Part 2 out of 3
"Surely," said the maiden, with a look of surprise; "where else should I
dwell? My home is on this hilltop."
It not a little startled Septimius, as may be supposed, to find his
paternal inheritance, of which he and his forefathers had been the only
owners since the world began (for they held it by an Indian deed), claimed
as a home and abiding-place by this fair, pale, strange-acting maiden, who
spoke as if she had as much right there as if she had grown up out of the
soil like one of the wild, indigenous flowers which she had been gazing at
and handling. However that might be, the maiden seemed now about to
depart, rising, giving a farewell touch or two to the little verdant
hillock, which looked much the neater for her ministrations.
"Are you going?" said Septimius, looking at her in wonder.
"For a time," said she.
"And shall I see you again?" asked he.
"Surely," said the maiden, "this is my walk, along the brow of the hill."
It again smote Septimius with a strange thrill of surprise to find the walk
which he himself had made, treading it, and smoothing it, and beating it
down with the pressure of his continual feet, from the time when the
tufted grass made the sides all uneven, until now, when it was such a
pathway as you may see through a wood, or over a field, where many feet
pass every day,--to find this track and exemplification of his own secret
thoughts and plans and emotions, this writing of his body, impelled by the
struggle and movement of his soul, claimed as her own by a strange girl
with melancholy eyes and voice, who seemed to have such a sad familiarity
"You are welcome to come here," said he, endeavoring at least to keep such
hold on his own property as was implied in making a hospitable surrender
of it to another.
"Yes," said the girl, "a person should always be welcome to his own."
A faint smile seemed to pass over her face as she said this, vanishing,
however, immediately into the melancholy of her usual expression. She went
along Septimius's path, while he stood gazing at her till she reached the
brow where it sloped towards Robert Hagburn's house; then she turned, and
seemed to wave a slight farewell towards the young man, and began to
descend. When her figure had entirely sunk behind the brow of the hill,
Septimius slowly followed along the ridge, meaning to watch from that
elevated station the course she would take; although, indeed, he would not
have been surprised if he had seen nothing, no trace of her in the whole
nearness or distance; in short, if she had been a freak, an illusion, of a
hard-working mind that had put itself ajar by deeply brooding on abstruse
matters, an illusion of eyes that he had tried too much by poring over the
inscrutable manuscript, and of intellect that was mystified and bewildered
by trying to grasp things that could not be grasped. A thing of
witchcraft, a sort of fungus-growth out of the grave, an unsubstantiality
altogether; although, certainly, she had weeded the grave with bodily
fingers, at all events. Still he had so much of the hereditary mysticism
of his race in him, that he might have held her supernatural, only that on
reaching the brow of the hill he saw her feet approach the dwelling of
Robert Hagburn's mother, who, moreover, appeared at the threshold
beckoning her to come, with a motherly, hospitable air, that denoted she
knew the strange girl, and recognized her as human.
It did not lessen Septimius's surprise, however, to think that such a
singular being was established in the neighborhood without his knowledge;
considered as a real occurrence of this world, it seemed even more
unaccountable than if it had been a thing of ghostology and witchcraft.
Continually through the day the incident kept introducing its recollection
among his thoughts and studies; continually, as he paced along his path,
this form seemed to hurry along by his side on the track that she had
claimed for her own, and he thought of her singular threat or promise,
whichever it were to be held, that he should have a companion there in
future. In the decline of the day, when he met the schoolmistress coming
home from her little seminary, he snatched the first opportunity to
mention the apparition of the morning, and ask Rose if she knew anything
"Very little," said Rose, "but she is flesh and blood, of that you may be
quite sure. She is a girl who has been shut up in Boston by the siege;
perhaps a daughter of one of the British officers, and her health being
frail, she requires better air than they have there, and so permission was
got for her, from General Washington, to come and live in the country; as
any one may see, our liberties have nothing to fear from this poor
brain-stricken girl. And Robert Hagburn, having to bring a message from
camp to the selectmen here, had it in charge to bring the girl, whom his
mother has taken to board."
"Then the poor thing is crazy?" asked Septimius.
"A little brain-touched, that is all," replied Rose, "owing to some grief
that she has had; but she is quite harmless, Robert was told to say, and
needs little or no watching, and will get a kind of fantastic happiness
for herself, if only she is allowed to ramble about at her pleasure. If
thwarted, she might be very wild and miserable."
"Have you spoken with her?" asked Septimius.
"A word or two this morning, as I was going to my school," said Rose. "She
took me by the hand, and smiled, and said we would be friends, and that I
should show her where the flowers grew; for that she had a little spot of
her own that she wanted to plant with them. And she asked me if the
_Sanguinea sanguinissima_ grew hereabout. I should not have taken her
to be ailing in her wits, only for a kind of free-spokenness and
familiarity, as if we had been acquainted a long while; or as if she had
lived in some country where there are no forms and impediments in people's
"Did you like her?" inquired Septimius.
"Yes; almost loved her at first sight," answered Rose, "and I hope may do
her some little good, poor thing, being of her own age, and the only
companion, hereabouts, whom she is likely to find. But she has been well
educated, and is a lady, that is easy to see."
"It is very strange," said Septimius, "but I fear I shall be a good deal
interrupted in my thoughts and studies, if she insists on haunting my
hill-top as much as she tells me. My meditations are perhaps of a little
too much importance to be shoved aside for the sake of gratifying a crazy
"Ah, that is a hard thing to say!" exclaimed Rose, shocked at her lover's
cold egotism, though not giving it that title. "Let the poor thing glide
quietly along in the path, though it be yours. Perhaps, after a while, she
will help your thoughts."
"My thoughts," said Septimius, "are of a kind that can have no help from
any one; if from any, it would only be from some wise, long-studied, and
experienced scientific man, who could enlighten me as to the bases and
foundation of things, as to mystic writings, as to chemical elements, as
to the mysteries of language, as to the principles and system on which we
were created. Methinks these are not to be taught me by a girl touched in
"I fear," replied Rose Garfield with gravity, and drawing imperceptibly
apart from him, "that no woman can help you much. You despise woman's
thought, and have no need of her affection."
Septimius said something soft and sweet, and in a measure true, in regard
to the necessity he felt for the affection and sympathy of one woman at
least--the one now by his side--to keep his life warm and to make the
empty chambers of his heart comfortable. But even while he spoke, there
was something that dragged upon his tongue; for he felt that the solitary
pursuit in which he was engaged carried him apart from the sympathy of
which he spoke, and that he was concentrating his efforts and interest
entirely upon himself, and that the more he succeeded the more remotely he
should be carried away, and that his final triumph would be the complete
seclusion of himself from all that breathed,--the converting him, from an
interested actor into a cold and disconnected spectator of all mankind's
warm and sympathetic life. So, as it turned out, this interview with Rose
was one of those in which, coming no one knows from whence, a nameless
cloud springs up between two lovers, and keeps them apart from one another
by a cold, sullen spell. Usually, however, it requires only one word,
spoken out of the heart, to break that spell, and compel the invisible,
unsympathetic medium which the enemy of love has stretched cunningly
between them, to vanish, and let them come closer together than ever; but,
in this case, it might be that the love was the illusive state, and the
estrangement the real truth, the disenchanted verity. At all events, when
the feeling passed away, in Rose's heart there was no reaction, no warmer
love, as is generally the case. As for Septimius, he had other things to
think about, and when he next met Rose Garfield, had forgotten that he had
been sensible of a little wounded feeling, on her part, at parting.
By dint of continued poring over the manuscript, Septimius now began to
comprehend that it was written in a singular mixture of Latin and ancient
English, with constantly recurring paragraphs of what he was convinced was
a mystic writing; and these recurring passages of complete
unintelligibility seemed to be necessary to the proper understanding of
any part of the document. What was discoverable was quaint, curious, but
thwarting and perplexing, because it seemed to imply some very great
purpose, only to be brought out by what was hidden.
Septimius had read, in the old college library during his pupilage, a work
on ciphers and cryptic writing, but being drawn to it only by his
curiosity respecting whatever was hidden, and not expecting ever to use
his knowledge, he had obtained only the barest idea of what was necessary
to the deciphering a secret passage. Judging by what he could pick out, he
would have thought the whole essay was upon the moral conduct; all parts
of that he could make out seeming to refer to a certain ascetic rule of
life; to denial of pleasures; these topics being repeated and insisted on
everywhere, although without any discoverable reference to religious or
moral motives; and always when the author seemed verging towards a
definite purpose, he took refuge in his cipher. Yet withal, imperfectly
(or not at all, rather) as Septimius could comprehend its purport, this
strange writing had a mystic influence, that wrought upon his imagination,
and with the late singular incidents of his life, his continual thought on
this one subject, his walk on the hill-top, lonely, or only interrupted by
the pale shadow of a girl, combined to set him outside of the living
world. Rose Garfield perceived it, knew and felt that he was gliding away
from her, and met him with a reserve which she could not overcome.
It was a pity that his early friend, Robert Hagburn, could not at present
have any influence over him, having now regularly joined the Continental
Army, and being engaged in the expedition of Arnold against Quebec.
Indeed, this war, in which the country was so earnestly and
enthusiastically engaged, had perhaps an influence on Septimius's state of
mind, for it put everybody into an exaggerated and unnatural state, united
enthusiasms of all sorts, heightened everybody either into its own heroism
or into the peculiar madness to which each person was inclined; and
Septimius walked so much the more wildly on his lonely course, because the
people were going enthusiastically on another. In times of revolution and
public disturbance all absurdities are more unrestrained; the measure of
calm sense, the habits, the orderly decency, are partially lost. More
people become insane, I should suppose; offences against public morality,
female license, are more numerous; suicides, murders, all ungovernable
outbreaks of men's thoughts, embodying themselves in wild acts, take place
more frequently, and with less horror to the lookers-on. So [with]
Septimius; there was not, as there would have been at an ordinary time,
the same calmness and truth in the public observation, scrutinizing
everything with its keen criticism, in that time of seething opinions and
overturned principles; a new time was coming, and Septimius's phase of
novelty attracted less attention so far as it was known.
So he continued to brood over the manuscript in his study, and to hide it
under lock and key in a recess of the wall, as if it were a secret of
murder; to walk, too, on his hill-top, where at sunset always came the
pale, crazy maiden, who still seemed to watch the little hillock with a
pertinacious care that was strange to Septimius. By and by came the winter
and the deep snows; and even then, unwilling to give up his habitual place
of exercise, the monotonousness of which promoted his wish to keep before
his mind one subject of thought, Septimius wore a path through the snow,
and still walked there. Here, however, he lost for a time the
companionship of the girl; for when the first snow came, she shivered, and
looked at its white heap over the hillock, and said to Septimius, "I will
look for it again in spring."
[_Septimius is at the point of despair for want of a guide in his
The winter swept over, and spring was just beginning to spread its green
flush over the more favored exposures of the landscape, although on the
north side of stone-walls, and the northern nooks of hills, there were
still the remnants of snow-drifts. Septimius's hill-top, which was of a
soil which quickly rid itself of moisture, now began to be a genial place
of resort to him, and he was one morning taking his walk there, meditating
upon the still insurmountable difficulties which interposed themselves
against the interpretation of the manuscript, yet feeling the new gush of
spring bring hope to him, and the energy and elasticity for new effort.
Thus pacing to and fro, he was surprised, as he turned at the extremity of
his walk, to see a figure advancing towards him; not that of the pale
maiden whom he was accustomed to see there, but a figure as widely
different as possible. [_He sees a spider dangling from his web, and
examines him minutely_.] It was that of a short, broad, somewhat
elderly man, dressed in a surtout that had a half-military air; the cocked
hat of the period, well worn, and having a fresher spot in it, whence,
perhaps, a cockade had been recently taken off; and this personage carried
a well blackened German pipe in his hand, which, as he walked, he applied
to his lips, and puffed out volumes of smoke, filling the pleasant western
breeze with the fragrance of some excellent Virginia. He came slowly
along, and Septimius, slackening his pace a little, came as slowly to meet
him, feeling somewhat indignant, to be sure, that anybody should intrude
on his sacred hill; until at last they met, as it happened, close by the
memorable little hillock, on which the grass and flower-leaves also had
begun to sprout. The stranger looked keenly at Septimius, made a careless
salute by putting his hand up, and took the pipe from his mouth.
