Part 3 out of 3
physician, methinks, who has no such mischief within his own experience)
never weigh with deadly weight on any man's conscience. Something must be
risked in the cause of science, and in desperate cases something must be
risked for the patient's self. Septimius, much as he loved life, would not
have hesitated to put his own life to the same risk that he had imposed on
Aunt Keziah; or, if he did hesitate, it would have been only because, if
the experiment turned out disastrously in his own person, he would not be
in a position to make another and more successful trial; whereas, by
trying it on others, the man of science still reserves himself for new
efforts, and does not put all the hopes of the world, so far as involved
in his success, on one cast of the die.
By and by he met Sibyl Dacy, who had ascended the hill, as was usual with
her, at sunset, and came towards him, gazing earnestly in his face.
"They tell me poor Aunt Keziah is no more," said she.
"She is dead," said Septimius.
"The flower is a very famous medicine," said the girl, "but everything
depends on its being applied in the proper way."
"Do you know the way, then?" asked Septimius.
"No; you should ask Doctor Portsoaken about that," said Sibyl.
Doctor Portsoaken! And so he should consult him. That eminent chemist and
scientific man had evidently heard of the recipe, and at all events would
be acquainted with the best methods of getting the virtues out of flowers
and herbs, some of which, Septimius had read enough to know, were poison
in one phase and shape of preparation, and possessed of richest virtues in
others; their poison, as one may say, serving as a dark and terrible
safeguard, which Providence has set to watch over their preciousness; even
as a dragon, or some wild and fiendish spectre, is set to watch and keep
hidden gold and heaped-up diamonds. A dragon always waits on everything
that is very good. And what would deserve the watch and ward of danger of
a dragon, or something more fatal than a dragon, if not this treasure of
which Septimius was in quest, and the discovery and possession of which
would enable him to break down one of the strongest barriers of nature? It
ought to be death, he acknowledged it, to attempt such a thing; for how
hanged would be life if he should succeed; how necessary it was that
mankind should be defended from such attempts on the general rule on the
part of all but him. How could Death be spared?--then the sire would live
forever, and the heir never come to his inheritance, and so he would at
once hate his own father, from the perception that he would never be out
of his way. Then the same class of powerful minds would always rule the
state, and there would never be a change of policy. [_Here several pages
* * * * *
Through such scenes Septimius sought out the direction that Doctor
Portsoaken had given him, and came to the door of a house in the olden
part of the town. The Boston of those days had very much the aspect of
provincial towns in England, such as may still be seen there, while our
own city has undergone such wonderful changes that little likeness to what
our ancestors made it can now be found. The streets, crooked and narrow;
the houses, many gabled, projecting, with latticed windows and diamond
panes; without sidewalks; with rough pavements.
Septimius knocked loudly at the door, nor had long to wait before a
serving-maid appeared, who seemed to be of English nativity; and in reply
to his request for Doctor Portsoaken bade him come in, and led him up a
staircase with broad landing-places; then tapped at the door of a room,
and was responded to by a gruff voice saying, "Come in!" The woman held
the door open, and Septimius saw the veritable Doctor Portsoaken in an
old, faded morning-gown, and with a nightcap on his head, his German pipe
in his mouth, and a brandy-bottle, to the best of our belief, on the table
by his side.
"Come in, come in," said the gruff doctor, nodding to Septimius. "I
remember you. Come in, man, and tell me your business."
Septimius did come in, but was so struck by the aspect of Dr. Portsoaken's
apartment, and his gown, that he did not immediately tell his business. In
the first place, everything looked very dusty and dirty, so that evidently
no woman had ever been admitted into this sanctity of a place; a fact made
all the more evident by the abundance of spiders, who had spun their webs
about the walls and ceiling in the wildest apparent confusion, though
doubtless each individual spider knew the cordage which he had lengthened
out of his own miraculous bowels. But it was really strange. They had
festooned their cordage on whatever was stationary in the room, making a
sort of gray, dusky tapestry, that waved portentously in the breeze, and
flapped, heavy and dismal, each with its spider in the centre of his own
system. And what was most marvellous was a spider over the doctor's head;
a spider, I think, of some South American breed, with a circumference of
its many legs as big, unless I am misinformed, as a teacup, and with a
body in the midst as large as a dollar; giving the spectator horrible
qualms as to what would be the consequence if this spider should be
crushed, and, at the same time, suggesting the poisonous danger of
suffering such a monster to live. The monster, however, sat in the midst
of the stalwart cordage of his web, right over the doctor's head; and he
looked, with all those complicated lines, like the symbol of a conjurer or
crafty politician in the midst of the complexity of his scheme; and
Septimius wondered if he were not the type of Dr. Portsoaken himself, who,
fat and bloated as the spider, seemed to be the centre of some dark
contrivance. And could it be that poor Septimius was typified by the
fascinated fly, doomed to be entangled by the web?
"Good day to you," said the gruff doctor, taking his pipe from his mouth.
"Here I am, with my brother spiders, in the midst of my web. I told you,
you remember, the wonderful efficacy which I had discovered in spiders'
webs; and this is my laboratory, where I have hundreds of workmen
concocting my panacea for me. Is it not a lovely sight?"
"A wonderful one, at least," said Septimius. "That one above your head, the
monster, is calculated to give a very favorable idea of your theory. What
a quantity of poison there must be in him!"
"Poison, do you call it?" quoth the grim doctor. "That's entirely as it may
be used. Doubtless his bite would send a man to kingdom come; but, on the
other hand, no one need want a better life-line than that fellow's web. He
and I are firm friends, and I believe he would know my enemies by
instinct. But come, sit down, and take a glass of brandy. No? Well, I'll
drink it for you. And how is the old aunt yonder, with her infernal
nostrum, the bitterness and nauseousness of which my poor stomach has not
"My Aunt Keziah is no more," said Septimius.
"No more! Well, I trust in Heaven she has carried her secret with her,"
said the doctor. "If anything could comfort you for her loss, it would be
that. But what brings you to Boston?"
"Only a dried flower or two," said Septimius, producing some specimens of
the strange growth of the grave. "I want you to tell me about them."
The naturalist took the flowers in his hand, one of which had the root
appended, and examined them with great minuteness and some surprise; two
or three times looking in Septimius's face with a puzzled and inquiring
air; then examined them again.
"Do you tell me," said he, "that the plant has been found indigenous in
this country, and in your part of it? And in what locality?"
"Indigenous, so far as I know," answered Septimius. "As to the
locality,"--he hesitated a little,--"it is on a small hillock, scarcely
bigger than a molehill, on the hill-top behind my house."
The naturalist looked steadfastly at him with red, burning eyes, under his
deep, impending, shaggy brows; then again at the flower.
"Flower, do you call it?" said he, after a reexamination. "This is no
flower, though it so closely resembles one, and a beautiful one,--yes,
most beautiful. But it is no flower. It is a certain very rare fungus,--so
rare as almost to be thought fabulous; and there are the strangest
superstitions, coming down from ancient times, as to the mode of
production. What sort of manure had been put into that hillock? Was it
merely dried leaves, the refuse of the forest, or something else?"
Septimius hesitated a little; but there was no reason why he should not
disclose the truth,--as much of it as Doctor Portsoaken cared to know.
"The hillock where it grew," answered he, "was a grave."
"A grave! Strange! strange!" quoth Doctor Portsoaken. "Now these old
superstitions sometimes prove to have a germ of truth in them, which some
philosopher has doubtless long ago, in forgotten ages, discovered and made
known; but in process of time his learned memory passes away, but the
truth, undiscovered, survives him, and the people get hold of it, and make
it the nucleus of all sorts of folly. So it grew out of a grave! Yes, yes;
and probably it would have grown out of any other dead flesh, as well as
that of a human being; a dog would have answered the purpose as well as a
man. You must know that the seeds of fungi are scattered so universally
over the world that, only comply with the conditions, and you will produce
them everywhere. Prepare the bed it loves, and a mushroom will spring up
spontaneously, an excellent food, like manna from heaven. So superstition
says, kill your deadliest enemy, and plant him, and he will come up in a
delicious fungus, which I presume to be this; steep him, or distil him,
and he will make an elixir of life for you. I suppose there is some
foolish symbolism or other about the matter; but the fact I affirm to be
nonsense. Dead flesh under some certain conditions of rain and sunshine,
not at present ascertained by science, will produce the fungus, whether
the manure be friend, or foe, or cattle."
"And as to its medical efficacy?" asked Septimius.
"That may be great for aught I know," said Portsoaken; "but I am content
with my cobwebs. You may seek it out for yourself. But if the poor fellow
lost his life in the supposition that he might be a useful ingredient in a
recipe, you are rather an unscrupulous practitioner."
"The person whose mortal relics fill that grave," said Septimius, "was no
enemy of mine (no private enemy, I mean, though he stood among the enemies
of my country), nor had I anything to gain by his death. I strove to avoid
aiming at his life, but he compelled me."
"Many a chance shot brings down the bird," said Doctor Portsoaken. "You say
you had no interest in his death. We shall see that in the end."
Septimius did not try to follow the conversation among the mysterious hints
with which the doctor chose to involve it; but he now sought to gain some
information from him as to the mode of preparing the recipe, and whether
he thought it would be most efficacious as a decoction, or as a
distillation. The learned chemist supported most decidedly the latter
opinion, and showed Septimius how he might make for himself a simpler
apparatus, with no better aids than Aunt Keziah's teakettle, and one or
two trifling things, which the doctor himself supplied, by which all might
be done with every necessary scrupulousness.
