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This story was written in the style of the late 19th century, but does not seem to be one of H. G. Wells'. It was written as a narrative found on the desk of a very old man who was renowned for his study of memory. According to the narrative, he was really a young man who had been persuaded to take a drug as part of a deal in which the young man would inherit the old man's wealth. The young man was surprised to find the inheritance fulfilled in a strange way: He woke up in the old man's body. He searched the old man's office, which held many volumes of notes on memory, but no clues to how the switch had been accomplished. When he discovered a secret compartment in the desk containing a powder marked "Release," he took it, knowing full well that it might be poison. And in fact the old man's body was found dead at his desk. As the situation was suspicious (the will had in fact signed over his possessions), the police investigated: but the young man had died, run over by a carriage, before they could question him.

The story was in English, probably in an anthology of different authors' short stories published in the 1950s or 60s. I think it was written in the late nineteenth century.

8

The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham by H.G. Wells

Young man, Edward George Eden is approached by old gentleman Egbert Elvesham who has the intention to:

find young fellow, ambitious, pure-minded, and poor, healthy in body and healthy in mind, and in short, make him my heir, give him all that I have." He repeated, "Give him all that I have.

After dinner at which powder and liqueurs are consummed, Eden wakes in Elvesham's body:

It was not my own, it was thin, the articulation was slurred, the resonance of my facial bones was different. Then to reassure myself, I ran one hand over the other, and felt loose folds of skin, the bony laxity of age. "Surely," I said, in that horrible voice that had somehow established itself in my throat, "surely this thing is a dream!" Almost as quickly as if I did it involuntarily, I thrust my fingers into my mouth. My teeth had gone. My finger-tips ran on the flaccid surface of an even row of shrivelled gums. I was sick with dismay and disgust.

[...] Then trembling horribly, so that the extinguisher rattled on its spike, I tottered to the glass and saw—Elvesham's face!

[...] I felt beyond all question that I was indeed Eden, not Elvesham. But Eden in Elvesham's body!

What has happened I do not clearly know. In the study are volumes of manuscript notes referring chiefly to the psychology of memory, and parts of what may be either calculations or ciphers in symbols absolutely strange to me. In some passages there are indications that he was also occupied with the philosophy of mathematics. I take it he has transferred the whole of his memories, the accumulation that makes up his personality, from this old withered brain of his to mine, and similarly, that he has transferred mine to his discarded tenement. Practically, that is, he has changed bodies.

The ending:

This morning, with the help of a table-knife that I had secreted at breakfast, I succeeded in breaking open a fairly obvious secret drawer in this wrecked writing-desk. I discovered nothing save a little green glass phial containing a white powder. Round the neck of the phial was a label, and thereon was written this one word, "Release." This may be—is most probably, poison. I can understand Elvesham placing poison in my way, and I should be sure that it was his intention so to get rid of the only living witness against him, were it not for this careful concealment. The man has practically solved the problem of immortality. Save for the spite of chance, he will live in my body until it has aged, and then, again throwing that aside, he will assume some other victim's youth and strength. When one remembers his heartlessness, it is terrible to think of the ever-growing experience that... How long has he been leaping from body to body...? But I tire of writing. The powder appears to be soluble in water. The taste is not unpleasant.

There the narrative found upon Mr. Elvesham's desk ends. His dead body lay between the desk and the chair. The latter had been pushed back, probably by his last convulsions. The story was written in pencil and in a crazy hand, quite unlike his usual minute characters. There remain only two curious facts to record. Indisputably there was some connection between Eden and Elvesham, since the whole of Elvesham's property was bequeathed to the young man. But he never inherited. When Elvesham ommitted suicide, Eden was, strangely enough, already dead. Twenty-four hours before, he had been knocked down by a cab and killed instantly, at the crowded crossing at the intersection of Gower Street and Euston Road.

  • Thank you very much. The nature of memory is indeed mysterious: After I proclaimed that it couldn't be a story by H.G. Wells, it turned out to be one after all. A search in the ISFDB suggests that I may have read "The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham" in a Dover publication of 1952, "28 Science Fiction Stories of H.G. Wells" -- at least, I seem to have read all of these stories and the timing would be correct for having read it in the late 1960s. The original publication of this short story was in 1896. – Invisible Trihedron Apr 29 at 13:24

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