"Mr. Septimius Felton, I suppose?" said he.
"That is my name," replied Septimius.
"I am Doctor Jabez Portsoaken," said the stranger, "late surgeon of his
Majesty's sixteenth regiment, which I quitted when his Majesty's army
quitted Boston, being desirous of trying my fortunes in your country, and
giving the people the benefit of my scientific knowledge; also to practise
some new modes of medical science, which I could not so well do in the
"I think you are quite right, Doctor Jabez Portsoaken," said Septimius, a
little confused and bewildered, so unused had he become to the society of
"And as to you, sir," said the doctor, who had a very rough, abrupt way of
speaking, "I have to thank you for a favor done me."
"Have you, sir?" said Septimius, who was quite sure that he had never seen
the doctor's uncouth figure before.
"Oh, ay, me," said the doctor, puffing coolly,--"me in the person of my
niece, a sickly, poor, nervous little thing, who is very fond of walking
on your hill-top, and whom you do not send away."
"You are the uncle of Sibyl Dacy?" said Septimius.
"Even so, her mother's brother," said the doctor, with a grotesque bow.
"So, being on a visit, the first that the siege allowed me to pay, to see
how the girl was getting on, I take the opportunity to pay my respects to
you; the more that I understand you to be a young man of some learning,
and it is not often that one meets with such in this country."
"No," said Septimius, abruptly, for indeed he had half a suspicion that
this queer Doctor Portsoaken was not altogether sincere,--that, in short,
he was making game of him. "You have been misinformed. I know nothing
whatever that is worth knowing."
"Oho!" said the doctor, with a long puff of smoke out of his pipe. "If you
are convinced of that, you are one of the wisest men I have met with,
young as you are. I must have been twice your age before I got so far; and
even now, I am sometimes fool enough to doubt the only thing I was ever
sure of knowing. But come, you make me only the more earnest to collogue
with you. If we put both our shortcomings together, they may make up an
item of positive knowledge."
"What use can one make of abortive thoughts?" said Septimius.
"Do your speculations take a scientific turn?" said Doctor Portsoaken.
"There I can meet you with as much false knowledge and empiricism as you
can bring for the life of you. Have you ever tried to study
spiders?--there is my strong point now! I have hung my whole interest in
life on a spider's web."
"I know nothing of them, sir," said Septimius, "except to crush them when I
see them running across the floor, or to brush away the festoons of their
webs when they have chanced to escape my Aunt Keziah's broom."
"Crush them! Brush away their webs!" cried the doctor, apparently in a
rage, and shaking his pipe at Septimius. "Sir, it is sacrilege! Yes, it is
worse than murder. Every thread of a spider's web is worth more than a
thread of gold; and before twenty years are passed, a housemaid will be
beaten to death with her own broomstick if she disturbs one of these
sacred animals. But, come again. Shall we talk of botany, the virtues of
"My Aunt Keziah should meet you there, doctor," said Septimius. "She has a
native and original acquaintance with their virtues, and can save and kill
with any of the faculty. As for myself, my studies have not turned that
"They ought! they ought!" said the doctor, looking meaningly at him. "The
whole thing lies in the blossom of an herb. Now, you ought to begin with
what lies about you; on this little hillock, for instance;" and looking at
the grave beside which they were standing, he gave it a kick which went to
Septimius's heart, there seemed to be such a spite and scorn in it. "On
this hillock I see some specimens of plants which would be worth your
Bending down towards the grave as he spoke, he seemed to give closer
attention to what he saw there; keeping in his stooping position till his
face began to get a purple aspect, for the erudite doctor was of that make
of man who has to be kept right side uppermost with care. At length he
raised himself, muttering, "Very curious! very curious!"
"Do you see anything remarkable there?" asked Septimius, with some
"Yes," said the doctor, bluntly. "No matter what! The time will come when
you may like to know it."
"Will you come with me to my residence at the foot of the hill, Doctor
Portsoaken?" asked Septimius. "I am not a learned man, and have little or
no title to converse with one, except a sincere desire to be wiser than I
am. If you can be moved on such terms to give me your companionship, I
shall be thankful."
"Sir, I am with you," said Doctor Portsoaken. "I will tell you what I know,
in the sure belief (for I will be frank with you) that it will add to the
amount of dangerous folly now in your mind, and help you on the way to
ruin. Take your choice, therefore, whether to know me further or not."
"I neither shrink nor fear,--neither hope much," said Septimius, quietly.
"Anything that you can communicate--if anything you can--I shall
fearlessly receive, and return you such thanks as it may be found to
So saying, he led the way down the hill, by the steep path that descended
abruptly upon the rear of his bare and unadorned little dwelling; the
doctor following with much foul language (for he had a terrible habit of
swearing) at the difficulties of the way, to which his short legs were ill
adapted. Aunt Keziah met them at the door, and looked sharply at the
doctor, who returned the gaze with at least as much keenness, muttering
between his teeth, as he did so; and to say the truth, Aunt Keziah was as
worthy of being sworn at as any woman could well be, for whatever she
might have been in her younger days, she was at this time as strange a
mixture of an Indian squaw and herb doctress, with the crabbed old maid,
and a mingling of the witch-aspect running through all as could well be
imagined; and she had a handkerchief over her head, and she was of hue a
dusky yellow, and she looked very cross. As Septimius ushered the doctor
into his study, and was about to follow him, Aunt Keziah drew him back.
"Septimius, who is this you have brought here?" asked she.
"A man I have met on the hill," answered her nephew; "a Doctor Portsoaken
he calls himself, from the old country. He says he has knowledge of herbs
and other mysteries; in your own line, it may be. If you want to talk with
him, give the man his dinner, and find out what there is in him."
"And what do you want of him yourself, Septimius?" asked she.
"I? Nothing!--that is to say, I expect nothing," said Septimius. "But I am
astray, seeking everywhere, and so I reject no hint, no promise, no
faintest possibility of aid that I may find anywhere. I judge this man to
be a quack, but I judge the same of the most learned man of his
profession, or any other; and there is a roughness about this man that may
indicate a little more knowledge than if he were smoother. So, as he threw
himself in my way, I take him in."
"A grim, ugly-looking old wretch as ever I saw," muttered Aunt Keziah.
"Well, he shall have his dinner; and if he likes to talk about
yarb-dishes, I'm with him."
So Septimius followed the doctor into his study, where he found him with
the sword in his hand, which he had taken from over the mantel-piece, and
was holding it drawn, examining the hilt and blade with great minuteness;
the hilt being wrought in openwork, with certain heraldic devices,
doubtless belonging to the family of its former wearer.
"I have seen this weapon before," said the doctor.
"It may well be," said Septimius. "It was once worn by a person who served
in the army of your king."
"And you took it from him?" said the doctor.
"If I did, it was in no way that I need be ashamed of, or afraid to tell,
though I choose rather not to speak of it," answered Septimius.
"Have you, then, no desire nor interest to know the family, the personal
history, the prospects, of him who once wore this sword, and who will
never draw sword again?" inquired Doctor Portsoaken. "Poor Cyril Norton!
There was a singular story attached to that young man, sir, and a singular
mystery he carried about with him, the end of which, perhaps, is not
Septimius would have been, indeed, well enough pleased to learn the mystery
which he himself had seen that there was about the man whom he slew; but
he was afraid that some question might be thereby started about the secret
document that he had kept possession of; and he therefore would have
wished to avoid the whole subject.
"I cannot be supposed to take much interest in English family history. It
is a hundred and fifty years, at least, since my own family ceased to be
English," he answered. "I care more for the present and future than for
"It is all one," said the doctor, sitting down, taking out a pinch of
tobacco and refilling his pipe.
It is unnecessary to follow up the description of the visit of the
eccentric doctor through the day. Suffice it to say that there was a sort
of charm, or rather fascination, about the uncouth old fellow, in spite of
his strange ways; in spite of his constant puffing of tobacco; and in
spite, too, of a constant imbibing of strong liquor, which he made
inquiries for, and of which the best that could be produced was a certain
decoction, infusion, or distillation, pertaining to Aunt Keziah, and of
which the basis was rum, be it said, done up with certain bitter herbs of
the old lady's own gathering, at proper times of the moon, and which was a
well-known drink to all who were favored with Aunt Keziah's friendship;
though there was a story that it was the very drink which used to be
passed round at witch-meetings, being brewed from the Devil's own recipe.
And, in truth, judging from the taste (for I once took a sip of a draught
prepared from the same ingredients, and in the same way), I should think
this hellish origin might be the veritable one.
[_"I thought" quoth the doctor, "I could drink anything, but"_--]
But the valiant doctor sipped, and sipped again, and said with great
blasphemy that it was the real stuff, and only needed henbane to make it
perfect. Then, taking from his pocket a good-sized leathern-covered flask,
with a silver lip fastened on the muzzle, he offered it to Septimius, who
declined, and to Aunt Keziah, who preferred her own decoction, and then
drank it off himself, with a loud smack of satisfaction, declaring it to
be infernally good brandy.
Well, after this Septimius and he talked; and I know not how it was, but
there was a great deal of imagination in this queer man, whether a bodily
or spiritual influence it might be hard to say. On the other hand
Septimius had for a long while held little intercourse with men; none
whatever with men who could comprehend him; the doctor, too, seemed to
bring the discourse singularly in apposition with what his host was
continually thinking about, for he conversed on occult matters, on people
who had had the art of living long, and had only died at last by accident,
on the powers and qualities of common herbs, which he believed to be so
great, that all around our feet--growing in the wild forest, afar from
man, or following the footsteps of man wherever he fixes his residence,
across seas, from the old homesteads whence he migrated, following him
everywhere, and offering themselves sedulously and continually to his
notice, while he only plucks them away from the comparatively worthless
things which he cultivates, and flings them aside, blaspheming at them
because Providence has sown them so thickly--grow what we call weeds, only
because all the generations, from the beginning of time till now, have
failed to discover their wondrous virtues, potent for the curing of all
diseases, potent for procuring length of days.
"Everything good," said the doctor, drinking another dram of brandy, "lies
right at our feet, and all we need is to gather it up."
"That's true," quoth Keziah, taking just a little sup of her hellish
preparation; "these herbs were all gathered within a hundred yards of this
very spot, though it took a wise woman to find out their virtues."
The old woman went off about her household duties, and then it was that
Septimius submitted to the doctor the list of herbs which he had picked
out of the old document, asking him, as something apposite to the subject
of their discourse, whether he was acquainted with them, for most of them
had very queer names, some in Latin, some in English.
The bluff doctor put on his spectacles, and looked over the slip of yellow
and worn paper scrutinizingly, puffing tobacco-smoke upon it in great
volumes, as if thereby to make its hidden purport come out; he mumbled to
himself, he took another sip from his flask; and then, putting it down on
the table, appeared to meditate.
"This infernal old document," said he, at length, "is one that I have never
seen before, yet heard of, nevertheless; for it was my folly in youth (and
whether I am any wiser now is more than I take upon me to say, but it was
my folly then) to be in quest of certain kinds of secret knowledge, which
the fathers of science thought attainable. Now, in several quarters,
amongst people with whom my pursuits brought me in contact, I heard of a
certain recipe which had been lost for a generation or two, but which, if
it could be recovered, would prove to have the true life-giving potency in
it. It is said that the ancestor of a great old family in England was in
possession of this secret, being a man of science, and the friend of Friar
Bacon, who was said to have concocted it himself, partly from the precepts
of his master, partly from his own experiments, and it is thought he might
have been living to this day, if he had not unluckily been killed in the
Wars of the Roses; for you know no recipe for long life would be proof
against an old English arrow, or a leaden bullet from one of our own
"And what has been the history of the thing after his death?" asked
"It was supposed to be preserved in the family," said the doctor, "and it
has always been said, that the head and eldest son of that family had it
at his option to live forever, if he could only make up his mind to it.
But seemingly there were difficulties in the way. There was probably a
certain diet and regimen to be observed, certain strict rules of life to
be kept, a certain asceticism to be imposed on the person, which was not
quite agreeable to young men; and after the period of youth was passed,
the human frame became incapable of being regenerated from the seeds of
decay and death, which, by that time, had become strongly developed in it.