"Let me look again at the formula," said he. "There are a good many minute
directions that appear trifling, but it is not safe to neglect any
minutiae in the preparation of an affair like this; because, as it is all
mysterious and unknown ground together, we cannot tell which may be the
important and efficacious part. For instance, when all else is done, the
recipe is to be exposed seven days to the sun at noon. That does not look
very important, but it may be. Then again, 'Steep it in moonlight during
the second quarter.' That's all moonshine, one would think; but there's no
saying. It is singular, with such preciseness, that no distinct directions
are given whether to infuse, decoct, distil, or what other way; but my
advice is to distil."
"I will do it," said Septimius, "and not a direction shall be neglected."
"I shall be curious to know the result," said Doctor Portsoaken, "and am
glad to see the zeal with which you enter into the matter. A very valuable
medicine may be recovered to science through your agency, and you may make
your fortune by it; though, for my part, I prefer to trust to my cobwebs.
This spider, now, is not he a lovely object? See, he is quite capable of
knowledge and affection."
There seemed, in fact, to be some mode of communication between the doctor
and his spider, for on some sign given by the former, imperceptible to
Septimius, the many-legged monster let himself down by a cord, which he
extemporized out of his own bowels, and came dangling his huge bulk down
before his master's face, while the latter lavished many epithets of
endearment upon him, ludicrous, and not without horror, as applied to such
a hideous production of nature.
"I assure you," said Dr. Portsoaken, "I run some risk from my intimacy with
this lovely jewel, and if I behave not all the more prudently, your
countrymen will hang me for a wizard, and annihilate this precious spider
as my familiar. There would be a loss to the world; not small in my own
case, but enormous in the case of the spider. Look at him now, and see if
the mere uninstructed observation does not discover a wonderful value in
In truth, when looked at closely, the spider really showed that a care and
art had been bestowed upon his make, not merely as regards curiosity, but
absolute beauty, that seemed to indicate that he must be a rather
distinguished creature in the view of Providence; so variegated was he
with a thousand minute spots, spots of color, glorious radiance, and such
a brilliance was attained by many conglomerated brilliancies; and it was
very strange that all this care was bestowed on a creature that, probably,
had never been carefully considered except by the two pair of eyes that
were now upon it; and that, in spite of its beauty and magnificence, could
only be looked at with an effort to overcome the mysterious repulsiveness
of its presence; for all the time that Septimius looked and admired, he
still hated the thing, and thought it wrong that it was ever born, and
wished that it could be annihilated. Whether the spider was conscious of
the wish, we are unable to say; but certainly Septimius felt as if he were
hostile to him, and had a mind to sting him; and, in fact, Dr. Portsoaken
seemed of the same opinion.
"Aha, my friend," said he, "I would advise you not to come too near
Orontes! He is a lovely beast, it is true; but in a certain recess of this
splendid form of his he keeps a modest supply of a certain potent and
piercing poison, which would produce a wonderful effect on any flesh to
which he chose to apply it. A powerful fellow is Orontes; and he has a
great sense of his own dignity and importance, and will not allow it to be
Septimius moved from the vicinity of the spider, who, in fact, retreated,
by climbing up his cord, and ensconced himself in the middle of his web,
where he remained waiting for his prey. Septimius wondered whether the
doctor were symbolized by the spider, and was likewise waiting in the
middle of his web for his prey. As he saw no way, however, in which the
doctor could make a profit out of himself, or how he could be victimized,
the thought did not much disturb his equanimity. He was about to take his
leave, but the doctor, in a derisive kind of way, bade him sit still, for
he purposed keeping him as a guest, that night, at least.
"I owe you a dinner," said he, "and will pay it with a supper and
knowledge; and before we part I have certain inquiries to make, of which
you may not at first see the object, but yet are not quite purposeless. My
familiar, up aloft there, has whispered me something about you, and I rely
greatly on his intimations."
Septimius, who was sufficiently common-sensible, and invulnerable to
superstitious influences on every point except that to which he had
surrendered himself, was easily prevailed upon to stay; for he found the
singular, charlatanic, mysterious lore of the man curious, and he had
enough of real science to at least make him an object of interest to one
who knew nothing of the matter; and Septimius's acuteness, too, was piqued
in trying to make out what manner of man he really was, and how much in
him was genuine science and self-belief, and how much quackery and
pretension and conscious empiricism. So he stayed, and supped with the
doctor at a table heaped more bountifully, and with rarer dainties, than
Septimius had ever before conceived of; and in his simpler cognizance,
heretofore, of eating merely to live, he could not but wonder to see a man
of thought caring to eat of more than one dish, so that most of the meal,
on his part, was spent in seeing the doctor feed and hearing him discourse
upon his food.
"If man lived only to eat," quoth the doctor, "one life would not suffice,
not merely to exhaust the pleasure of it, but even to get the rudiments of
When this important business was over, the doctor and his guest sat down
again in his laboratory, where the former took care to have his usual
companion, the black bottle, at his elbow, and filled his pipe, and seemed
to feel a certain sullen, genial, fierce, brutal, kindly mood enough, and
looked at Septimius with a sort of friendship, as if he had as lief shake
hands with him as knock him down.
"Now for a talk about business," said he.
Septimius thought, however, that the doctor's talk began, at least, at a
sufficient remoteness from any practical business; for he began to
question about his remote ancestry, what he knew, or what record had been
preserved, of the first emigrant from England; whence, from what shire or
part of England, that ancestor had come; whether there were any memorial
of any kind remaining of him, any letters or written documents, wills,
deeds, or other legal paper; in short, all about him.
Septimius could not satisfactorily see whether these inquiries were made
with any definite purpose, or from a mere general curiosity to discover
how a family of early settlement in America might still be linked with the
old country; whether there were any tendrils stretching across the gulf of
a hundred and fifty years by which the American branch of the family was
separated from the trunk of the family tree in England. The doctor partly
"You must know," said he, "that the name you bear, Felton, is one formerly
of much eminence and repute in my part of England, and, indeed, very
recently possessed of wealth and station. I should like to know if you are
of that race."
Septimius answered with such facts and traditions as had come to his
knowledge respecting his family history; a sort of history that is quite
as liable to be mythical, in its early and distant stages, as that of
Rome, and, indeed, seldom goes three or four generations back without
getting into a mist really impenetrable, though great, gloomy, and
magnificent shapes of men often seem to loom in it, who, if they could be
brought close to the naked eye, would turn out as commonplace as the
descendants who wonder at and admire them. He remembered Aunt Keziah's
legend and said he had reason to believe that his first ancestor came over
at a somewhat earlier date than the first Puritan settlers, and dwelt
among the Indians where (and here the young man cast down his eyes, having
the customary American abhorrence for any mixture of blood) he had
intermarried with the daughter of a sagamore, and succeeded to his rule.
This might have happened as early as the end of Elizabeth's reign, perhaps
later. It was impossible to decide dates on such a matter. There had been
a son of this connection, perhaps more than one, but certainly one son,
who, on the arrival of the Puritans, was a youth, his father appearing to
have been slain in some outbreak of the tribe, perhaps owing to the
jealousy of prominent chiefs at seeing their natural authority abrogated
or absorbed by a man of different race. He slightly alluded to the
supernatural attributes that gathered round this predecessor, but in a way
to imply that he put no faith in them; for Septimius's natural keen sense
and perception kept him from betraying his weaknesses to the doctor, by
the same instinctive and subtle caution with which a madman can so well
conceal his infirmity.
On the arrival of the Puritans, they had found among the Indians a youth
partly of their own blood, able, though imperfectly, to speak their
language,--having, at least, some early recollections of it,--inheriting,
also, a share of influence over the tribe on which his father had grafted
him. It was natural that they should pay especial attention to this youth,
consider it their duty to give him religious instruction in the faith of
his fathers, and try to use him as a means of influencing his tribe. They
did so, but did not succeed in swaying the tribe by his means, their
success having been limited to winning the half-Indian from the wild ways
of his mother's people, into a certain partial, but decent accommodation
to those of the English. A tendency to civilization was brought out in his
character by their rigid training; at least, his savage wildness was
broken. He built a house among them, with a good deal of the wigwam, no
doubt, in its style of architecture, but still a permanent house, near
which he established a corn-field, a pumpkin-garden, a melon-patch, and
became farmer enough to be entitled to ask the hand of a Puritan maiden.
There he spent his life, with some few instances of temporary relapse into
savage wildness, when he fished in the river Musquehannah, or in Walden,
or strayed in the woods, when he should have been planting or hoeing; but,
on the whole, the race had been redeemed from barbarism in his person, and
in the succeeding generations had been tamed more and more. The second
generation had been distinguished in the Indian wars of the provinces, and
then intermarried with the stock of a distinguished Puritan divine, by
which means Septimius could reckon great and learned men, scholars of old
Cambridge, among his ancestry on one side, while on the other it ran up to
the early emigrants, who seemed to have been remarkable men, and to that
strange wild lineage of Indian chiefs, whose blood was like that of
persons not quite human, intermixed with civilized blood.
"I wonder," said the doctor, musingly, "whether there are really no
documents to ascertain the epoch at which that old first emigrant came
over, and whence he came, and precisely from what English family. Often
the last heir of some respectable name dies in England, and we say that
the family is extinct; whereas, very possibly, it may be abundantly
flourishing in the New World, revived by the rich infusion of new blood in
a new soil, instead of growing feebler, heavier, stupider, each year by
sticking to an old soil, intermarrying over and over again with the same
respectable families, till it has made common stock of all their vices,
weaknesses, madnesses. Have you no documents, I say, no muniment deed?"
