SO, that's me." 

"But what has become of the rest of me — the chloric acid, CIO5, which was an integral part of me?" 

"That must go. The best I can do for you is to retain S. who won't be much in the way." 

"All that you do will be well done," murmured KOClOS, who, after giving a sigh to the past, was looking forward to her new life. 

"I will separate myself from “H" added SO2HO. "He is useless and troublesome. So we each give up something." 

The moment had come. Cornelius once more reflected that he had only to refrain from pouring out the sulphuric acid and all these plans would be frustrated. The mixture would dry gradually and return to its former condition. But he allowed himself to be carried away by his love of experiment, and with the aid of a long cane he upset the phial. As soon as the sulphuric acid touched the mixture of sulphur and chlorate of potash a violent explosion occurred. 


At this noise the wife of Cornelius, who was in an adjoining room, came rushing in. 

'Are you hurt?" she cried. 

'No ; not at all," he answered quietly. But he was pale, and his manner was grave and absent. He was evidently preoccupied with some deep thoughts. 

His wife glanced about the chamber, which looked like a battlefield. Tlie lamp, the ink-bottle, the candlesticks were lying piecemeal over the floor. A greenish vapor, after oscillating through the room, was escaping by the window, and on the table in the middle of a paper lay a shapeless mass of yellow hue. A strong odor of sulphur and chlorate filled the room. 

"What have you been making?" she asked, with surprise and anxiety. 

"I made sulphate of potash," replied Cornelius gloomily. 

"It seems an untidy process. You have spoiled everything on your table, and the oil is all over your carpet." 

"Oh! if it were only that!" said Cornelius; '"but I have scruples of conscience. Kindly listen, and tell me what yon think: KOClOS was happy, or so we may suppose. She was a salt — colorless, inodorous, insipid — enjoying only ordinary qualities; but composed, as she was, of potash, chlorate and oxygen, she was capable of leading a quiet existence indefinitely and contentedly. It was I who took it upon mc, for no reason at all, to mix sulphur with this chlorate of potash. Thus I formed an explosive substance, though one which would not go off except under the action of a shock." 

"Still, it was dangerous." 

“Yes; very dangerous. The relations of S and KOClO5 were necessarily intimate. The situation, however, might have been permanent; it was only essential to avoid a shock. But I did not stop there. I invoked the presence of a third person, SO2HO, or sulphuric acid. And then — what happened?" 

“Your ink-bottle flew up to the ceiling." 

“Yes; but why? Because the sulphuric acid possessed himself of the chlorate of potash with which he now forms this sulphate of potash that you now see, KO.SO,." 

“Your potash is faithless. Just now she was good friends with the sulphur." 

"As for the hypochloric acid, CIO4, which you perceived just now under the form of a greenish vapor, he was liberated by this combination, and, disengaging himself of his bonds to KO, he now floats in space." 

"Happiest of the three." 

*There must also have been an escape of hydrogen, which we could not see. It is so subtile that it has profited by the occasion to vanish as by enchantment. Here is the formula: 

2 (KO.CIO5) + S + SO3HO = 2 (KO.SO3) + 2 CIO, + H." ''Well, my opinion, since you ask it, is that such things ought never to be done out of a laboratory." 

"True," said Cornelius; "but don't you think I have done something useful? I admit that I have disturbed some existences; but others I have animated, and that is progress. I have taken from one to give to another. The sulphur, who played a preponderant part in his mingling with the chlorate of potash, is reduced to a subordinant rank in the combination where now the sulphuric acid occupies the first place. But the latter must rejoice over his union with the potash, which gives him a solid character — a stable position. As for the hypochloric acid and the oxygen, which were confined in heavy, immovable compositions, how pleased they must be to recover the freedom which belongs to their nature ! They will be all the purer and fresher to enter other combinations which the future may have in reserve for them. Am I not the benefactor of all those elements ? Without counting that I gave rise to phenomena, without me there would never have been this explosion, which made a noise, flashed brilliantly, and emitted an odor. 1 created these facts, and may say that in my modest field of action I have furnished material to those who may one day write the history of the universe." 

"And what advantage is gained? A new fact is produced to the detriment of a preceding fact. In combining in a different way the material you had before you, you merely displaced matter. You created nothing. It cannot besides be proved that a multiplicity of phenomena is preferable to stability," said his wife. 

"You are right. There is only a given amount of matter which can neither be born nor perish ; the grouping alone is transformed ; but if the soul is life's consciousness, it must die and be born perpetually at each transformation of beings. What does nature care for all the modifications which are accomplished on her bosom, since she is always certain tO recover her measure of matter and her total of force? Equivalence is the law of the world." 

"Speak for your minerals!" cried his wife, indignantly. "You will never make me believe that it doesn't matter if one is happily married or not, nor persuade me that trouble and misfortune are of no consequence." 

"Bah!" said Cornelius, "such things disturb our habits; but we ought to accept all life's events with a good grace. They can't occur except as they conform to the laws of the universe, and our calamities are interesting as phenomena." 

"You have been thinking too long on one subject," said his wife, "your ideas need changing. Come to breakfast."

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