In short, while young, the possessor of the secret found the terms of
immortal life too hard to be accepted, since it implied the giving up of
most of the things that made life desirable in his view; and when he came
to a more reasonable mind, it was too late. And so, in all the generations
since Friar Bacon's time, the Nortons have been born, and enjoyed their
young days, and worried through their manhood, and tottered through their
old age (unless taken off sooner by sword, arrow, ball, fever, or what
not), and died in their beds, like men that had no such option; and so
this old yellow paper has done not the least good to any mortal. Neither
do I see how it can do any good to you, since you know not the rules,
moral or dietetic, that are essential to its effect. But how did you come
"It matters not how," said Septimius, gloomily. "Enough that I am its
rightful possessor and inheritor. Can you read these old characters?"
"Most of them," said the doctor; "but let me tell you, my young friend, I
have no faith whatever in this secret; and, having meddled with such
things myself, I ought to know. The old physicians and chemists had
strange ideas of the virtues of plants, drugs, and minerals, and equally
strange fancies as to the way of getting those virtues into action. They
would throw a hundred different potencies into a caldron together, and put
them on the fire, and expect to brew a potency containing all their
potencies, and having a different virtue of its own. Whereas, the most
likely result would be that they would counteract one another, and the
concoction be of no virtue at all; or else some more powerful ingredient
would tincture the whole."
He read the paper again, and continued:--
"I see nothing else so remarkable in this recipe, as that it is chiefly
made up of some of the commonest things that grow; plants that you set
your foot upon at your very threshold, in your garden, in your wood-walks,
wherever you go. I doubt not old Aunt Keziah knows them, and very likely
she has brewed them up in that hell-drink, the remembrance of which is
still rankling in my stomach. I thought I had swallowed the Devil himself,
whom the old woman had been boiling down. It would be curious enough if
the hideous decoction was the same as old Friar Bacon and his acolyte
discovered by their science! One ingredient, however, one of those plants,
I scarcely think the old lady can have put into her pot of Devil's elixir;
for it is a rare plant, that does not grow in these parts."
"And what is that?" asked Septimius.
"_Sanguinea sanguinissima_" said the doctor; "it has no vulgar name;
but it produces a very beautiful flower, which I have never seen, though
some seeds of it were sent me by a learned friend in Siberia. The others,
divested of their Latin names, are as common as plantain, pig-weed, and
burdock; and it stands to reason that, if vegetable Nature has any such
wonderfully efficacious medicine in store for men, and means them to use
it, she would have strewn it everywhere plentifully within their reach."
"But, after all, it would be a mockery on the old dame's part," said the
young man, somewhat bitterly, "since she would thus hold the desired thing
seemingly within our reach; but because she never tells us how to prepare
and obtain its efficacy, we miss it just as much as if all the ingredients
were hidden from sight and knowledge in the centre of the earth. We are
the playthings and fools of Nature, which she amuses herself with during
our little lifetime, and then breaks for mere sport, and laughs in our
faces as she does so."
"Take care, my good fellow," said the doctor, with his great coarse laugh.
"I rather suspect that you have already got beyond the age when the great
medicine could do you good; that speech indicates a great toughness and
hardness and bitterness about the heart that does not accumulate in our
Septimius took little or no notice of the raillery of the grim old doctor,
but employed the rest of the time in getting as much information as he
could out of his guest; and though he could not bring himself to show him
the precious and sacred manuscript, yet he questioned him as closely as
possible without betraying his secret, as to the modes of finding out
cryptic writings. The doctor was not without the perception that his
dark-browed, keen-eyed acquaintance had some purpose not openly avowed in
all these pertinacious, distinct questions; he discovered a central
reference in them all, and perhaps knew that Septimius must have in his
possession some writing in hieroglyphics, cipher, or other secret mode,
that conveyed instructions how to operate with the strange recipe that he
had shown him.
"You had better trust me fully, my good sir," said he. "Not but what I will
give you all the aid I can without it; for you have done me a greater
benefit than you are aware of, beforehand. No--you will not? Well, if you
can change your mind, seek me out in Boston, where I have seen fit to
settle in the practice of my profession, and I will serve you according to
your folly; for folly it is, I warn you."
Nothing else worthy of record is known to have passed during the doctor's
visit; and in due time he disappeared, as it were, in a whiff of
tobacco-smoke, leaving an odor of brandy and tobacco behind him, and a
traditionary memory of a wizard that had been there. Septimius went to
work with what items of knowledge he had gathered from him; but the
interview had at least made him aware of one thing, which was, that he
must provide himself with all possible quantity of scientific knowledge of
botany, and perhaps more extensive knowledge, in order to be able to
concoct the recipe. It was the fruit of all the scientific attainment of
the age that produced it (so said the legend, which seemed reasonable
enough), a great philosopher had wrought his learning into it; and this
had been attempered, regulated, improved, by the quick, bright intellect
of his scholar. Perhaps, thought Septimius, another deep and earnest
intelligence added to these two may bring the precious recipe to still
greater perfection. At least it shall be tried. So thinking, he gathered
together all the books that he could find relating to such studies; he
spent one day, moreover, in a walk to Cambridge, where he searched the
alcoves of the college library for such works as it contained; and
borrowing them from the war-disturbed institution of learning, he betook
himself homewards, and applied himself to the study with an earnestness of
zealous application that perhaps has been seldom equalled in a study of so
quiet a character. A month or two of study, with practice upon such plants
as he found upon his hill-top, and along the brook and in other
neighboring localities, sufficed to do a great deal for him. In this
pursuit he was assisted by Sibyl, who proved to have great knowledge in
some botanical departments, especially among flowers; and in her cold and
quiet way, she met him on this subject and glided by his side, as she had
done so long, a companion, a daily observer and observed of him, mixing
herself up with his pursuits, as if she were an attendant sprite upon
But this pale girl was not the only associate of his studies, the only
instructress, whom Septimius found. The observation which Doctor
Portsoaken made about the fantastic possibility that Aunt Keziah might
have inherited the same recipe from her Indian ancestry which had been
struck out by the science of Friar Bacon and his pupil had not failed to
impress Septimius, and to remain on his memory. So, not long after the
doctor's departure, the young man took occasion one evening to say to his
aunt that he thought his stomach was a little out of order with too much
application, and that perhaps she could give him some herb-drink or other
that would be good for him.
"That I can, Seppy, my darling," said the old woman, "and I'm glad you have
the sense to ask for it at last. Here it is in this bottle; and though
that foolish, blaspheming doctor turned up his old brandy nose at it, I'll
drink with him any day and come off better than he."
So saying, she took out of the closet her brown jug, stopped with a cork
that had a rag twisted round it to make it tighter, filled a mug half full
of the concoction and set it on the table before Septimius.
"There, child, smell of that; the smell merely will do you good; but drink
it down, and you'll live the longer for it."
"Indeed, Aunt Keziah, is that so?" asked Septimius, a little startled by a
recommendation which in some measure tallied with what he wanted in a
medicine. "That's a good quality."
He looked into the mug, and saw a turbid, yellow concoction, not at all
attractive to the eye; he smelt of it, and was partly of opinion that Aunt
Keziah had mixed a certain unfragrant vegetable, called skunk-cabbage,
with the other ingredients of her witch-drink. He tasted it; not a mere
sip, but a good, genuine gulp, being determined to have real proof of what
the stuff was in all respects. The draught seemed at first to burn in his
mouth, unaccustomed to any drink but water, and to go scorching all the
way down into his stomach, making him sensible of the depth of his inwards
by a track of fire, far, far down; and then, worse than the fire, came a
taste of hideous bitterness and nauseousness, which he had not previously
conceived to exist, and which threatened to stir up his bowels into utter
revolt; but knowing Aunt Keziah's touchiness with regard to this
concoction, and how sacred she held it, he made an effort of real heroism,
squelched down his agony, and kept his face quiet, with the exception of
one strong convulsion, which he allowed to twist across it for the sake of
saving his life.
"It tastes as if it might have great potency in it, Aunt Keziah," said this
unfortunate young man. "I wish you would tell me what it is made of, and
how you brew it; for I have observed you are very strict and secret about
"Aha! you have seen that, have you?" said Aunt Keziah, taking a sip of her
beloved liquid, and grinning at him with a face and eyes as yellow as that
she was drinking. In fact the idea struck him, that in temper, and all
appreciable qualities, Aunt Keziah was a good deal like this drink of
hers, having probably become saturated by them while she drank of it. And
then, having drunk, she gloated over it, and tasted, and smelt of the cup
of this hellish wine, as a winebibber does of that which is most fragrant
and delicate. "And you want to know how I make it? But first, child, tell
me honestly, do you love this drink of mine? Otherwise, here, and at once,
we stop talking about it."
"I love it for its virtues," said Septimius, temporizing with his
conscience, "and would prefer it on that account to the rarest wines."
"So far good," said Aunt Keziah, who could not well conceive that her
liquor should be otherwise than delicious to the palate. "It is the most
virtuous liquor that ever was; and therefore one need not fear drinking
too much of it. And you want to know what it is made of? Well; I have
often thought of telling you, Seppy, my boy, when you should come to be
old enough; for I have no other inheritance to leave you, and you are all
of my blood, unless I should happen to have some far-off uncle among the
Cape Indians. But first, you must know how this good drink, and the
faculty of making it, came down to me from the chiefs, and sachems, and
Peow-wows, that were your ancestors and mine, Septimius, and from the old
wizard who was my great-grandfather and yours, and who, they say, added
the fire-water to the other ingredients, and so gave it the only one thing
that it wanted to make it perfect."
And so Aunt Keziah, who had now put herself into a most comfortable and
jolly state by sipping again, and after pressing Septimius to mind his
draught (who declined, on the plea that one dram at a time was enough for
a new beginner, its virtues being so strong, as well as admirable), the
old woman told him a legend strangely wild and uncouth, and mixed up of
savage and civilized life, and of the superstitions of both, but which yet
had a certain analogy, that impressed Septimius much, to the story that
the doctor had told him.
She said that, many ages ago, there had been a wild sachem in the forest, a
king among the Indians, and from whom, the old lady said, with a look of
pride, she and Septimius were lineally descended, and were probably the
very last who inherited one drop of that royal, wise, and warlike blood.
The sachem had lived very long, longer than anybody knew, for the Indians
kept no record, and could only talk of a great number of moons; and they
said he was as old, or older, than the oldest trees; as old as the hills
almost, and could remember back to the days of godlike men, who had arts
then forgotten. He was a wise and good man, and could foretell as far into
the future as he could remember into the past; and he continued to live
on, till his people were afraid that he would live forever, and so disturb
the whole order of nature; and they thought it time that so good a man,
and so great a warrior and wizard, should be gone to the happy
hunting-grounds, and that so wise a counsellor should go and tell his
experience of life to the Great Father, and give him an account of matters
here, and perhaps lead him to make some changes in the conduct of the
lower world. And so, all these things duly considered, they very
reverently assassinated the great, never-dying sachem; for though safe
against disease, and undecayable by age, he was capable of being killed by
violence, though the hardness of his skull broke to fragments the stone
tomahawk with which they at first tried to kill him.
So a deputation of the best and bravest of the tribe went to the great
sachem, and told him their thought, and reverently desired his consent to
be put out of the world; and the undying one agreed with them that it was
better for his own comfort that he should die, and that he had long been
weary of the world, having learned all that it could teach him, and
having, chiefly, learned to despair of ever making the red race much
better than they now were. So he cheerfully consented, and told them to
kill him if they could; and first they tried the stone hatchet, which was
broken against his skull; and then they shot arrows at him, which could
not pierce the toughness of his skin; and finally they plastered up his
nose and mouth (which kept uttering wisdom to the last) with clay, and set
him to bake in the sun; so at last his life burnt out of his breast,
tearing his body to pieces, and he died.