"None," said Septimius.
"No old furniture, desks, trunks, chests, cabinets?"
"You must remember," said Septimius, "that my Indian ancestor was not very
likely to have brought such things out of the forest with him. A wandering
Indian does not carry a chest of papers with him. I do remember, in my
childhood, a little old iron-bound chest, or coffer, of which the key was
lost, and which my Aunt Keziah used to say came down from her
great-great-grandfather. I don't know what has become of it, and my poor
old aunt kept it among her own treasures."
"Well, my friend, do you hunt up that old coffer, and, just as a matter of
curiosity, let me see the contents."
"I have other things to do," said Septimius.
"Perhaps so," quoth the doctor, "but no other, as it may turn out, of quite
so much importance as this. I'll tell you fairly: the heir of a great
English house is lately dead, and the estate lies open to any
well-sustained, perhaps to any plausible, claimant. If it should appear
from the records of that family, as I have some reason to suppose, that a
member of it, who would now represent the older branch, disappeared
mysteriously and unaccountably, at a date corresponding with what might be
ascertained as that of your ancestor's first appearance in this country;
if any reasonable proof can be brought forward, on the part of the
representatives of that white sagamore, that wizard pow-wow, or however
you call him, that he was the disappearing Englishman, why, a good case is
made out. Do you feel no interest in such a prospect?"
"Very little, I confess," said Septimius.
"Very little!" said the grim doctor, impatiently. "Do not you see that, if
you make good your claim, you establish for yourself a position among the
English aristocracy, and succeed to a noble English estate, an ancient
hall, where your forefathers have dwelt since the Conqueror; splendid
gardens, hereditary woods and parks, to which anything America can show is
despicable,--all thoroughly cultivated and adorned, with the care and
ingenuity of centuries; and an income, a month of which would be greater
wealth than any of your American ancestors, raking and scraping for his
lifetime, has ever got together, as the accumulated result of the toil and
penury by which he has sacrificed body and soul?"
"That strain of Indian blood is in me yet," said Septimius, "and it makes
me despise,--no, not despise; for I can see their desirableness for other
people,--but it makes me reject for myself what you think so valuable. I
do not care for these common aims. I have ambition, but it is for prizes
such as other men cannot gain, and do not think of aspiring after. I could
not live in the habits of English life, as I conceive it to be, and would
not, for my part, be burdened with the great estate you speak of. It might
answer my purpose for a time. It would suit me well enough to try that
mode of life, as well as a hundred others, but only for a time. It is of
no permanent importance."
"I'll tell you what it is, young man," said the doctor, testily, "you have
something in your brain that makes you talk very foolishly; and I have
partly a suspicion what it is,--only I can't think that a fellow who is
really gifted with respectable sense, in other directions, should be such
a confounded idiot in this."
Septimius blushed, but held his peace, and the conversation languished
after this; the doctor grimly smoking his pipe, and by no means increasing
the milkiness of his mood by frequent applications to the black bottle,
until Septimius intimated that he would like to go to bed. The old woman
was summoned, and ushered him to his chamber.
At breakfast, the doctor partially renewed the subject which he seemed to
consider most important in yesterday's conversation.
"My young friend," said he, "I advise you to look in cellar and garret, or
wherever you consider the most likely place, for that iron-bound coffer.
There may be nothing in it; it may be full of musty love-letters, or old
sermons, or receipted bills of a hundred years ago; but it may contain
what will be worth to you an estate of five thousand pounds a year. It is
a pity the old woman with the damnable decoction is gone off. Look it up,
"Well, well," said Septimius, abstractedly, "when I can find time."
So saying, he took his leave, and retraced his way back to his home. He had
not seemed like himself during the time that elapsed since he left it, and
it appeared an infinite space that he had lived through and travelled
over, and he fancied it hardly possible that he could ever get back again.
But now, with every step that he took, he found himself getting miserably
back into the old enchanted land. The mist rose up about him, the pale
mist-bow of ghostly promise curved before him; and he trod back again,
poor boy, out of the clime of real effort, into the land of his dreams and
"How was it," said he, "that I can have been so untrue to my convictions?
Whence came that dark and dull despair that weighed upon me? Why did I let
the mocking mood which I was conscious of in that brutal, brandy-burnt
sceptic have such an influence on me? Let him guzzle! He shall not tempt
me from my pursuit, with his lure of an estate and name among those heavy
English beef-eaters of whom he is a brother. My destiny is one which kings
might envy, and strive in vain to buy with principalities and kingdoms."
So he trod on air almost, in the latter parts of his journey, and instead
of being wearied, grew more airy with the latter miles that brought him to
his wayside home.
So now Septimius sat down and began in earnest his endeavors and
experiments to prepare the medicine, according to the mysterious terms of
the recipe. It seemed not possible to do it, so many rebuffs and
disappointments did he meet with. No effort would produce a combination
answering to the description of the recipe, which propounded a brilliant,
gold-colored liquid, clear as the air itself, with a certain fragrance
which was peculiar to it, and also, what was the more individual test of
the correctness of the mixture, a certain coldness of the feeling, a
chillness which was described as peculiarly refreshing and invigorating.
With all his trials, he produced nothing but turbid results, clouded
generally, or lacking something in color, and never that fragrance, and
never that coldness which was to be the test of truth. He studied all the
books of chemistry which at that period were attainable,--a period when,
in the world, it was a science far unlike what it has since become; and
when Septimius had no instruction in this country, nor could obtain any
beyond the dark, mysterious charlatanic communications of Doctor
Portsoaken. So that, in fact, he seemed to be discovering for himself the
science through which he was to work. He seemed to do everything that was
stated in the recipe, and yet no results came from it; the liquid that he
produced was nauseous to the smell,--to taste it he had a horrible
repugnance, turbid, nasty, reminding him in most respects of poor Aunt
Keziah's elixir; and it was a body without a soul, and that body dead. And
so it went on; and the poor, half-maddened Septimius began to think that
his immortal life was preserved by the mere effort of seeking for it, but
was to be spent in the quest, and was therefore to be made an eternity of
abortive misery. He pored over the document that had so possessed him,
turning its crabbed meanings every way, trying to get out of it some new
light, often tempted to fling it into the fire which he kept under his
retort, and let the whole thing go; but then again, soon rising out of
that black depth of despair, into a determination to do what he had so
long striven for. With such intense action of mind as he brought to bear
on this paper, it is wonderful that it was not spiritually distilled; that
its essence did not arise, purified from all alloy of falsehood, from all
turbidness of obscurity and ambiguity, and form a pure essence of truth
and invigorating motive, if of any it were capable. In this interval,
Septimius is said by tradition to have found out many wonderful secrets
that were almost beyond the scope of science. It was said that old Aunt
Keziah used to come with a coal of fire from unknown furnaces, to light
his distilling apparatus; it was said, too, that the ghost of the old
lord, whose ingenuity had propounded this puzzle for his descendants, used
to come at midnight and strive to explain to him this manuscript; that the
Black Man, too, met him on the hill-top, and promised him an immediate
release from his difficulties, provided he would kneel down and worship
him, and sign his name in his book, an old, iron-clasped, much-worn
volume, which he produced from his ample pockets, and showed him in it the
names of many a man whose name has become historic, and above whose ashes
kept watch an inscription testifying to his virtues and devotion,--old
autographs,--for the Black Man was the original autograph collector.
But these, no doubt, were foolish stories, conceived andpropagated in
chimney-corners, while yet there were chimney-corners and firesides, and
smoky flues. There wasno truth in such things, I am sure; the Black Man
had changedhis tactics, and knew better than to lure the human soul thus
to come to him with his musty autograph-book. So Septimiusfought with his
difficulty by himself, as many a beginner inscience has done before him;
and to his efforts in this way arepopularly attributed many herb-drinks,
and some kinds ofspruce-beer, and nostrums used for rheumatism, sore
throat,and typhus fever; but I rather think they all came from AuntKeziah;
or perhaps, like jokes to Joe Miller, all sorts ofquack medicines,
flocking at large through the community, areassigned to him or her. The
people have a little mistaken thecharacter and purpose of poor Septimius,
and remember him as aquack doctor, instead of a seeker for a secret, not
the lesssublime and elevating because it happened to be unattainable.
I know not through what medium or by what means, but it got noised abroad
that Septimius was engaged in some mysterious work; and, indeed, his
seclusion, his absorption, his indifference to all that was going on in
that weary time of war, looked strange enough to indicate that it must be
some most important business that engrossed him. On the few occasions when
he came out from his immediate haunts into the village, he had a strange,
owl-like appearance, uncombed, unbrushed, his hair long and tangled; his
face, they said, darkened with smoke; his cheeks pale; the indentation of
his brow deeper than ever before; an earnest, haggard, sulking look; and
so he went hastily along the village street, feeling as if all eyes might
find out what he had in his mind from his appearance; taking by-ways where
they were to be found, going long distances through woods and fields,
rather than short ones where the way lay through the frequented haunts of
men. For he shunned the glances of his fellow-men, probably because he had
learnt to consider them not as fellows, because he was seeking to withdraw
himself from the common bond and destiny,--because he felt, too, that on
that account his fellow-men would consider him as a traitor, an enemy, one
who had deserted their cause, and tried to withdraw his feeble shoulder
from under that great burden of death which is imposed on all men to bear,
and which, if one could escape, each other would feel his load
propertionably heavier. With these beings of a moment he had no longer any
common cause; they must go their separate ways, yet apparently the
same,--they on the broad, dusty, beaten path, that seemed always full, but
from which continually they so strangely vanished into invisibility, no
one knowing, nor long inquiring, what had become of them; he on his lonely
path, where he should tread secure, with no trouble but the loneliness,
which would be none to him. For a little while he would seem to keep them
company, but soon they would all drop away, the minister, his accustomed
towns-people, Robert Hagburn, Rose, Sibyl Dacy,--all leaving him in
blessed unknownness to adopt new temporary relations, and take a new
Sometimes, however, the prospect a little chilled him. Could he give them
all up,--the sweet sister; the friend of his childhood; the grave
instructor of his youth; the homely, life-known faces? Yes; there were
such rich possibilities in the future: for he would seek out the noblest
minds, the deepest hearts in every age, and be the friend of human time.