[_Make this legend grotesque, and express the weariness of the tribe at
the intolerable control the undying one had of them; his always bringing
up precepts from his own experience, never consenting to anything new, and
so impeding progress; his habits hardening into him, his ascribing to
himself all wisdom, and depriving everybody of his right to successive
command; his endless talk, and dwelling on the past, so that the world
could not bear him. Describe his ascetic and severe habits, his rigid
But before the great sagamore died he imparted to a chosen one of his
tribe, the next wisest to himself, the secret of a potent and delicious
drink, the constant imbibing of which, together with his abstinence from
luxury and passion, had kept him alive so long, and would doubtless have
compelled him to live forever. This drink was compounded of many
ingredients, all of which were remembered and handed down in tradition,
save one, which, either because it was nowhere to be found, or for some
other reason, was forgotten; so that the drink ceased to give immortal
life as before. They say it was a beautiful purple flower. [_Perhaps the
Devil taught him the drink, or else the Great Spirit,--doubtful
which._] But it still was a most excellent drink, and conducive to
health, and the cure of all diseases; and the Indians had it at the time
of the settlement by the English; and at one of those wizard meetings in
the forest, where the Black Man used to meet his red children and his
white ones, and be jolly with them, a great Indian wizard taught the
secret to Septimius's great-grandfather, who was a wizard, and died for
it; and he, in return, taught the Indians to mix it with rum, thinking
that this might be the very ingredient that was missing, and that by
adding it he might give endless life to himself and all his Indian
friends, among whom he had taken a wife.
"But your great-grandfather, you know, had not a fair chance to test its
virtues, having been hanged for a wizard; and as for the Indians, they
probably mixed too much fire-water with their liquid, so that it burnt
them up, and they all died; and my mother, and her mother,--who taught the
drink to me,--and her mother afore her, thought it a sin to try to live
longer than the Lord pleased, so they let themselves die. And though the
drink is good, Septimius, and toothsome, as you see, yet I sometimes feel
as if I were getting old, like other people, and may die in the course of
the next half-century; so perhaps the rum was not just the thing that was
wanting to make up the recipe. But it is very good! Take a drop more of
"Not at present, I thank you, Aunt Keziah," said Septimius, gravely; "but
will you tell me what the ingredients are, and how you make it?"
"Yes, I will, my boy, and you shall write them down," said the old woman;
"for it's a good drink, and none the worse, it may be, for not making you
live forever. I sometimes think I had as lief go to heaven as keep on
Accordingly, making Septimius take pen and ink, she proceeded to tell him a
list of plants and herbs, and forest productions, and he was surprised to
find that it agreed most wonderfully with the recipe contained in the old
manuscript, as he had puzzled it out, and as it had been explained by the
doctor. There were a few variations, it is true; but even here there was a
close analogy, plants indigenous to America being substituted for cognate
productions, the growth of Europe. Then there was another difference in
the mode of preparation, Aunt Keziah's nostrum being a concoction, whereas
the old manuscript gave a process of distillation. This similarity had a
strong effect on Septimius's imagination. Here was, in one case, a drink
suggested, as might be supposed, to a primitive people by something
similar to that instinct by which the brute creation recognizes the
medicaments suited to its needs, so that they mixed up fragrant herbs for
reasons wiser than they knew, and made them into a salutary potion; and
here, again, was a drink contrived by the utmost skill of a great
civilized philosopher, searching the whole field of science for his
purpose; and these two drinks proved, in all essential particulars, to be
identically the same.
"O Aunt Keziah," said he, with a longing earnestness, "are you sure that
you cannot remember that one ingredient?"
"No, Septimius, I cannot possibly do it," said she. "I have tried many
things, skunk-cabbage, wormwood, and a thousand things; for it is truly a
pity that the chief benefit of the thing should be lost for so little. But
the only effect was, to spoil the good taste of the stuff, and, two or
three times, to poison myself, so that I broke out all over blotches, and
once lost the use of my left arm, and got a dizziness in the head, and a
rheumatic twist in my knee, a hardness of hearing, and a dimness of sight,
and the trembles; all of which I certainly believe to have been caused by
my putting something else into this blessed drink besides the good New
England rum. Stick to that, Seppy, my dear."
So saying, Aunt Keziah took yet another sip of the beloved liquid, after
vainly pressing Septimius to do the like; and then lighting her old clay
pipe, she sat down in the chimney-corner, meditating, dreaming, muttering
pious prayers and ejaculations, and sometimes looking up the wide flue of
the chimney, with thoughts, perhaps, how delightful it must have been to
fly up there, in old times, on excursions by midnight into the forest,
where was the Black Man, and the Puritan deacons and ladies, and those
wild Indian ancestors of hers; and where the wildness of the forest was so
grim and delightful, and so unlike the common-placeness in which she spent
her life. For thus did the savage strain of the woman, mixed up as it was
with the other weird and religious parts of her composition, sometimes
snatch her back into barbarian life and its instincts; and in Septimius,
though further diluted, and modified likewise by higher cultivation, there
was the same tendency.
Septimius escaped from the old woman, and was glad to breathe the free air
again; so much had he been wrought upon by her wild legends and wild
character, the more powerful by its analogy with his own; and perhaps,
too, his brain had been a little bewildered by the draught of her
diabolical concoction which she had compelled him to take. At any rate, he
was glad to escape to his hill-top, the free air of which had doubtless
contributed to keep him in health through so long a course of morbid
thought and estranged study as he had addicted himself to.
Here, as it happened, he found both Rose Garfield and Sibyl Dacy, whom the
pleasant summer evening had brought out. They had formed a friendship, or
at least society; and there could not well be a pair more unlike,--the one
so natural, so healthy, so fit to live in the world; the other such a
morbid, pale thing. So there they were, walking arm in arm, with one arm
round each other's waist, as girls love to do. They greeted the young man
in their several ways, and began to walk to and fro together, looking at
the sunset as it came on, and talking of things on earth and in the
"When has Robert Hagburn been heard from?" asked Septimius, who, involved
in his own pursuits, was altogether behindhand in the matters of the
war,--shame to him for it!
"There came news, two days past," said Rose, blushing. "He is on his way
home with the remnant of General Arnold's command, and will be here
"He is a brave fellow, Robert," said Septimius, carelessly. "And I know
not, since life is so short, that anything better can be done with it than
to risk it as he does."
"I truly think not," said Rose Garfield, composedly.
"What a blessing it is to mortals," said Sibyl Dacy, "what a kindness of
Providence, that life is made so uncertain; that death is thrown in among
the possibilities of our being; that these awful mysteries are thrown
around us, into which we may vanish! For, without it, how would it be
possible to be heroic, how should we plod along in commonplaces forever,
never dreaming high things, never risking anything? For my part, I think
man is more favored than the angels, and made capable of higher heroism,
greater virtue, and of a more excellent spirit than they, because we have
such a mystery of grief and terror around us; whereas they, being in a
certainty of God's light, seeing his goodness and his purposes more
perfectly than we, cannot be so brave as often poor weak man, and weaker
woman, has the opportunity to be, and sometimes makes use of it. God gave
the whole world to man, and if he is left alone with it, it will make a
clod of him at last; but, to remedy that, God gave man a grave, and it
redeems all, while it seems to destroy all, and makes an immortal spirit
of him in the end."
"Dear Sibyl, you are inspired," said Rose, gazing in her face.
"I think you ascribe a great deal too much potency to the grave," said
Septimius, pausing involuntarily alone by the little hillock, whose
contents he knew so well. "The grave seems to me a vile pitfall, put right
in our pathway, and catching most of us,--all of us,--causing us to tumble
in at the most inconvenient opportunities, so that all human life is a
jest and a farce, just for the sake of this inopportune death; for I
observe it never waits for us to accomplish anything: we may have the
salvation of a country in hand, but we are none the less likely to die for
that. So that, being a believer, on the whole, in the wisdom and
graciousness of Providence, I am convinced that dying is a mistake, and
that by and by we shall overcome it. I say there is no use in the grave."
"I still adhere to what I said," answered Sibyl Dacy; "and besides, there
is another use of a grave which I have often observed in old English
graveyards, where the moss grows green, and embosses the letters of the
gravestones; and also graves are very good for flower-beds."
Nobody ever could tell when the strange girl was going to say what was
laughable,--when what was melancholy; and neither of Sibyl's auditors knew
quite what to make of this speech. Neither could Septimius fail to be a
little startled by seeing her, as she spoke of the grave as a flower-bed,
stoop down to the little hillock to examine the flowers, which, indeed,
seemed to prove her words by growing there in strange abundance, and of
many sorts; so that, if they could all have bloomed at once, the spot
would have looked like a bouquet by itself, or as if the earth were
richest in beauty there, or as if seeds had been lavished by some florist.
Septimius could not account for it, for though the hill-side did produce
certain flowers,--the aster, the golden-rod, the violet, and other such
simple and common things,--yet this seemed as if a carpet of bright colors
had been thrown down there and covered the spot.
"This is very strange," said he.
"Yes," said Sibyl Dacy, "there is some strange richness in this little spot
"Where could the seeds have come from?--that is the greatest wonder," said
Rose. "You might almost teach me botany, methinks, on this one spot."
"Do you know this plant?" asked Sibyl of Septimius, pointing to one not yet
in flower, but of singular leaf, that was thrusting itself up out of the
ground, on the very centre of the grave, over where the breast of the
sleeper below might seem to be. "I think there is no other here like it."
Septimius stooped down to examine it, and was convinced that it was unlike
anything he had seen of the flower kind; a leaf of a dark green, with
purple veins traversing it, it had a sort of questionable aspect, as some
plants have, so that you would think it very likely to be poison, and
would not like to touch or smell very intimately, without first inquiring
who would be its guarantee that it should do no mischief. That it had some
richness or other, either baneful or beneficial, you could not doubt.
"I think it poisonous," said Rose Garfield, shuddering, for she was a
person so natural she hated poisonous things, or anything speckled
especially, and did not, indeed, love strangeness. "Yet I should not
wonder if it bore a beautiful flower by and by. Nevertheless, if I were to
do just as I feel inclined, I should root it up and fling it away."
"Shall she do so?" said Sibyl to Septimius.
"Not for the world," said he, hastily. "Above all things, I desire to see
what will come of this plant."
"Be it as you please," said Sibyl. "Meanwhile, if you like to sit down here
and listen to me, I will tell you a story that happens to come into my
mind just now,--I cannot tell why. It is a legend of an old hall that I
know well, and have known from my childhood, in one of the northern
counties of England, where I was born. Would you like to hear it, Rose?"
"Yes, of all things," said she. "I like all stories of hall and cottage in
the old country, though now we must not call it our country any more."
Sibyl looked at Septimius, as if to inquire whether he, too, chose to
listen to her story, and he made answer:--
"Yes, I shall like to hear the legend, if it is a genuine one that has been
adopted into the popular belief, and came down in chimney-corners with the
smoke and soot that gathers there; and incrusted over with humanity, by
passing from one homely mind to another. Then, such stories get to be
true, in a certain sense, and indeed in that sense may be called true
throughout, for the very nucleus, the fiction in them, seems to have come
out of the heart of man in a way that cannot be imitated of malice
aforethought. Nobody can make a tradition; it takes a century to make
"I know not whether this legend has the character you mean," said Sibyl,
"but it has lived much more than a century; and here it is.
* * * * *
"On the threshold of one of the doors of ---- Hall there is a bloody
footstep impressed into the doorstep, and ruddy as if the bloody foot had
just trodden there; and it is averred that, on a certain night of the
year, and at a certain hour of the night, if you go and look at that
doorstep you will see the mark wet with fresh blood. Some have pretended
to say that this appearance of blood was but dew; but can dew redden a
cambric handkerchief? Will it crimson the fingertips when you touch it?
And that is what the bloody footstep will surely do when the appointed
night and hour come round, this very year, just as it would three hundred
"Well; but how did it come there? I know not precisely in what age it was,
but long ago, when light was beginning to shine into what were called the
dark ages, there was a lord of ---- Hall who applied himself deeply to
knowledge and science, under the guidance of the wisest man of that
age,--a man so wise that he was thought to be a wizard; and, indeed, he
may have been one, if to be a wizard consists in having command over
secret powers of nature, that other men do not even suspect the existence
of, and the control of which enables one to do feats that seem as
wonderful as raising the dead. It is needless to tell you all the strange
stories that have survived to this day about the old Hall; and how it is
believed that the master of it, owing to his ancient science, has still a
sort of residence there, and control of the place; and how, in one of the
chambers, there is still his antique table, and his chair, and some rude
old instruments and machinery, and a book, and everything in readiness,
just as if he might still come back to finish some experiment. What it is
important to say is, that one of the chief things to which the old lord
applied himself was to discover the means of prolonging his own life, so
that its duration should be indefinite, if not infinite; and such was his
science, that he was believed to have attained this magnificent and awful
"So, as you may suppose, the man of science had great joy in having done
this thing, both for the pride of it, and because it was so delightful a
thing to have before him the prospect of endless time, which he might
spend in adding more and more to his science, and so doing good to the
world; for the chief obstruction to the improvement of the world and the
growth of knowledge is, that mankind cannot go straightforward in it, but
continually there have to be new beginnings, and it takes every new man
half his life, if not the whole of it, to come up to the point where his
predecessor left off. And so this noble man--this man of a noble
purpose--spent many years in finding out this mighty secret; and at last,
it is said, he succeeded. But on what terms?