Only it might be sweet to have one unchangeable companion; for, unless he
strung the pearls and diamonds of life upon one unbroken affection, he
sometimes thought that his life would have nothing to give it unity and
identity; and so the longest life would be but an aggregate of insulated
fragments, which would have no relation to one another. And so it would
not be one life, but many unconnected ones. Unless he could look into the
same eyes, through the mornings of future time, opening and blessing him
with the fresh gleam of love and joy; unless the same sweet voice could
melt his thoughts together; unless some sympathy of a life side by side
with his could knit them into one; looking back upon the same things,
looking forward to the same; the long, thin thread of an individual life,
stretching onward and onward, would cease to be visible, cease to be felt,
cease, by and by, to have any real bigness in proportion to its length,
and so be virtually non-existent, except in the mere inconsiderable Now.
If a group of chosen friends, chosen out of all the world for their
adaptedness, could go on in endless life together, keeping themselves
mutually warm on the high, desolate way, then none of them need ever sigh
to be comforted in the pitiable snugness of the grave. If one especial
soul might be his companion, then how complete the fence of mutual arms,
the warmth of close-pressing breast to breast! Might there be one! O Sibyl
Perhaps it could not be. Who but himself could undergo that great trial,
and hardship, and self-denial, and firm purpose, never wavering, never
sinking for a moment, keeping his grasp on life like one who holds up by
main force a sinking and drowning friend?--how could a woman do it! He
must then give up the thought. There was a choice,--friendship, and the
love of woman,--the long life of immortality. There was something heroic
and ennobling in choosing the latter. And so he walked with the mysterious
girl on the hill-top, and sat down beside her on the grave, which still
ceased not to redden, portentously beautiful, with that unnatural
flower,--and they talked together; and Septimius looked on her weird
beauty, and often said to himself, "This, too, will pass away; she is not
capable of what I am; she is a woman. It must be a manly and courageous
and forcible spirit, vastly rich in all three particulars, that has
strength enough to live! Ah, is it surely so? There is such a dark
sympathy between us, she knows me so well, she touches my inmost so at
unawares, that I could almost think I had a companion here. Perhaps not so
soon. At the end of centuries I might wed one; not now."
But once he said to Sibyl Dacy, "Ah, how sweet it would be--sweet for me,
at least--if this intercourse might last forever!"
"That is an awful idea that you present," said Sibyl, with a hardly
perceptible, involuntary shudder; "always on this hill-top, always passing
and repassing this little hillock; always smelling these flowers! I always
looking at this deep chasm in your brow; you always seeing my bloodless
cheek!--doing this till these trees crumble away, till perhaps a new
forest grew up wherever this white race had planted, and a race of savages
again possess the soil. I should not like it. My mission here is but for a
short time, and will soon be accomplished, and then I go."
"You do not rightly estimate the way in which the long time might be
spent," said Septimius. "We would find out a thousand uses of this world,
uses and enjoyments which now men never dream of, because the world is
just held to their mouths, and then snatched away again, before they have
time hardly to taste it, instead of becoming acquainted with the
deliciousness of this great world-fruit. But you speak of a mission, and
as if you were now in performance of it. Will you not tell me what it
"No," said Sibyl Dacy, smiling on him. "But one day you shall know what it
is,--none sooner nor better than you,--so much I promise you."
"Are we friends?" asked Septimius, somewhat puzzled by her look.
"We have an intimate relation to one another," replied Sibyl.
"And what is it?" demanded Septimius.
"That will appear hereafter," answered Sibyl, again smiling on him.
He knew not what to make of this, nor whether to be exalted or depressed;
but, at all events, there seemed to be an accordance, a striking together,
a mutual touch of their two natures, as if, somehow or other, they were
performing the same part of solemn music; so that he felt his soul thrill,
and at the same time shudder. Some sort of sympathy there surely was, but
of what nature he could not tell; though often he was impelled to ask
himself the same question he asked Sibyl, "Are we friends?" because of a
sudden shock and repulsion that came between them, and passed away in a
moment; and there would be Sibyl, smiling askance on him.
And then he toiled away again at his chemical pursuits; tried to mingle
things harmoniously that apparently were not born to be mingled;
discovering a science for himself, and mixing it up with absurdities that
other chemists had long ago flung aside; but still there would be that
turbid aspect, still that lack of fragrance, still that want of the
peculiar temperature, that was announced as the test of the matter. Over
and over again he set the crystal vase in the sun, and let it stay there
the appointed time, hoping that it would digest in such a manner as to
bring about the desired result.
One day, as it happened, his eyes fell upon the silver key which he had
taken from the breast of the dead young man, and he thought within himself
that this might have something to do with the seemingly unattainable
success of his pursuit. He remembered, for the first time, the grim
doctor's emphatic injunction to search for the little iron-bound box of
which he had spoken, and which had come down with such legends attached to
it; as, for instance, that it held the Devil's bond with his
great-great-grandfather, now cancelled by the surrender of the latter's
soul; that it held the golden key of Paradise; that it was full of old
gold, or of the dry leaves of a hundred years ago; that it had a familiar
fiend in it, who would be exorcised by the turning of the lock, but would
otherwise remain a prisoner till the solid oak of the box mouldered, or
the iron rusted away; so that between fear and the loss of the key, this
curious old box had remained unopened, till itself was lost.
But now Septimius, putting together what Aunt Keziah had said in her dying
moments, and what Doctor Portsoaken had insisted upon, suddenly came to
the conclusion that the possession of the old iron box might be of the
greatest importance to him. So he set himself at once to think where he
had last seen it. Aunt Keziah, of course, had put it away in some safe
place or other, either in cellar or garret, no doubt; so Septimius, in the
intervals of his other occupations, devoted several days to the search;
and not to weary the reader with the particulars of the quest for an old
box, suffice it to say that he at last found it, amongst various other
antique rubbish, in a corner of the garret.
It was a very rusty old thing, not more than a foot in length, and half as
much in height and breadth; but most ponderously iron-bound, with bars,
and corners, and all sorts of fortification; looking very much like an
ancient alms-box, such as are to be seen in the older rural churches of
England, and which seem to intimate great distrust of those to whom the
funds are committed. Indeed, there might be a shrewd suspicion that some
ancient church beadle among Septimius's forefathers, when emigrating from
England, had taken the opportunity of bringing the poor-box along with
him. On looking close, too, there were rude embellishments on the lid and
sides of the box in long-rusted steel, designs such as the Middle Ages
were rich in; a representation of Adam and Eve, or of Satan and a soul,
nobody could tell which; but, at any rate, an illustration of great value
and interest. Septimius looked at this ugly, rusty, ponderous old box, so
worn and battered with time, and recollected with a scornful smile the
legends of which it was the object; all of which he despised and
discredited, just as much as he did that story in the "Arabian Nights,"
where a demon comes out of a copper vase, in a cloud of smoke that covers
the sea-shore; for he was singularly invulnerable to all modes of
superstition, all nonsense, except his own. But that one mode was ever in
full force and operation with him. He felt strongly convinced that inside
the old box was something that appertained to his destiny; the key that he
had taken from the dead man's breast, had that come down through time, and
across the sea, and had a man died to bring and deliver it to him, merely
for nothing? It could not be.
He looked at the old, rusty, elaborated lock of the little receptacle. It
was much flourished about with what was once polished steel; and
certainly, when thus polished, and the steel bright with which it was
hooped, defended, and inlaid, it must have been a thing fit to appear in
any cabinet; though now the oak was worm-eaten as an old coffin, and the
rust of the iron came off red on Septimius's fingers, after he had been
fumbling at it. He looked at the curious old silver key, too, and fancied
that he discovered in its elaborate handle some likeness to the ornaments
about the box; at any rate, this he determined was the key of fate, and he
was just applying it to the lock when somebody tapped familiarly at the
door, having opened the outer one, and stepped in with a manly stride.
Septimius, inwardly blaspheming, as secluded men are apt to do when any
interruption comes, and especially when it comes at some critical moment
of projection, left the box as yet unbroached, and said, "Come in."
The door opened, and Robert Hagburn entered; looking so tall and stately,
that Septimius hardly knew him for the youth with whom he had grown up
familiarly. He had on the Revolutionary dress of buff and blue, with
decorations that to the initiated eye denoted him an officer, and
certainly there was a kind of authority in his look and manner, indicating
that heavy responsibilities, critical moments, had educated him, and
turned the ploughboy into a man.
"Is it you?" exclaimed Septimius. "I scarcely knew you. How war has altered
"And I may say, Is it you? for you are much altered likewise, my old
friend. Study wears upon you terribly. You will be an old man, at this
rate, before you know you are a young one. You will kill yourself, as sure
as a gun!"
"Do you think so?" said Septimius, rather startled, for the queer absurdity
of the position struck him, if he should so exhaust and wear himself as to
die, just at the moment when he should have found out the secret of
everlasting life. "But though I look pale, I am very vigorous. Judging
from that scar, slanting down from your temple, you have been nearer death
than you now think me, though in another way."
"Yes," said Robert Hagburn; "but in hot blood, and for a good cause, who
cares for death? And yet I love life; none better, while it lasts, and I
love it in all its looks and turns and surprises,--there is so much to be
got out of it, in spite of all that people say. Youth is sweet, with its
fiery enterprise, and I suppose mature manhood will be just as much so,
though in a calmer way, and age, quieter still, will have its own
merits,--the thing is only to do with life what we ought, and what is
suited to each of its stages; do all, enjoy all,--and I suppose these two
rules amount to the same thing. Only catch real earnest hold of life, not
play with it, and not defer one part of it for the sake of another, then
each part of life will do for us what was intended. People talk of the
hardships of military service, of the miseries that we undergo fighting
for our country. I have undergone my share, I believe,--hard toil in the
wilderness, hunger, extreme weariness, pinching cold, the torture of a
wound, peril of death; and really I have been as happy through it as ever
I was at my mother's cosey fireside of a winter's evening. If I had died,
I doubt not my last moments would have been happy. There is no use of
life, but just to find out what is fit for us to do; and, doing it, it
seems to be little matter whether we live or die in it. God does not want
our work, but only our willingness to work; at least, the last seems to
answer all his purposes."
"This is a comfortable philosophy of yours," said Septimius, rather
contemptuously, and yet enviously. "Where did you get it, Robert?"
"Where? Nowhere; it came to me on the march; and though I can't say that I
thought it when the bullets pattered into the snow about me, in those
narrow streets of Quebec, yet, I suppose, it was in my mind then; for, as
I tell you, I was very cheerful and contented. And you, Septimius? I never
saw such a discontented, unhappy-looking fellow as you are. You have had a
harder time in peace than I in war. You have not found what you seek,
whatever that may be. Take my advice. Give yourself to the next work that
comes to hand. The war offers place to all of us; we ought to be
thankful,--the most joyous of all the generations before or after
us,--since Providence gives us such good work to live for, or such a good
opportunity to die. It is worth living for, just to have the chance to die
so well as a man may in these days. Come, be a soldier. Be a chaplain,
since your education lies that way; and you will find that nobody in peace
prays so well as we do, we soldiers; and you shall not be debarred from
fighting, too; if war is holy work, a priest may lawfully do it, as well
as pray for it. Come with us, my old friend Septimius, be my comrade, and,
whether you live or die, you will thank me for getting you out of the
yellow forlornness in which you go on, neither living nor dying."
Septimius looked at Robert Hagburn in surprise; so much was he altered and
improved by this brief experience of war, adventure, responsibility, which
he had passed through. Not less than the effect produced on his loutish,
rustic air and deportment, developing his figure, seeming to make him
taller, setting free the manly graces that lurked within his awkward
frame,--not less was the effect on his mind and moral nature, giving
freedom of ideas, simple perception of great thoughts, a free natural
chivalry; so that the knight, the Homeric warrior, the hero, seemed to be
here, or possible to be here, in the young New England rustic; and all
that history has given, and hearts throbbed and sighed and gloried over,
of patriotism and heroic feeling and action, might be repeated, perhaps,
in the life and death of this familiar friend and playmate of his, whom he
had valued not over highly,--Robert Hagburn. He had merely followed out
his natural heart, boldly and singly,--doing the first good thing that
came to hand,--and here was a hero.
"You almost make me envy you, Robert," said he, sighing.
"Then why not come with me?" asked Robert.
"Because I have another destiny," said Septimius.
"Well, you are mistaken; be sure of that," said Robert. "This is not a
generation for study, and the making of books; that may come by and by.
This great fight has need of all men to carry it on, in one way or
another; and no man will do well, even for himself, who tries to avoid his
share in it. But I have said my say. And now, Septimius, the war takes
much of a man, but it does not take him all, and what it leaves is all the
more full of life and health thereby. I have something to say to you about
"Say it then, Robert," said Septimius, who, having got over the first
excitement of the interview, and the sort of exhilaration produced by the
healthful glow of Robert's spirit, began secretly to wish that it might
close, and to be permitted to return to his solitary thoughts again. "What
can I do for you?"
"Why, nothing," said Robert, looking rather confused, "since all is
settled. The fact is, my old friend, as perhaps you have seen, I have very
long had an eye upon your sister Rose; yes, from the time we went together
to the old school-house, where she now teaches children like what we were
then. The war took me away, and in good time, for I doubt if Rose would
ever have cared enough for me to be my wife, if I had stayed at home, a
country lout, as I was getting to be, in shirt-sleeves and bare feet. But
now, you see, I have come back, and this whole great war, to her woman's
heart, is represented in me, and makes me heroic, so to speak, and
strange, and yet her old familiar lover. So I found her heart tenderer for
me than it was; and, in short, Rose has consented to be my wife, and we
mean to be married in a week; my furlough permits little delay."
"You surprise me," said Septimius, who, immersed in his own pursuits, had
taken no notice of the growing affection between Robert and his sister.
"Do you think it well to snatch this little lull that is allowed you in
the wild striving of war to try to make a peaceful home? Shall you like to
be summoned from it soon? Shall you be as cheerful among dangers
afterwards, when one sword may cut down two happinesses?"
"There is something in what you say, and I have thought of it," said
Robert, sighing. "But I can't tell how it is; but there is something in
this uncertainty, this peril, this cloud before us, that makes it sweeter
to love and to be loved than amid all seeming quiet and serenity. Really,
I think, if there were to be no death, the beauty of life would be all
tame. So we take our chance, or our dispensation of Providence, and are
going to love, and to be married, just as confidently as if we were sure
of living forever."
"Well, old fellow," said Septimius, with more cordiality and outgush of
heart than he had felt for a long while, "there is no man whom I should be
happier to call brother. Take Rose, and all happiness along with her. She
is a good girl, and not in the least like me. May you live out your
threescore years and ten, and every one of them be happy."
Little more passed, and Robert Hagburn took his leave with a hearty shake
of Septimius's hand, too conscious of his own happiness to be quite
sensible how much the latter was self-involved, strange, anxious,
separated from healthy life and interests; and Septimius, as soon as
Robert had disappeared, locked the door behind him, and proceeded at once
to apply the silver key to the lock of the old strong box.
The lock resisted somewhat, being rusty, as might well be supposed after so
many years since it was opened; but it finally allowed the key to turn,
and Septimius, with a good deal of flutter at his heart, opened the lid.
The interior had a very different aspect from that of the exterior; for,
whereas the latter looked so old, this, having been kept from the air,
looked about as new as when shut up from light and air two centuries ago,
less or more. It was lined with ivory, beautifully carved in figures,
according to the art which the mediaval people possessed in great
perfection; and probably the box had been a lady's jewel-casket formerly,
and had glowed with rich lustre and bright colors at former openings. But
now there was nothing in it of that kind,--nothing in keeping with those
figures carved in the ivory representing some mythical subjects,--nothing
but some papers in the bottom of the box written over in an ancient hand,
which Septimius at once fancied that he recognized as that of the
manuscript and recipe which he had found on the breast of the young
soldier. He eagerly seized them, but was infinitely disappointed to find
that they did not seem to refer at all to the subjects treated by the
former, but related to pedigrees and genealogies, and were in reference to
an English family and some member of it who, two centuries before, had
crossed the sea to America, and who, in this way, had sought to preserve
his connection with his native stock, so as to be able, perhaps, to prove
it for himself or his descendants; and there was reference to documents
and records in England in confirmation of the genealogy. Septimius saw
that this paper had been drawn up by an ancestor of his own, the
unfortunate man who had been hanged for witchcraft; but so earnest had
been his expectation of something different, that he flung the old papers
down with bitter indifference.
Then again he snatched them up, and contemptuously read them,--those proofs
of descent through generations of esquires and knights, who had been
renowned in war; and there seemed, too, to be running through the family a
certain tendency to letters, for three were designated as of the colleges
of Oxford or Cambridge; and against one there was the note, "he that sold
himself to Sathan;" and another seemed to have been a follower of
Wickliffe; and they had murdered kings, and been beheaded, and banished,
and what not; so that the age-long life of this ancient family had not
been after all a happy or very prosperous one, though they had kept their
estate, in one or another descendant, since the Conquest. It was not
wholly without interest that Septimius saw that this ancient descent, this
connection with noble families, and intermarriages with names, some of
which he recognized as known in English history, all referred to his own
family, and seemed to centre in himself, the last of a poverty-stricken
line, which had dwindled down into obscurity, and into rustic labor and
humble toil, reviving in him a little; yet how little, unless he fulfilled
his strange purpose. Was it not better worth his while to take this
English position here so strangely offered him? He had apparently slain
unwittingly the only person who could have contested his rights,--the
young man who had so strangely brought him the hope of unlimited life at
the same time that he was making room for him among his forefathers. What
a change in his lot would have been here, for there seemed to be some
pretensions to a title, too, from a barony which was floating about and
occasionally moving out of abeyancy!