"Well, it is said that the terms were dreadful and horrible; insomuch that
the wise man hesitated whether it were lawful and desirable to take
advantage of them, great as was the object in view.
"You see, the object of the lord of ---- Hall was to take a life from the
course of Nature, and Nature did not choose to be defrauded; so that,
great as was the power of this scientific man over her, she would not
consent that he should escape the necessity of dying at his proper time,
except upon condition of sacrificing some other life for his; and this was
to be done once for every thirty years that he chose to live, thirty years
being the account of a generation of man; and if in any way, in that time,
this lord could be the death of a human being, that satisfied the
requisition, and he might live on. There is a form of the legend which
says, that one of the ingredients of the drink which the nobleman brewed
by his science was the heart's blood of a pure young boy or girl. But this
I reject, as too coarse an idea; and, indeed, I think it may be taken to
mean symbolically, that the person who desires to engross to himself more
than his share of human life must do it by sacrificing to his selfishness
some dearest interest of another person, who has a good right to life, and
may be as useful in it as he.
"Now, this lord was a just man by nature, and if he had gone astray, it was
greatly by reason of his earnest wish to do something for the poor,
wicked, struggling, bloody, uncomfortable race of man, to which he
belonged. He bethought himself whether he would have a right to take the
life of one of those creatures, without their own consent, in order to
prolong his own; and after much arguing to and fro, he came to the
conclusion that he should not have the right, unless it were a life over
which he had control, and which was the next to his own. He looked round
him; he was a lonely and abstracted man, secluded by his studies from
human affections, and there was but one human being whom he cared
for;--that was a beautiful kinswoman, an orphan, whom his father had
brought up, and, dying, left her to his care. There was great kindness and
affection--as great as the abstracted nature of his pursuits would
allow--on the part of this lord towards the beautiful young girl; but not
what is called love,--at least, he never acknowledged it to himself. But,
looking into his heart, he saw that she, if any one, was to be the person
whom the sacrifice demanded, and that he might kill twenty others without
effect, but if he took the life of this one, it would make the charm
strong and good.
"My friends, I have meditated many a time on this ugly feature of my
legend, and am unwilling to take it in the literal sense; so I conceive
its spiritual meaning (for everything, you know, has its spiritual
meaning, which to the literal meaning is what the soul is to the
body),--its spiritual meaning was, that to the deep pursuit of science we
must sacrifice great part of the joy of life; that nobody can be great,
and do great things, without giving up to death, so far as he regards his
enjoyment of it, much that he would gladly enjoy; and in that sense I
choose to take it. But the earthly old legend will have it that this mad,
high-minded, heroic, murderous lord did insist upon it with himself that
he must murder this poor, loving, and beloved child.
"I do not wish to delay upon this horrible matter, and to tell you how he
argued it with himself; and how, the more and more he argued it, the more
reasonable it seemed, the more absolutely necessary, the more a duty that
the terrible sacrifice should be made. Here was this great good to be done
to mankind, and all that stood in the way of it was one little delicate
life, so frail that it was likely enough to be blown out, any day, by the
mere rude blast that the rush of life creates, as it streams along, or by
any slightest accident; so good and pure, too, that she was quite unfit
for this world, and not capable of any happiness in it; and all that was
asked of her was to allow herself to be transported to a place where she
would be happy, and would find companions fit for her,--which he, her only
present companion, certainly was not. In fine, he resolved to shed the
sweet, fragrant blood of this little violet that loved him so.
"Well; let us hurry over this part of the story as fast as we can. He did
slay this pure young girl; he took her into the wood near the house, an
old wood that is standing yet, with some of its magnificent oaks; and then
he plunged a dagger into her heart, after they had had a very tender and
loving talk together, in which he had tried to open the matter tenderly to
her, and make her understand that, though he was to slay her, it was
really for the very reason that he loved her better than anything else in
the world, and that he would far rather die himself, if that would answer
the purpose at all. Indeed, he is said to have offered her the alternative
of slaying him, and taking upon herself the burden of indefinite life, and
the studies and pursuits by which he meant to benefit mankind. But she, it
is said,--this noble, pure, loving child,--she looked up into his face and
smiled sadly, and then snatching the dagger from him, she plunged it into
her own heart. I cannot tell whether this be true, or whether she waited
to be killed by him; but this I know, that in the same circumstances I
think I should have saved my lover or my friend the pain of killing me.
There she lay dead, at any rate, and he buried her in the wood, and
returned to the house; and, as it happened, he had set his right foot in
her blood, and his shoe was wet in it, and by some miraculous fate it left
a track all along the wood-path, and into the house, and on the stone
steps of the threshold, and up into his chamber, all along; and the
servants saw it the next day, and wondered, and whispered, and missed the
fair young girl, and looked askance at their lord's right foot, and turned
pale, all of them, as death.
"And next, the legend says, that Sir Forrester was struck with horror at
what he had done, and could not bear the laboratory where he had toiled so
long, and was sick to death of the object that he had pursued, and was
most miserable, and fled from his old Hall, and was gone full many a day.
But all the while he was gone there was the mark of a bloody footstep
impressed upon the stone doorstep of the Hall. The track had lain all
along through the wood-path, and across the lawn, to the old Gothic door
of the Hall; but the rain, the English rain, that is always falling, had
come the next day, and washed it all away. The track had lain, too, across
the broad hall, and up the stairs, and into the lord's study; but there it
had lain on the rushes that were strewn there, and these the servants had
gathered carefully up, and thrown them away, and spread fresh ones. So
that it was only on the threshold that the mark remained.
"But the legend says, that wherever Sir Forrester went, in his wanderings
about the world, he left a bloody track behind him. It was wonderful, and
very inconvenient, this phenomenon. When he went into a church, you would
see the track up the broad aisle, and a little red puddle in the place
where he sat or knelt. Once he went to the king's court, and there being a
track up to the very throne, the king frowned upon him, so that he never
came there any more. Nobody could tell how it happened; his foot was not
seen to bleed, only there was the bloody track behind him, wherever he
went; and he was a horror-stricken man, always looking behind him to see
the track, and then hurrying onward, as if to escape his own tracks; but
always they followed him as fast.
"In the hall of feasting, there was the bloody track to his chair. The
learned men whom he consulted about this strange difficulty conferred with
one another, and with him, who was equal to any of them, and pished and
pshawed, and said, 'Oh, there is nothing miraculous in this; it is only a
natural infirmity, which can easily be put an end to, though, perhaps, the
stoppage of such an evacuation will cause damage to other parts of the
frame.' Sir Forrester always said, 'Stop it, my learned brethren, if you
can; no matter what the consequences.' And they did their best, but
without result; so that he was still compelled to leave his bloody track
on their college-rooms and combination-rooms, the same as elsewhere; and
in street and in wilderness; yes, and in the battle-field, they said, his
track looked freshest and reddest of all. So, at last, finding the notice
he attracted inconvenient, this unfortunate lord deemed it best to go back
to his own Hall, where, living among faithful old servants born in the
family, he could hush the matter up better than elsewhere, and not be
stared at continually, or, glancing round, see people holding up their
hands in terror at seeing a bloody track behind him. And so home he came,
and there he saw the bloody track on the doorstep, and dolefully went into
the hall, and up the stairs, an old servant ushering him into his chamber,
and half a dozen others following behind, gazing, shuddering, pointing
with quivering fingers, looking horror-stricken in one another's pale
faces, and the moment he had passed, running to get fresh rushes, and to
scour the stairs. The next day, Sir Forrester went into the wood, and by
the aged oak he found a grave, and on the grave he beheld a beautiful
crimson flower; the most gorgeous and beautiful, surely, that ever grew;
so rich it looked, so full of potent juice. That flower he gathered; and
the spirit of his scientific pursuits coming upon him, he knew that this
was the flower, produced out of a human life, that was essential to the
perfection of his recipe for immortality; and he made the drink, and drank
it, and became immortal in woe and agony, still studying, still growing
wiser and more wretched in every age. By and by he vanished from the old
Hall, but not by death; for, from generation to generation, they say that
a bloody track is seen around that house, and sometimes it is tracked up
into the chambers, so freshly that you see he must have passed a short
time before; and he grows wiser and wiser, and lonelier and lonelier, from
age to age. And this is the legend of the bloody footstep, which I myself
have seen at the Hall door. As to the flower, the plant of it continued
for several years to grow out of the grave; and after a while, perhaps a
century ago, it was transplanted into the garden of ---- Hall, and
preserved with great care, and is so still. And as the family attribute a
kind of sacredness, or cursedness, to the flower, they can hardly be
prevailed upon to give any of the seeds, or allow it to be propagated
elsewhere, though the king should send to ask it. It is said, too, that
there is still in the family the old lord's recipe for immortality, and
that several of his collateral descendants have tried to concoct it, and
instil the flower into it, and so give indefinite life; but
unsuccessfully, because the seeds of the flower must be planted in a fresh
grave of bloody death, in order to make it effectual."
* * * * *
So ended Sibyl's legend; in which Septimius was struck by a certain analogy
to Aunt Keziah's Indian legend,--both referring to a flower growing out of
a grave; and also he did not fail to be impressed with the wild
coincidence of this disappearance of an ancestor of the family long ago,
and the appearance, at about the same epoch, of the first known ancestor
of his own family, the man with wizard's attributes, with the bloody
footstep, and whose sudden disappearance became a myth, under the idea
that the Devil carried him away. Yet, on the whole, this wild tradition,
doubtless becoming wilder in Sibyl's wayward and morbid fancy, had the
effect to give him a sense of the fantasticalness of his present pursuit,
and that in adopting it, he had strayed into a region long abandoned to
superstition, and where the shadows of forgotten dreams go when men are
done with them; where past worships are; where great Pan went when he died
to the outer world; a limbo into which living men sometimes stray when
they think themselves sensiblest and wisest, and whence they do not often
find their way back into the real world. Visions of wealth, visions of
fame, visions of philanthropy,--all visions find room here, and glide
about without jostling. When Septimius came to look at the matter in his
present mood, the thought occurred to him that he had perhaps got into
such a limbo, and that Sibyl's legend, which looked so wild, might be all
of a piece with his own present life; for Sibyl herself seemed an
illusion, and so, most strangely, did Aunt Keziah, whom he had known all
his life, with her homely and quaint characteristics; the grim doctor,
with his brandy and his German pipe, impressed him in the same way; and
these, altogether, made his homely cottage by the wayside seem an
unsubstantial edifice, such as castles in the air are built of, and the
ground he trod on unreal; and that grave, which he knew to contain the
decay of a beautiful young man, but a fictitious swell, formed by the
fantasy of his eyes. All unreal; all illusion! Was Rose Garfield a
deception too, with her daily beauty, and daily cheerfulness, and daily
worth? In short, it was such a moment as I suppose all men feel (at least,
I can answer for one), when the real scene and picture of life swims,
jars, shakes, seems about to be broken up and dispersed, like the picture
in a smooth pond, when we disturb its tranquil mirror by throwing in a
stone; and though the scene soon settles itself, and looks as real as
before, a haunting doubt keeps close at hand, as long as we live, asking,
"Is it stable? Am I sure of it? Am I certainly not dreaming? See; it
trembles again, ready to dissolve."
* * * * *
Applying himself with earnest diligence to his attempt to decipher and
interpret the mysterious manuscript, working with his whole mind and
strength, Septimius did not fail of some flattering degree of success.
A good deal of the manuscript, as has been said, was in an ancient English
script, although so uncouth and shapeless were the characters, that it was
not easy to resolve them into letters, or to believe that they were
anything but arbitrary and dismal blots and scrawls upon the yellow paper;
without meaning, vague, like the misty and undefined germs of thought as
they exist in our minds before clothing themselves in words. These,
however, as he concentrated his mind upon them, took distincter shape,
like cloudy stars at the power of the telescope, and became sometimes
English, sometimes Latin, strangely patched together, as if, so accustomed
was the writer to use that language in which all the science of that age
was usually embodied, that he really mixed it unconsciously with the
vernacular, or used both indiscriminately. There was some Greek, too, but
not much. Then frequently came in the cipher, to the study of which
Septimius had applied himself for some time back, with the aid of the
books borrowed from the college library, and not without success. Indeed,
it appeared to him, on close observation, that it had not been the
intention of the writer really to conceal what he had written from any
earnest student, but rather to lock it up for safety in a sort of coffer,
of which diligence and insight should be the key, and the keen
intelligence with which the meaning was sought should be the test of the
seeker's being entitled to possess the secret treasure.
Amid a great deal of misty stuff, he found the document to consist chiefly,
contrary to his supposition beforehand, of certain rules of life; he would
have taken it, on a casual inspection, for an essay of counsel, addressed
by some great and sagacious man to a youth in whom he felt an
interest,--so secure and good a doctrine of life was propounded, such
excellent maxims there were, such wisdom in all matters that came within
the writer's purview. It was as much like a digested synopsis of some old
philosopher's wise rules of conduct, as anything else. But on closer
inspection, Septimius, in his unsophisticated consideration of this
matter, was not so well satisfied. True, everything that was said seemed
not discordant with the rules of social morality; not unwise: it was
shrewd, sagacious; it did not appear to infringe upon the rights of
mankind; but there was something left out, something unsatisfactory,--what
was it? There was certainly a cold spell in the document; a magic, not of
fire, but of ice; and Septimius the more exemplified its power, in that he
soon began to be insensible of it. It affected him as if it had been
written by some greatly wise and worldly-experienced man, like the writer
of Ecclesiastes; for it was full of truth. It was a truth that does not
make men better, though perhaps calmer; and beneath which the buds of
happiness curl up like tender leaves in a frost. What was the matter with
this document, that the young man's youth perished out of him as he read?
What icy hand had written, it, so that the heart was chilled out of the
reader? Not that Septimius was sensible of this character; at least, not
long,--for as he read, there grew upon him a mood of calm satisfaction,
such as he had never felt before. His mind seemed to grow clearer; his
perceptions most acute; his sense of the reality of things grew to be
such, that he felt as if he could touch and handle all his thoughts, feel
round about all their outline and circumference, and know them with a
certainty, as if they were material things. Not that all this was in the
document itself; but by studying it so earnestly, and, as it were,
creating its meaning anew for himself, out of such illegible materials, he
caught the temper of the old writer's mind, after so many ages as that
tract had lain in the mouldy and musty manuscript. He was magnetized with
him; a powerful intellect acted powerfully upon him; perhaps, even, there
was a sort of spell and mystic influence imbued into the paper, and
mingled with the yellow ink, that steamed forth by the effort of this
young man's earnest rubbing, as it were, and by the action of his mind,
applied to it as intently as he possibly could; and even his handling the
paper, his bending over it, and breathing upon it, had its effect.
It is not in our power, nor in our wish, to produce the original form, nor
yet the spirit, of a production which is better lost to the world: because
it was the expression of a human intellect originally greatly gifted and
capable of high things, but gone utterly astray, partly by its own
subtlety, partly by yielding to the temptations of the lower part of its
nature, by yielding the spiritual to a keen sagacity of lower things,
until it was quite fallen; and yet fallen in such a way, that it seemed
not only to itself, but to mankind, not fallen at all, but wise and good,
and fulfilling all the ends of intellect in such a life as ours, and
proving, moreover, that earthly life was good, and all that the
development of our nature demanded. All this is better forgotten; better
burnt; better never thought over again; and all the more, because its
aspect was so wise, and even praiseworthy. But what we must preserve of it
were certain rules of life and moral diet, not exactly expressed in the
document, but which, as it were, on its being duly received into
Septimius's mind, were precipitated from the rich solution, and
crystallized into diamonds, and which he found to be the moral dietetics,
so to speak, by observing which he was to achieve the end of earthly
immortality, whose physical nostrum was given in the recipe which, with
the help of Doctor Portsoaken and his Aunt Keziah, he had already pretty
satisfactorily made out.
"Keep thy heart at seventy throbs in a minute; all more than that wears
away life too quickly. If thy respiration be too quick, think with thyself
that thou hast sinned against natural order and moderation.
"Drink not wine nor strong drink; and observe that this rule is worthiest
in its symbolic meaning.
"Bask daily in the sunshine and let it rest on thy heart.
"Run not; leap not; walk at a steady pace, and count thy paces per day.
"If thou feelest, at any time, a throb of the heart, pause on the instant,
and analyze it; fix thy mental eye steadfastly upon it, and inquire why
such commotion is.
"Hate not any man nor woman; be not angry, unless at any time thy blood
seem a little cold and torpid; cut out all rankling feelings, they are
poisonous to thee. If, in thy waking moments, or in thy dreams, thou hast
thoughts of strife or unpleasantness with any man, strive quietly with
thyself to forget him.
"Have no friendships with an imperfect man, with a man in bad health, of
violent passions, of any characteristic that evidently disturbs his own
life, and so may have disturbing influence on thine. Shake not any man by
the hand, because thereby, if there be any evil in the man, it is likely
to be communicated to thee.
"Kiss no woman if her lips be red; look not upon her if she be very fair.
Touch not her hand if thy finger-tips be found to thrill with hers ever so
little. On the whole, shun woman, for she is apt to be a disturbing
influence. If thou love her, all is over, and thy whole past and remaining
labor and pains will be in vain.
"Do some decent degree of good and kindness in thy daily life, for the
result is a slight pleasurable sense that will seem to warm and delectate
thee with felicitous self-laudings; and all that brings thy thoughts to
thyself tends to invigorate that central principle by the growth of which
thou art to give thyself indefinite life.
"Do not any act manifestly evil; it may grow upon thee, and corrode thee in
after-years. Do not any foolish good act; it may change thy wise habits.
"Eat no spiced meats. Young chickens, new-fallen lambs, fruits, bread four
days old, milk, freshest butter will make thy fleshy tabernacle youthful.
"From sick people, maimed wretches, afflicted people--all of whom show
themselves at variance with things as they should be,--from people beyond
their wits, from people in a melancholic mood, from people in extravagant
joy, from teething children, from dead corpses, turn away thine eyes and
"If beggars haunt thee, let thy servants drive them away, thou withdrawing
out of ear-shot.
"Crying and sickly children, and teething children, as aforesaid, carefully
avoid. Drink the breath of wholesome infants as often as thou conveniently
canst,--it is good for thy purpose; also the breath of buxom maids, if
thou mayest without undue disturbance of the flesh, drink it as a
morning-draught, as medicine; also the breath of cows as they return from
rich pasture at eventide.
"If thou seest human poverty, or suffering, and it trouble thee, strive
moderately to relieve it, seeing that thus thy mood will be changed to a
"Practise thyself in a certain continual smile, for its tendency will be to
compose thy frame of being, and keep thee from too much wear.
"Search not to see if thou hast a gray hair; scrutinize not thy forehead to
find a wrinkle; nor the corners of thy eyes to discover if they be
corrugated. Such things, being gazed at, daily take heart and grow.
"Desire nothing too fervently, not even life; yet keep thy hold upon it
mightily, quietly, unshakably, for as long as thou really art resolved to
live, Death with all his force, shall have no power against thee.
"Walk not beneath tottering ruins, nor houses being put up, nor climb to
the top of a mast, nor approach the edge of a precipice, nor stand in the
way of the lightning, nor cross a swollen river, nor voyage at sea, nor
ride a skittish horse, nor be shot at by an arrow, nor confront a sword,
nor put thyself in the way of violent death; for this is hateful, and
breaketh through all wise rules.
"Say thy prayers at bedtime, if thou deemest it will give thee quieter
sleep; yet let it not trouble thee if thou forgettest them.
"Change thy shirt daily; thereby thou castest off yesterday's decay, and
imbibest the freshness of the morning's life, which enjoy with smelling to
roses, and other healthy and fragrant flowers, and live the longer for it.
Roses are made to that end.
"Read not great poets; they stir up thy heart; and the human heart is a
soil which, if deeply stirred, is apt to give out noxious vapors."
Such were some of the precepts which Septimius gathered and reduced to
definite form out of this wonderful document; and he appreciated their
wisdom, and saw clearly that they must be absolutely essential to the
success of the medicine with which they were connected. In themselves,
almost, they seemed capable of prolonging life to an indefinite period, so
wisely were they conceived, so well did they apply to the causes which
almost invariably wear away this poor short life of men, years and years
before even the shattered constitutions that they received from their
forefathers need compel them to die. He deemed himself well rewarded for
all his labor and pains, should nothing else follow but his reception and
proper appreciation of these wise rules; but continually, as he read the
manuscript, more truths, and, for aught I know, profounder and more
practical ones, developed themselves; and, indeed, small as the manuscript
looked, Septimius thought that he should find a volume as big as the most
ponderous folio in the college library too small to contain its wisdom. It
seemed to drip and distil with precious fragrant drops, whenever he took
it out of his desk; it diffused wisdom like those vials of perfume which,
small as they look, keep diffusing an airy wealth of fragrance for years
and years together, scattering their virtue in incalculable volumes of
invisible vapor, and yet are none the less in bulk for all they give;
whenever he turned over the yellow leaves, bits of gold, diamonds of good
size, precious pearls, seemed to drop out from between them.
And now ensued a surprise which, though of a happy kind, was almost too
much for him to bear; for it made his heart beat considerably faster than
the wise rules of his manuscript prescribed. Going up on his hill-top, as
summer wore away (he had not been there for some time), and walking by the
little flowery hillock, as so many a hundred times before, what should he
see there but a new flower, that during the time he had been poring over
the manuscript so sedulously had developed itself, blossomed, put forth
its petals, bloomed into full perfection, and now, with the dew of the
morning upon it, was waiting to offer itself to Septimius? He trembled as
he looked at it, it was too much almost to bear,--it was so very
beautiful, so very stately, so very rich, so very mysterious and
wonderful. It was like a person, like a life! Whence did it come? He stood
apart from it, gazing in wonder; tremulously taking in its aspect, and
thinking of the legends he had heard from Aunt Keziah and from Sibyl Dacy;
and how that this flower, like the one that their wild traditions told of,
had grown out of a grave,--out of a grave in which he had laid one slain
The flower was of the richest crimson, illuminated with a golden centre of
a perfect and stately beauty. From the best descriptions that I have been
able to gain of it, it was more like a dahlia than any other flower with
which I have acquaintance; yet it does not satisfy me to believe it really
of that species, for the dahlia is not a flower of any deep
characteristics, either lively or malignant, and this flower, which
Septimius found so strangely, seems to have had one or the other. If I
have rightly understood, it had a fragrance which the dahlia lacks; and
there was something hidden in its centre, a mystery, even in its fullest
bloom, not developing itself so openly as the heartless, yet not
dishonest, dahlia. I remember in England to have seen a flower at Eaton
Hall, in Cheshire, in those magnificent gardens, which may have been like
this, but my remembrance of it is not sufficiently distinct to enable me
to describe it better than by saying that it was crimson, with a gleam of
gold in its centre, which yet was partly hidden. It had many petals of
Septimius, bending eagerly over the plant, saw that this was not to be the
only flower that it would produce that season; on the contrary, there was
to be a great abundance of them, a luxuriant harvest; as if the crimson
offspring of this one plant would cover the whole hillock,--as if the dead
youth beneath had burst into a resurrection of many crimson flowers! And
in its veiled heart, moreover, there was a mystery like death, although it
seemed to cover something bright and golden.
Day after day the strange crimson flower bloomed more and more abundantly,
until it seemed almost to cover the little hillock, which became a mere
bed of it, apparently turning all its capacity of production to this
flower; for the other plants, Septimius thought, seemed to shrink away,
and give place to it, as if they were unworthy to compare with the
richness, glory, and worth of this their queen. The fervent summer burned
into it, the dew and the rain ministered to it; the soil was rich, for it
was a human heart contributing its juices,--a heart in its fiery youth
sodden in its own blood, so that passion, unsatisfied loves and longings,
ambition that never won its object, tender dreams and throbs, angers,
lusts, hates, all concentrated by life, came sprouting in it, and its
mysterious being, and streaks and shadows, had some meaning in each of
The two girls, when they next ascended the hill, saw the strange flower,
and Rose admired it, and wondered at it, but stood at a distance, without
showing an attraction towards it, rather an undefined aversion, as if she
thought it might be a poison flower; at any rate she would not be inclined
to wear it in her bosom. Sibyl Dacy examined it closely, touched its
leaves, smelt it, looked at it with a botanist's eye, and at last remarked
to Rose, "Yes, it grows well in this new soil; methinks it looks like a
new human life."