"Perhaps," said Septimius to himself, "I may hereafter think it worth while
to assert my claim to these possessions, to this position amid an ancient
aristocracy, and try that mode of life for one generation. Yet there is
something in my destiny incompatible, of course, with the continued
possession of an estate. I must be, of necessity, a wanderer on the face
of the earth, changing place at short intervals, disappearing suddenly and
entirely; else the foolish, short-lived multitude and mob of mortals will
be enraged with one who seems their brother, yet whose countenance will
never be furrowed with his age, nor his knees totter, nor his force be
abated; their little brevity will be rebuked by his age-long endurance,
above whom the oaken roof-tree of a thousand years would crumble, while
still he would be hale and strong. So that this house, or any other, would
be but a resting-place of a day, and then I must away into another
With almost a regret, he continued to look over the documents until he
reached one of the persons recorded in the line of pedigree,--a worthy,
apparently, of the reign of Elizabeth, to whom was attributed a title of
Doctor in Utriusque Juris; and against his name was a verse of Latin
written, for what purpose Septimius knew not, for, on reading it, it
appeared to have no discoverable appropriateness; but suddenly he
remembered the blotted and imperfect hieroglyphical passage in the recipe.
He thought an instant, and was convinced this was the full expression and
outwriting of that crabbed little mystery; and that here was part of that
secret writing for which the Age of Elizabeth was so famous and so
dexterous. His mind had a flash of light upon it, and from that moment he
was enabled to read not only the recipe but the rules, and all the rest of
that mysterious document, in a way which he had never thought of before;
to discern that it was not to be taken literally and simply, but had a
hidden process involved in it that made the whole thing infinitely deeper
than he had hitherto deemed it to be. His brain reeled, he seemed to have
taken a draught of some liquor that opened infinite depths before him, he
could scarcely refrain from giving a shout of triumphant exultation, the
house could not contain him, he rushed up to his hill-top, and there,
after walking swiftly to and fro, at length flung himself on the little
hillock, and burst forth, as if addressing him who slept beneath.
"O brother, O friend!" said he, "I thank thee for thy matchless beneficence
to me; for all which I rewarded thee with this little spot on my hill-top.
Thou wast very good, very kind. It would not have been well for thee, a
youth of fiery joys and passions, loving to laugh, loving the lightness
and sparkling brilliancy of life, to take this boon to thyself; for, O
brother! I see, I see, it requires a strong spirit, capable of much lonely
endurance, able to be sufficient to itself, loving not too much, dependent
on no sweet ties of affection, to be capable of the mighty trial which now
devolves on me. I thank thee, O kinsman! Yet thou, I feel, hast the better
part, who didst so soon lie down to rest, who hast done forever with this
troublesome world, which it is mine to contemplate from age to age, and to
sum up the meaning of it. Thou art disporting thyself in other spheres. I
enjoy the high, severe, fearful office of living here, and of being the
minister of Providence from one age to many successive ones."
In this manner he raved, as never before, in a strain of exalted
enthusiasm, securely treading on air, and sometimes stopping to shout
aloud, and feeling as if he should burst if he did not do so; and his
voice came back to him again from the low hills on the other side of the
broad, level valley, and out of the woods afar, mocking him; or as if it
were airy spirits, that knew how it was all to be, confirming his cry,
saying "It shall be so," "Thou hast found it at last," "Thou art
immortal." And it seemed as if Nature were inclined to celebrate his
triumph over herself; for above the woods that crowned the hill to the
northward, there were shoots and streams of radiance, a white, a red, a
many-colored lustre, blazing up high towards the zenith, dancing up,
flitting down, dancing up again; so that it seemed as if spirits were
keeping a revel there. The leaves of the trees on the hill-side, all
except the evergreens, had now mostly fallen with the autumn; so that
Septimius was seen by the few passers-by, in the decline of the afternoon,
passing to and fro along his path, wildly gesticulating; and heard to
shout so that the echoes came from all directions to answer him. After
nightfall, too, in the harvest moonlight, a shadow was still seen passing
there, waving its arms in shadowy triumph; so, the next day, there were
various goodly stories afloat and astir, coming out of successive mouths,
more wondrous at each birth; the simplest form of the story being, that
Septimius Felton had at last gone raving mad on the hill-top that he was
so fond of haunting; and those who listened to his shrieks said that he
was calling to the Devil; and some said that by certain exorcisms he had
caused the appearance of a battle in the air, charging squadrons,
cannon-flashes, champions encountering; all of which foreboded some real
battle to be fought with the enemies of the country; and as the battle of
Monmouth chanced to occur, either the very next day, or about that time,
this was supposed to be either caused or foretold by Septimius's
eccentricities; and as the battle was not very favorable to our arms, the
patriotism of Septimius suffered much in popular estimation.
But he knew nothing, thought nothing, cared nothing about his country, or
his country's battles; he was as sane as he had been for a year past, and
was wise enough, though merely by instinct, to throw off some of his
superfluous excitement by these wild gestures, with wild shouts, and
restless activity; and when he had partly accomplished this he returned to
the house, and, late as it was, kindled his fire, and began anew the
processes of chemistry, now enlightened by the late teachings. A new agent
seemed to him to mix itself up with his toil and to forward his purpose;
something helped him along; everything became facile to his manipulation,
clear to his thought. In this way he spent the night, and when at sunrise
he let in the eastern light upon his study, the thing was done.
Septimius had achieved it. That is to say, he had succeeded in amalgamating
his materials so that they acted upon one another, and in accordance; and
had produced a result that had a subsistence in itself, and a right to be;
a something potent and substantial; each ingredient contributing its part
to form a new essence, which was as real and individual as anything it was
formed from. But in order to perfect it, there was necessity that the
powers of nature should act quietly upon it through a month of sunshine;
that the moon, too, should have its part in the production; and so he must
wait patiently for this. Wait! surely he would! Had he not time for
waiting? Were he to wait till old age, it would not be too much; for all
future time would have it in charge to repay him.
So he poured the inestimable liquor into a glass vase, well secured from
the air, and placed it in the sunshine, shifting it from one sunny window
to another, in order that it might ripen; moving it gently lest he should
disturb the living spirit that he knew to be in it. And he watched it from
day to day, watched the reflections in it, watched its lustre, which
seemed to him to grow greater day by day, as if it imbibed the sunlight
into it. Never was there anything so bright as this. It changed its hue,
too, gradually, being now a rich purple, now a crimson, now a violet, now
a blue; going through all these prismatic colors without losing any of its
brilliance, and never was there such a hue as the sunlight took in falling
through it and resting on his floor. And strange and beautiful it was,
too, to look through this medium at the outer world, and see how it was
glorified and made anew, and did not look like the same world, although
there were all its familiar marks. And then, past his window, seen through
this, went the farmer and his wife, on saddle and pillion, jogging to
meeting-house or market; and the very dog, the cow coming home from
pasture, the old familiar faces of his childhood, looked differently. And
so at last, at the end of the month, it settled into a most deep and
brilliant crimson, as if it were the essence of the blood of the young man
whom he had slain; the flower being now triumphant, it had given its own
hue to the whole mass, and had grown brighter every day; so that it seemed
to have inherent light, as if it were a planet by itself, a heart of
crimson fire burning within it.
And when this had been done, and there was no more change, showing that the
digestion was perfect, then he took it and placed it where the changing
moon would fall upon it; and then again he watched it, covering it in
darkness by day, revealing it to the moon by night; and watching it here,
too, through more changes. And by and by he perceived that the deep
crimson hue was departing,--not fading; we cannot say that, because of the
prodigious lustre which still pervaded it, and was not less strong than
ever; but certainly the hue became fainter, now a rose-color, now fainter,
fainter still, till there was only left the purest whiteness of the moon
itself; a change that somewhat disappointed and grieved Septimius, though
still it seemed fit that the water of life should be of no one richness,
because it must combine all. As the absorbed young man gazed through the
lonely nights at his beloved liquor, he fancied sometimes that he could
see wonderful things in the crystal sphere of the vase; as in Doctor Dee's
magic crystal used to be seen, which now lies in the British Museum;
representations, it might be, of things in the far past, or in the further
future, scenes in which he himself was to act, persons yet unborn, the
beautiful and the wise, with whom he was to be associated, palaces and
towers, modes of hitherto unseen architecture, that old hall in England to
which he had a hereditary right, with its gables, and its smooth lawn; the
witch-meetings in which his ancestor used to take part; Aunt Keziah on her
death-bed; and, flitting through all, the shade of Sibyl Dacy, eying him
from secret nooks, or some remoteness, with her peculiar mischievous
smile, beckoning him into the sphere. All such visions would he see, and
then become aware that he had been in a dream, superinduced by too much
watching, too intent thought; so that living among so many dreams, he was
almost afraid that he should find himself waking out of yet another, and
find that the vase itself and the liquid it contained were also
dream-stuff. But no; these were real.
There was one change that surprised him, although he accepted it without
doubt, and, indeed, it did imply a wonderful efficacy, at least
singularity, in the newly converted liquid. It grew strangely cool in
temperature in the latter part of his watching it. It appeared to imbibe
its coldness from the cold, chaste moon, until it seemed to Septimius that
it was colder than ice itself; the mist gathered upon the crystal vase as
upon a tumbler of iced water in a warm room. Some say it actually gathered
thick with frost, crystallized into a thousand fantastic and beautiful
shapes, but this I do not know so well. Only it was very cold. Septimius
pondered upon it, and thought he saw that life itself was cold, individual
in its being, a high, pure essence, chastened from all heats; cold,
therefore, and therefore invigorating.
Thus much, inquiring deeply, and with painful research into the liquid
which Septimius concocted, have I been able to learn about it,--its
aspect, its properties; and now I suppose it to be quite perfect, and that
nothing remains but to put it to such use as he had so long been laboring
for. But this, somehow or other, he found in himself a strong reluctance
to do; he paused, as it were, at the point where his pathway separated
itself from that of other men, and meditated whether it were worth while
to give up everything that Providence had provided, and take instead only
this lonely gift of immortal life. Not that he ever really had any doubt
about it; no, indeed; but it was his security, his consciousness that he
held the bright sphere of all futurity in his hand, that made him dally a
little, now that he could quaff immortality as soon as he liked.
Besides, now that he looked forward from the verge of mortal destiny, the
path before him seemed so very lonely. Might he not seek some one own
friend--one single heart--before he took the final step? There was Sibyl
Dacy! Oh, what bliss, if that pale girl might set out with him on his
journey! how sweet, how sweet, to wander with her through the places else
so desolate! for he could but half see, half know things, without her to
help him. And perhaps it might be so. She must already know, or strongly
suspect, that he was engaged in some deep, mysterious research; it might
be that, with her sources of mysterious knowledge among her legendary
lore, she knew of this. Then, oh, to think of those dreams which lovers
have always had, when their new love makes the old earth seem so happy and
glorious a place, that not a thousand nor an endless succession of years
can exhaust it,--all those realized for him and her! If this could not be,
what should he do? Would he venture onward into such a wintry futurity,
symbolized, perhaps, by the coldness of the crystal goblet? He shivered at
Now, what had passed between Septimius and Sibyl Dacy is not upon record,
only that one day they were walking together on the hill-top, or sitting
by the little hillock, and talking earnestly together. Sibyl's face was a
little flushed with some excitement, and really she looked very beautiful;
and Septimius's dark face, too, had a solemn triumph in it that made him
also beautiful; so rapt he was after all those watchings, and emaciations,
and the pure, unworldly, self-denying life that he had spent. They talked
as if there were some foregone conclusion on which they based what they
"Will you not be weary in the time that we shall spend together?" asked
"Oh no," said Sibyl, smiling, "I am sure that it will be very full of
"Yes," said Septimius, "though now I must remould my anticipations; for I
have only dared, hitherto, to map out a solitary existence."
"And how did you do that?" asked Sibyl.
"Oh, there is nothing that would come amiss," answered Septimius; "for,
truly, as I have lived apart from men, yet it is really not because I have
no taste for whatever humanity includes: but I would fain, if I might,
live everybody's life at once, or, since that may not be, each in
succession. I would try the life of power, ruling men; but that might come
later, after I had had long experience of men, and had lived through much
history, and had seen, as a disinterested observer, how men might best be
influenced for their own good. I would be a great traveller at first; and
as a man newly coming into possession of an estate goes over it, and views
each separate field and wood-lot, and whatever features it contains, so
will I, whose the world is, because I possess it forever; whereas all
others are but transitory guests. So will I wander over this world of
mine, and be acquainted with all its shores, seas, rivers, mountains,
fields, and the various peoples who inhabit them, and to whom it is my
purpose to be a benefactor; for think not, dear Sibyl, that I suppose this
great lot of mine to have devolved upon me without great duties,--heavy
and difficult to fulfil, though glorious in their adequate fulfilment. But
for all this there will be time. In a century I shall partially have seen
this earth, and known at least its boundaries,--have gotten for myself the
outline, to be filled up hereafter."
"And I, too," said Sibyl, "will have my duties and labors; for while you
are wandering about among men, I will go among women, and observe and
converse with them, from the princess to the peasant-girl; and will find
out what is the matter, that woman gets so large a share of human misery
laid on her weak shoulders. I will see why it is that, whether she be a
royal princess, she has to be sacrificed to matters of state, or a
cottage-girl, still somehow the thing not fit for her is done; and whether
there is or no some deadly curse on woman, so that she has nothing to do,
and nothing to enjoy, but only to be wronged by man and still to love him,
and despise herself for it,--to be shaky in her revenges. And then if,
after all this investigation, it turns out--as I suspect--that woman is
not capable of being helped, that there is something inherent in herself
that makes it hopeless to struggle for her redemption, then what shall I
do? Nay, I know not, unless to preach to the sisterhood that they all kill
their female children as fast as they are born, and then let the
generations of men manage as they can! Woman, so feeble and crazy in body,
fair enough sometimes, but full of infirmities; not strong, with nerves
prone to every pain; ailing, full of little weaknesses, more contemptible
than great ones!"
"That would be a dreary end, Sibyl," said Septimius. "But I trust that we
shall be able to hush up this weary and perpetual wail of womankind on
easier terms than that. Well, dearest Sibyl, after we have spent a hundred
years in examining into the real state of mankind, and another century in
devising and putting in execution remedies for his ills, until our maturer
thought has time to perfect his cure, we shall then have earned a little
playtime,--a century of pastime, in which we will search out whatever joy
can be had by thoughtful people, and that childlike sportiveness which
comes out of growing wisdom, and enjoyment of every kind. We will gather
about us everything beautiful and stately, a great palace, for we shall
then be so experienced that all riches will be easy for us to get; with
rich furniture, pictures, statues, and all royal ornaments; and side by
side with this life we will have a little cottage, and see which is the
happiest, for this has always been a dispute. For this century we will
neither toil nor spin, nor think of anything beyond the day that is
passing over us. There is time enough to do all that we have to do."
"A hundred years of play! Will not that be tiresome?" said Sibyl.
"If it is," said Septimius, "the next century shall make up for it; for
then we will contrive deep philosophies, take up one theory after another,
and find out its hollowness and inadequacy, and fling it aside, the rotten
rubbish that they all are, until we have strewn the whole realm of human
thought with the broken fragments, all smashed up. And then, on this great
mound of broken potsherds (like that great Monte Testaccio, which we will
go to Rome to see), we will build a system that shall stand, and by which
mankind shall look far into the ways of Providence, and find practical
uses of the deepest kind in what it has thought merely speculation. And
then, when the hundred years are over, and this great work done, we will
still be so free in mind, that we shall see the emptiness of our own
theory, though men see only its truth. And so, if we like more of this
pastime, then shall another and another century, and as many more as we
like, be spent in the same way."
"And after that another play-day?" asked Sibyl Dacy.
"Yes," said Septimius, "only it shall not be called so; for the next
century we will get ourselves made rulers of the earth; and knowing men so
well, and having so wrought our theories of government and what not, we
will proceed to execute them,--which will be as easy to us as a child's
arrangement of its dolls. We will smile superior, to see what a facile
thing it is to make a people happy. In our reign of a hundred years, we
shall have time to extinguish errors, and make the world see the absurdity
of them; to substitute other methods of government for the old, bad ones;
to fit the people to govern itself, to do with little government, to do
with none; and when this is effected, we will vanish from our loving
people, and be seen no more, but be reverenced as gods,--we, meanwhile,
being overlooked, and smiling to ourselves, amid the very crowd that is
looking for us."
"I intend," said Sibyl, making this wild talk wilder by that petulance
which she so often showed,--"I intend to introduce a new fashion of dress
when I am queen, and that shall be my part of the great reform which you
are going to make. And for my crown, I intend to have it of flowers, in
which that strange crimson one shall be the chief; and when I vanish, this
flower shall remain behind, and perhaps they shall have a glimpse of me
wearing it in the crowd. Well, what next?"
"After this," said Septimius, "having seen so much of affairs, and having
lived so many hundred years, I will sit down and write a history, such as
histories ought to be, and never have been. And it shall be so wise, and
so vivid, and so self-evidently true, that people shall be convinced from
it that there is some undying one among them, because only an eye-witness
could have written it, or could have gained so much wisdom as was needful
"And for my part in the history," said Sibyl, "I will record the various
lengths of women's waists, and the fashion of their sleeves. What next?"
"By this time," said Septimius,--"how many hundred years have we now
lived?--by this time, I shall have pretty well prepared myself for what I
have been contemplating from the first. I will become a religious teacher,
and promulgate a faith, and prove it by prophecies and miracles; for my
long experience will enable me to do the first, and the acquaintance which
I shall have formed with the mysteries of science will put the latter at
my fingers' ends. So I will be a prophet, a greater than Mahomet, and will
put all man's hopes into my doctrine, and make him good, holy, happy; and
he shall put up his prayers to his Creator, and find them answered,
because they shall be wise, and accompanied with effort. This will be a
great work, and may earn me another rest and pastime."
[_He would see, in one age, the column raised in memory of some great
dead of his in a former one_.]
"And what shall that be?" asked Sibyl Dacy.
"Why," said Septimius, looking askance at her, and speaking with a certain
hesitation, "I have learned, Sibyl, that it is a weary toil for a man to
be always good, holy, and upright. In my life as a sainted prophet, I
shall have somewhat too much of this; it will be enervating and sickening,
and I shall need another kind of diet. So, in the next hundred years,
Sibyl,--in that one little century,--methinks I would fain be what men
call wicked. How can I know my brethren, unless I do that once? I would
experience all. Imagination is only a dream. I can imagine myself a
murderer, and all other modes of crime; but it leaves no real impression
on the heart. I must live these things."
[_The rampant unrestraint, which is the characteristic of
"Good," said Sibyl, quietly; "and I too."