"What is the strange flower?" asked Rose.
"The _Sanguinea sanguinissima_" said Sibyl.
It so happened about this time that poor Aunt Keziah, in spite of her
constant use of that bitter mixture of hers, was in a very bad state of
health. She looked all of an unpleasant yellow, with bloodshot eyes; she
complained terribly of her inwards. She had an ugly rheumatic hitch in her
motion from place to place, and was heard to mutter many wishes that she
had a broomstick to fly about upon, and she used to bind up her head with
a dishclout, or what looked to be such, and would sit by the kitchen fire
even in the warm days, bent over it, crouching as if she wanted to take
the whole fire into her poor cold heart or gizzard,--groaning regularly
with each breath a spiteful and resentful groan, as if she fought
womanfully with her infirmities; and she continually smoked her pipe, and
sent out the breath of her complaint visibly in that evil odor; and
sometimes she murmured a little prayer, but somehow or other the evil and
bitterness, acridity, pepperiness, of her natural disposition overcame the
acquired grace which compelled her to pray, insomuch that, after all, you
would have thought the poor old woman was cursing with all her rheumatic
might. All the time an old, broken-nosed, brown earthen jug, covered with
the lid of a black teapot, stood on the edge of the embers, steaming
forever, and sometimes bubbling a little, and giving a great puff, as if
it were sighing and groaning in sympathy with poor Aunt Keziah, and when
it sighed there came a great steam of herby fragrance, not particularly
pleasant, into the kitchen. And ever and anon,--half a dozen times it
might be,--of an afternoon, Aunt Keziah took a certain bottle from a
private receptacle of hers, and also a teacup, and likewise a little,
old-fashioned silver teaspoon, with which she measured three teaspoonfuls
of some spirituous liquor into the teacup, half filled the cup with the
hot decoction, drank it off, gave a grunt of content, and for the space of
half an hour appeared to find life tolerable.
But one day poor Aunt Keziah found herself unable, partly from rheumatism,
partly from other sickness or weakness, and partly from dolorous
ill-spirits, to keep about any longer, so she betook herself to her bed;
and betimes in the forenoon Septimius heard a tremendous knocking on the
floor of her bedchamber, which happened to be the room above his own. He
was the only person in or about the house; so with great reluctance, he
left his studies, which were upon the recipe, in respect to which he was
trying to make out the mode of concoction, which was told in such a
mysterious way that he could not well tell either the quantity of the
ingredients, the mode of trituration, nor in what way their virtue was to
be extracted and combined.
Running hastily up stairs, he found Aunt Keziah lying in bed, and groaning
with great spite and bitterness; so that, indeed, it seemed not
improvidential that such an inimical state of mind towards the human race
was accompanied with an almost inability of motion, else it would not be
safe to be within a considerable distance of her.
"Seppy, you good-for-nothing, are you going to see me lying here, dying,
without trying to do anything for me?"
"Dying, Aunt Keziah?" repeated the young man. "I hope not! What can I do
for you? Shall I go for Rose? or call a neighbor in? or the doctor?"
"No, no, you fool!" said the afflicted person. "You can do all that anybody
can for me; and that is to put my mixture on the kitchen fire till it
steams, and is just ready to bubble; then measure three teaspoonfuls--or
it may be four, as I am very bad--of spirit into a teacup, fill it half
full,--or it may be quite full, for I am very bad, as I said afore; six
teaspoonfuls of spirit into a cup of mixture, and let me have it as soon
as may be; and don't break the cup, nor spill the precious mixture, for
goodness knows when I can go into the woods to gather any more. Ah me! ah
me! it's a wicked, miserable world, and I am the most miserable creature
in it. Be quick, you good-for-nothing, and do as I say!"
Septimius hastened down; but as he went a thought came into his head, which
it occurred to him might result in great benefit to Aunt Keziah, as well
as to the great cause of science and human good, and to the promotion of
his own purpose, in the first place. A day or two ago, he had gathered
several of the beautiful flowers, and laid them in the fervid sun to dry;
and they now seemed to be in about the state in which the old woman was
accustomed to use her herbs, so far as Septimius had observed. Now if
these flowers were really, as there was so much reason for supposing, the
one ingredient that had for hundreds of years been missing out of Aunt
Keziah's nostrum,--if it was this which that strange Indian sagamore had
mingled with his drink with such beneficial effect,--why should not
Septimius now restore it, and if it would not make his beloved aunt young
again, at least assuage the violent symptoms, and perhaps prolong her
valuable life some years, for the solace and delight of her numerous
friends? Septimius, like other people of investigating and active minds,
had a great tendency to experiment, and so good an opportunity as the
present, where (perhaps he thought) there was so little to be risked at
worst, and so much to be gained, was not to be neglected; so, without more
ado, he stirred three of the crimson flowers into the earthen jug, set it
on the edge of the fire, stirred it well, and when it steamed, threw up
little scarlet bubbles, and was about to boil, he measured out the
spirits, as Aunt Keziah had bidden him and then filled the teacup.
"Ah, this will do her good; little does she think, poor old thing, what a
rare and costly medicine is about to be given her. This will set her on
her feet again."
The hue was somewhat changed, he thought, from what he had observed of Aunt
Keziah's customary decoction; instead of a turbid yellow, the crimson
petals of the flower had tinged it, and made it almost red; not a
brilliant red, however, nor the least inviting in appearance. Septimius
smelt it, and thought he could distinguish a little of the rich odor of
the flower, but was not sure. He considered whether to taste it; but the
horrible flavor of Aunt Keziah's decoction recurred strongly to his
remembrance, and he concluded that were he evidently at the point of
death, he might possibly be bold enough to taste it again; but that
nothing short of the hope of a century's existence at least would repay
another taste of that fierce and nauseous bitterness. Aunt Keziah loved
it; and as she brewed, so let her drink.
He went up stairs, careful not to spill a drop of the brimming cup, and
approached the old woman's bedside, where she lay, groaning as before, and
breaking out into a spiteful croak the moment he was within ear-shot.
"You don't care whether I live or die," said she. "You've been waiting in
hopes I shall die, and so save yourself further trouble."
"By no means, Aunt Keziah," said Septimius. "Here is the medicine, which I
have warmed, and measured out, and mingled, as well as I knew how; and I
think it will do you a great deal of good."
"Won't you taste it, Seppy, my dear?" said Aunt Keziah, mollified by the
praise of her beloved mixture. "Drink first, dear, so that my sick old
lips need not taint it. You look pale, Septimius; it will do you good."
"No, Aunt Keziah, I do not need it; and it were a pity to waste your
precious drink," said he.
"It does not look quite the right color," said Aunt Keziah, as she took the
cup in her hand. "You must have dropped some soot into it." Then, as she
raised it to her lips, "It does not smell quite right. But, woe's me! how
can I expect anybody but myself to make this precious drink as it should
She drank it off at two gulps; for she appeared to hurry it off faster than
usual, as if not tempted by the exquisiteness of its flavor to dwell upon
it so long.
"You have not made it just right, Seppy," said she in a milder tone than
before, for she seemed to feel the customary soothing influence of the
draught, "but you'll do better the next time. It had a queer taste,
methought; or is it that my mouth is getting out of taste? Hard times it
will be for poor Aunt Kezzy, if she's to lose her taste for the medicine
that, under Providence, has saved her life for so many years."
She gave back the cup to Septimius, after looking a little curiously at the
"It looks like bloodroot, don't it?" said she. "Perhaps it's my own fault
after all. I gathered a fresh bunch of the yarbs yesterday afternoon, and
put them to steep, and it may be I was a little blind, for it was between
daylight and dark, and the moon shone on me before I had finished. I
thought how the witches used to gather their poisonous stuff at such
times, and what pleasant uses they made of it,--but those are sinful
thoughts, Seppy, sinful thoughts! so I'll say a prayer and try to go to
sleep. I feel very noddy all at once."
Septimius drew the bedclothes up about her shoulders, for she complained of
being very chilly, and, carefully putting her stick within reach, went
down to his own room, and resumed his studies, trying to make out from
those aged hieroglyphics, to which he was now so well accustomed, what was
the precise method of making the elixir of immortality. Sometimes, as men
in deep thought do, he rose from his chair, and walked to and fro the four
or five steps or so that conveyed him from end to end of his little room.
At one of these times he chanced to look in the little looking-glass that
hung between the windows, and was startled at the paleness of his face. It
was quite white, indeed. Septimius was not in the least a foppish young
man; careless he was in dress, though often his apparel took an unsought
picturesqueness that set off his slender, agile figure, perhaps from some
quality of spontaneous arrangement that he had inherited from his Indian
ancestry. Yet many women might have found a charm in that dark, thoughtful
face, with its hidden fire and energy, although Septimius never thought of
its being handsome, and seldom looked at it. Yet now he was drawn to it by
seeing how strangely white it was, and, gazing at it, he observed that
since he considered it last, a very deep furrow, or corrugation, or
fissure, it might almost be called, had indented his brow, rising from the
commencement of his nose towards the centre of the forehead. And he knew
it was his brooding thought, his fierce, hard determination, his intense
concentrativeness for so many months, that had been digging that furrow;
and it must prove indeed a potent specific of the life-water that would
smooth that away, and restore him all the youth and elasticity that he had
buried in that profound grave.
But why was he so pale? He could have supposed himself startled by some
ghastly thing that he had just seen; by a corpse in the next room, for
instance; or else by the foreboding that one would soon be there; but yet
he was conscious of no tremor in his frame, no terror in his heart; as why
should there be any? Feeling his own pulse, he found the strong, regular
beat that should be there. He was not ill, nor affrighted; not expectant
of any pain. Then why so ghastly pale? And why, moreover, Septimius, did
you listen so earnestly for any sound in Aunt Keziah's chamber? Why did
you creep on tiptoe, once, twice, three times, up to the old woman's
chamber, and put your ear to the keyhole, and listen breathlessly? Well;
it must have been that he was subconscious that he was trying a bold
experiment, and that he had taken this poor old woman to be the medium of
it, in the hope, of course, that it would turn out well; yet with other
views than her interest in the matter. What was the harm of that? Medical
men, no doubt, are always doing so, and he was a medical man for the time.
Then why was he so pale?
He sat down and fell into a reverie, which perhaps was partly suggested by
that chief furrow which he had seen, and which we have spoken of, in his
brow. He considered whether there was anything in this pursuit of his that
used up life particularly fast; so that, perhaps, unless he were
successful soon, he should be incapable of renewal; for, looking within
himself, and considering his mode of being, he had a singular fancy that
his heart was gradually drying up, and that he must continue to get some
moisture for it, or else it would soon be like a withered leaf. Supposing
his pursuit were vain, what a waste he was making of that little treasure
of golden days, which was his all! Could this be called life, which he was
leading now? How unlike that of other young men! How unlike that of Robert
Hagburn, for example! There had come news yesterday of his having
performed a gallant part in the battle of Monmouth, and being promoted to
be a captain for his brave conduct. Without thinking of long life, he
really lived in heroic actions and emotions; he got much life in a little,
and did not fear to sacrifice a lifetime of torpid breaths, if necessary,
to the ecstasy of a glorious death!
[_It appears from a written sketch by the author of this story, that he
changed his first plan of making Septimius and Rose lovers, and she was to
be represented as his half-sister, and in the copy for publication this
alteration would have been made_.--ED.]
And then Robert loved, too, loved his sister Rose, and felt, doubtless, an
immortality in that passion. Why could not Septimius love too? It was
forbidden! Well, no matter; whom could he have loved? Who, in all this
world would have been suited to his secret, brooding heart, that he could
have let her into its mysterious chambers, and walked with her from one
cavernous gloom to another, and said, "Here are my treasures. I make thee
mistress of all these; with all these goods I thee endow." And then,
revealing to her his great secret and purpose of gaining immortal life,
have said: "This shall be thine, too. Thou shalt share with me. We will
walk along the endless path together, and keep one another's hearts warm,
and so be content to live."
Ah, Septimius! but now you are getting beyond those rules of yours, which,
cold as they are, have been drawn out of a subtle philosophy, and might,
were it possible to follow them out, suffice to do all that you ask of
them; but if you break them, you do it at the peril of your earthly
immortality. Each warmer and quicker throb of the heart wears away so much
of life. The passions, the affections, are a wine not to be indulged in.
Love, above all, being in its essence an immortal thing, cannot be long
contained in an earthly body, but would wear it out with its own secret
power, softly invigorating as it seems. You must be cold, therefore,
Septimius; you must not even earnestly and passionately desire this
immortality that seems so necessary to you. Else the very wish will
prevent the possibility of its fulfilment.
By and by, to call him out of these rhapsodies, came Rose home; and finding
the kitchen hearth cold, and Aunt Keziah missing, and no dinner by the
fire, which was smouldering,--nothing but the portentous earthen jug,
which fumed, and sent out long, ill-flavored sighs, she tapped at
Septimius's door, and asked him what was the matter.
"Aunt Keziah has had an ill turn," said Septimius, "and has gone to bed."
"Poor auntie!" said Rose, with her quick sympathy. "I will this moment run
up and see if she needs anything."
"No, Rose," said Septimius, "she has doubtless gone to sleep, and will
awake as well as usual. It would displease her much were you to miss your
afternoon school; so you had better set the table with whatever there is
left of yesterday's dinner, and leave me to take care of auntie."
"Well," said Rose, "she loves you best; but if she be really ill, I shall
give up my school and nurse her."
"No doubt," said Septimius, "she will be about the house again to-morrow."
So Rose ate her frugal dinner (consisting chiefly of purslain, and some
other garden herbs, which her thrifty aunt had prepared for boiling), and
went away as usual to her school; for Aunt Keziah, as aforesaid, had never
encouraged the tender ministrations of Rose, whose orderly, womanly
character, with its well-defined orb of daily and civilized duties, had
always appeared to strike her as tame; and she once said to her, "You are
no squaw, child, and you'll never make a witch." Nor would she even so
much as let Rose put her tea to steep, or do anything whatever for herself
personally; though, certainly, she was not backward in requiring of her a
due share of labor for the general housekeeping.
Septimius was sitting in his room, as the afternoon wore away; because, for
some reason or other, or, quite as likely, for no reason at all, he did
not air himself and his thoughts, as usual, on the hill; so he was sitting
musing, thinking, looking into his mysterious manuscript, when he heard
Aunt Keziah moving in the chamber above. First she seemed to rattle a
chair; then she began a slow, regular beat with the stick which Septimius
had left by her bedside, and which startled him strangely,--so that,
indeed, his heart beat faster than the five-and-seventy throbs to which he
was restricted by the wise rules that he had digested. So he ran hastily
up stairs, and behold, Aunt Keziah was sitting up in bed, looking very
wild,--so wild that you would have thought she was going to fly up chimney
the next minute; her gray hair all dishevelled, her eyes staring, her
hands clutching forward, while she gave a sort of howl, what with pain and
"Seppy! Seppy!" said she,--"Seppy, my darling! are you quite sure you
remember how to make that precious drink?"
"Quite well, Aunt Keziah," said Septimius, inwardly much alarmed by her
aspect, but preserving a true Indian composure of outward mien. "I wrote
it down, and could say it by heart besides. Shall I make you a fresh pot
of it? for I have thrown away the other."
"That was well, Seppy," said the poor old woman, "for there is something
wrong about it; but I want no more, for, Seppy dear, I am going fast out
of this world, where you and that precious drink were my only treasures
and comforts. I wanted to know if you remembered the recipe; it is all I
have to leave you, and the more you drink of it, Seppy, the better. Only
see to make it right!"
"Dear auntie, what can I do for you?" said Septimius, in much
consternation, but still calm. "Let me run for the doctor,--for the
neighbors? something must be done!"
The old woman contorted herself as if there were a fearful time in her
insides; and grinned, and twisted the yellow ugliness of her face, and
groaned, and howled; and yet there was a tough and fierce kind of
endurance with which she fought with her anguish, and would not yield to
it a jot, though she allowed herself the relief of shrieking savagely at
it,--much more like a defiance than a cry for mercy.
"No doctor! no woman!" said she; "if my drink could not save me, what would
a doctor's foolish pills and powders do? And a woman! If old Martha
Denton, the witch, were alive, I would be glad to see her. But other
women! Pah! Ah! Ai! Oh! Phew! Ah, Seppy, what a mercy it would be now if I
could set to and blaspheme a bit, and shake my fist at the sky! But I'm a
Christian woman, Seppy,--a Christian woman."
"Shall I send for the minister, Aunt Keziah?" asked Septimius. "He is a
good man, and a wise one."
"No minister for me, Seppy," said Aunt Keziah, howling as if somebody were
choking her. "He may be a good man, and a wise one, but he's not wise
enough to know the way to my heart, and never a man as was! Eh, Seppy, I'm
a Christian woman, but I'm not like other Christian women; and I'm glad
I'm going away from this stupid world. I've not been a bad woman, and I
deserve credit for it, for it would have suited me a great deal better to
be bad. Oh, what a delightful time a witch must have had, starting off up
chimney on her broomstick at midnight, and looking down from aloft in the
sky on the sleeping village far below, with its steeple pointing up at
her, so that she might touch the golden weathercock! You, meanwhile, in
such an ecstasy, and all below you the dull, innocent, sober humankind;
the wife sleeping by her husband, or mother by her child, squalling with
wind in its stomach; the goodman driving up his cattle and his
plough,--all so innocent, all so stupid, with their dull days just alike,
one after another. And you up in the air, sweeping away to some nook in
the forest! Ha! What's that? A wizard! Ha! ha! Known below as a deacon!
There is Goody Chickering! How quietly she sent the young people to bed
after prayers! There is an Indian; there a nigger; they all have equal
rights and privileges at a witch-meeting. Phew! the wind blows cold up
here! Why does not the Black Man have the meeting at his own kitchen
hearth? Ho! ho! Oh dear me! But I'm a Christian woman and no witch; but
those must have been gallant times!"
Doubtless it was a partial wandering of the mind that took the poor old
woman away on this old-witch flight; and it was very curious and pitiful
to witness the compunction with which she returned to herself and took
herself to task for the preference which, in her wild nature, she could
not help giving to harum-scarum wickedness over tame goodness. Now she
tried to compose herself, and talk reasonably and godly.
"Ah, Septimius, my dear child, never give way to temptation, nor consent to
be a wizard, though the Black Man persuade you ever so hard. I know he
will try. He has tempted me, but I never yielded, never gave him his will;
and never do you, my boy, though you, with your dark complexion, and your
brooding brow, and your eye veiled, only when it suddenly looks out with a
flash of fire in it, are the sort of man he seeks most, and that
afterwards serves him. But don't do it, Septimius. But if you could be an
Indian, methinks it would be better than this tame life we lead. 'T would
have been better for me, at all events. Oh, how pleasant 't would have
been to spend my life wandering in the woods, smelling the pines and the
hemlock all day, and fresh things of all kinds, and no kitchen work to
do,--not to rake up the fire, nor sweep the room, nor make the beds,--but
to sleep on fresh boughs in a wigwam, with the leaves still on the
branches that made the roof! And then to see the deer brought in by the
red hunter, and the blood streaming from the arrow-dart! Ah! and the fight
too! and the scalping! and, perhaps, a woman might creep into the battle,
and steal the wounded enemy away of her tribe and scalp him, and be
praised for it! O Seppy, how I hate the thought of the dull life women
lead! A white woman's life is so dull! Thank Heaven, I'm done with it! If
I'm ever to live again, may I be whole Indian, please my Maker!"
After this goodly outburst, Aunt Keziah lay quietly for a few moments, and
her skinny claws being clasped together, and her yellow visage grinning,
as pious an aspect as was attainable by her harsh and pain-distorted
features, Septimius perceived that she was in prayer. And so it proved by
what followed, for the old woman turned to him with a grim tenderness on
her face, and stretched out her hand to be taken in his own. He clasped
the bony talon in both his hands.
"Seppy, my dear, I feel a great peace, and I don't think there is so very
much to trouble me in the other world. It won't be all house-work, and
keeping decent, and doing like other people there. I suppose I needn't
expect to ride on a broomstick,--that would be wrong in any kind of a
world,--but there may be woods to wander in, and a pipe to smoke in the
air of heaven; trees to hear the wind in, and to smell of, and all such
natural, happy things; and by and by I shall hope to see you there, Seppy,
my darling boy! Come by and by; 't is n't worth your while to live
forever, even if you should find out what's wanting in the drink I've
taught you. I can see a little way into the next world now, and I see it
to be far better than this heavy and wretched old place. You'll die when
your time comes; won't you, Seppy, my darling?"
"Yes, dear auntie, when my time comes," said Septimius. "Very likely I
shall want to live no longer by that time."
"Likely not," said the old woman. "I'm sure I don't. It is like going to
sleep on my mother's breast to die. So good night, dear Seppy!"
"Good night, and God bless you, auntie!" said Septimius, with a gush of
tears blinding him, spite of his Indian nature.
The old woman composed herself, and lay quite still and decorous for a
short time; then, rousing herself a little, "Septimius," said she, "is
there just a little drop of my drink left? Not that I want to live any
longer, but if I could sip ever so little, I feel as if I should step into
the other world quite cheery, with it warm in my heart, and not feel shy
and bashful at going among strangers."
"Not one drop, auntie."
"Ah, well, no matter! It was not quite right, that last cup. It had a queer
taste. What could you have put into it, Seppy, darling? But no matter, no
matter! It's a precious stuff, if you make it right. Don't forget the
herbs, Septimius. Something wrong had certainly got into it."
These, except for some murmurings, some groanings and unintelligible
whisperings, were the last utterances of poor Aunt Keziah, who did not
live a great while longer, and at last passed away in a great sigh, like a
gust of wind among the trees, she having just before stretched out her
hand again and grasped that of Septimius; and he sat watching her and
gazing at her, wondering and horrified, touched, shocked by death, of
which he had so unusual a terror,--and by the death of this creature
especially, with whom he felt a sympathy that did not exist with any other
person now living. So long did he sit, holding her hand, that at last he
was conscious that it was growing cold within his own, and that the
stiffening fingers clutched him, as if they were disposed to keep their
hold, and not forego the tie that had been so peculiar.
Then rushing hastily forth, he told the nearest available neighbor, who was
Robert Hagburn's mother; and she summoned some of her gossips, and came to
the house, and took poor Aunt Keziah in charge. They talked of her with no
great respect, I fear, nor much sorrow, nor sense that the community would
suffer any great deprivation in her loss; for, in their view, she was a
dram-drinking, pipe-smoking, cross-grained old maid, and, as some thought,
a witch; and, at any rate, with too much of the Indian blood in her to be
of much use; and they hoped that now Rose Garfield would have a pleasanter
life, and Septimius study to be a minister, and all things go well, and
the place be cheerfuller. They found Aunt Keziah's bottle in the cupboard,
and tasted and smelt of it.
"Good West Indjy as ever I tasted," said Mrs. Hagburn; "and there stands
her broken pitcher, on the hearth. Ah, empty! I never could bring my mind
to taste it; but now I'm sorry I never did, for I suppose nobody in the
world can make any more of it."
Septimius, meanwhile, had betaken himself to the hill-top, which was his
place of refuge on all occasions when the house seemed too stifled to
contain him; and there he walked to and fro, with a certain kind of
calmness and indifference that he wondered at; for there is hardly
anything in this world so strange as the quiet surface that spreads over a
man's mind in his greatest emergencies: so that he deems himself perfectly
quiet, and upbraids himself with not feeling anything, when indeed he is
passion-stirred. As Septimius walked to and fro, he looked at the rich
crimson flowers, which seemed to be blooming in greater profusion and
luxuriance than ever before. He had made an experiment with these flowers,
and he was curious to know whether that experiment had been the cause of
Aunt Keziah's death. Not that he felt any remorse therefor, in any case,
or believed himself to have committed a crime, having really intended and
desired nothing but good. I suppose such things (and he must be a lucky