"And thou too!" exclaimed Septimius. "Not so, Sibyl. I would reserve thee,
good and pure, so that there may be to me the means of redemption,--some
stable hold in the moral confusion that I will create around myself,
whereby I shall by and by get back into order, virtue, and religion. Else
all is lost, and I may become a devil, and make my own hell around me; so,
Sibyl, do thou be good forever, and not fall nor slip a moment. Promise
"We will consider about that in some other century," replied Sibyl,
composedly. "There is time enough yet. What next?"
"Nay, this is enough for the present," said Septimius. "New vistas will
open themselves before us continually, as we go onward. How idle to think
that one little lifetime would exhaust the world! After hundreds of
centuries, I feel as if we might still be on the threshold. There is the
material world, for instance, to perfect; to draw out the powers of
nature, so that man shall, as it were, give life to all modes of matter,
and make them his ministering servants. Swift ways of travel, by earth,
sea, and air; machines for doing whatever the hand of man now does, so
that we shall do all but put souls into our wheel-work and watch-work; the
modes of making night into day; of getting control over the weather and
the seasons; the virtues of plants,--these are some of the easier things
thou shalt help me do."
"I have no taste for that," said Sibyl, "unless I could make an embroidery
worked of steel."
"And so, Sibyl," continued Septimius, pursuing his strain of solemn
enthusiasm, intermingled as it was with wild, excursive vagaries, "we will
go on as many centuries as we choose. Perhaps,--yet I think not
so,--perhaps, however, in the course of lengthened time, we may find that
the world is the same always, and mankind the same, and all possibilities
of human fortune the same; so that by and by we shall discover that the
same old scenery serves the world's stage in all ages, and that the story
is always the same; yes, and the actors always the same, though none but
we can be aware of it; and that the actors and spectators would grow weary
of it, were they not bathed in forgetful sleep, and so think themselves
new made in each successive lifetime. We may find that the stuff of the
world's drama, and the passions which seem to play in it, have a monotony,
when once we have tried them; that in only once trying them, and viewing
them, we find out their secret, and that afterwards the show is too
superficial to arrest our attention. As dramatists and novelists repeat
their plots, so does man's life repeat itself, and at length grows stale.
This is what, in my desponding moments, I have sometimes suspected. What
to do, if this be so?"
"Nay, that is a serious consideration," replied Sibyl, assuming an air of
mock alarm, "if you really think we shall be tired of life, whether or
"I do not think it, Sibyl," replied Septimius. "By much musing on this
matter, I have convinced myself that man is not capable of debarring
himself utterly from death, since it is evidently a remedy for many evils
that nothing else would cure. This means that we have discovered of
removing death to an indefinite distance is not supernatural; on the
contrary, it is the most natural thing in the world,--the very perfection
of the natural, since it consists in applying the powers and processes of
Nature to the prolongation of the existence of man, her most perfect
handiwork; and this could only be done by entire accordance and co-effort
with Nature. Therefore Nature is not changed, and death remains as one of
her steps, just as heretofore. Therefore, when we have exhausted the
world, whether by going through its apparently vast variety, or by
satisfying ourselves that it is all a repetition of one thing, we will
call death as the friend to introduce us to something new."
[_He would write a poem, or other great work, inappreciable at first, and
live to see it famous,--himself among his own posterity_.]
"Oh, insatiable love of life!" exclaimed Sibyl, looking at him with strange
pity. "Canst thou not conceive that mortal brain and heart might at length
be content to sleep?"
"Never, Sibyl!" replied Septimius, with horror. "My spirit delights in the
thought of an infinite eternity. Does not thine?"
"One little interval--a few centuries only--of dreamless sleep," said
Sibyl, pleadingly. "Cannot you allow me that?"
"I fear," said Septimius, "our identity would change in that repose; it
would be a Lethe between the two parts of our being, and with such
disconnection a continued life would be equivalent to a new one, and
In such talk, snatching in the fog at the fragments of philosophy, they
continued fitfully; Septimius calming down his enthusiasm thus, which
otherwise might have burst forth in madness, affrighting the quiet little
village with the marvellous things about which they mused. Septimius could
not quite satisfy himself whether Sibyl Dacy shared in his belief of the
success of his experiment, and was confident, as he was, that he held in
his control the means of unlimited life; neither was he sure that she
loved him,--loved him well enough to undertake with him the long march
that he propounded to her, making a union an affair of so vastly more
importance than it is in the brief lifetime of other mortals. But he
determined to let her drink the invaluable draught along with him, and to
trust to the long future, and the better opportunities that time would
give him, and his outliving all rivals, and the loneliness which an
undying life would throw around her, without him, as the pledges of his
* * * * *
And now the happy day had come for the celebration of Robert Hagburn's
marriage with pretty Rose Garfield, the brave with the fair; and, as
usual, the ceremony was to take place in the evening, and at the house of
the bride; and preparations were made accordingly: the wedding-cake, which
the bride's own fair hands had mingled with her tender hopes, and seasoned
it with maiden fears, so that its composition was as much ethereal as
sensual; and the neighbors and friends were invited, and came with their
best wishes and good-will. For Rose shared not at all the distrust, the
suspicion, or whatever it was, that had waited on the true branch of
Septimius's family, in one shape or another, ever since the memory of man;
and all--except, it might be, some disappointed damsels who had hoped to
win Robert Hagburn for themselves--rejoiced at the approaching union of
this fit couple, and wished them happiness.
Septimius, too, accorded his gracious consent to the union, and while he
thought within himself that such a brief union was not worth the trouble
and feeling which his sister and her lover wasted on it, still he wished
them happiness. As he compared their brevity with his long duration, he
smiled at their little fancies of loves, of which he seemed to see the
end; the flower of a brief summer, blooming beautifully enough, and
shedding its leaves, the fragrance of which would linger a little while in
his memory, and then be gone. He wondered how far in the coming centuries
he should remember this wedding of his sister Rose; perhaps he would meet,
five hundred years hence, some descendant of the marriage,--a fair girl,
bearing the traits of his sister's fresh beauty; a young man, recalling
the strength and manly comeliness of Robert Hagburn,--and could claim
acquaintance and kindred. He would be the guardian, from generation to
generation, of this race; their ever-reappearing friend at times of need;
and meeting them from age to age, would find traditions of himself growing
poetical in the lapse of time; so that he would smile at seeing his
features look so much more majestic in their fancies than in reality. So
all along their course, in the history of the family, he would trace
himself, and by his traditions he would make them acquainted with all
their ancestors, and so still be warmed by kindred blood.
And Robert Hagburn, full of the life of the moment, warm with generous
blood, came in a new uniform, looking fit to be the founder of a race who
should look back to a hero sire. He greeted Septimius as a brother. The
minister, too, came, of course, and mingled with the throng, with decorous
aspect, and greeted Septimius with more formality than he had been wont;
for Septimius had insensibly withdrawn himself from the minister's
intimacy, as he got deeper and deeper into the enthusiasm of his own
cause. Besides, the minister did not fail to see that his once devoted
scholar had contracted habits of study into the secrets of which he
himself was not admitted, and that he no longer alluded to studies for the
ministry; and he was inclined to suspect that Septimius had unfortunately
allowed infidel ideas to assail, at least, if not to overcome, that
fortress of firm faith, which he had striven to found and strengthen in
his mind,--a misfortune frequently befalling speculative and imaginative
and melancholic persons, like Septimius, whom the Devil is all the time
planning to assault, because he feels confident of having a traitor in the
garrison. The minister had heard that this was the fashion of Septimius's
family, and that even the famous divine, who, in his eyes, was the glory
of it, had had his season of wild infidelity in his youth, before grace
touched him; and had always thereafter, throughout his long and pious
life, been subject to seasons of black and sulphurous despondency, during
which he disbelieved the faith which, at other times, he preached
"Septimius, my young friend," said he, "are you yet ready to be a preacher
of the truth?"
"Not yet, reverend pastor," said Septimius, smiling at the thought of the
day before, that the career of a prophet would be one that he should some
time assume. "There will be time enough to preach the truth when I better
"You do not look as if you knew it so well as formerly, instead of better,"
said his reverend friend, looking into the deep furrows of his brow, and
into his wild and troubled eyes.
"Perhaps not," said Septimius. "There is time yet."
These few words passed amid the bustle and murmur of the evening, while the
guests were assembling, and all were awaiting the marriage with that
interest which the event continually brings with it, common as it is, so
that nothing but death is commoner. Everybody congratulated the modest
Rose, who looked quiet and happy; and so she stood up at the proper time,
and the minister married them with a certain fervor and individual
application, that made them feel they were married indeed. Then there
ensued a salutation of the bride, the first to kiss her being the
minister, and then some respectable old justices and farmers, each with
his friendly smile and joke. Then went round the cake and wine, and other
good cheer, and the hereditary jokes with which brides used to be assailed
in those days. I think, too, there was a dance, though how the couples in
the reel found space to foot it in the little room, I cannot imagine; at
any rate, there was a bright light out of the windows, gleaming across the
road, and such a sound of the babble of numerous voices and merriment,
that travellers passing by, on the lonely Lexington road, wished they were
of the party; and one or two of them stopped and went in, and saw the
new-made bride, drank to her health, and took a piece of the wedding-cake
home to dream upon.
[_It is to be observed that Rose had requested of her friend, Sibyl Dacy,
to act as one of her bridesmaids, of whom she had only the modest number
of two; and the strange girl declined, saying that her intermeddling would
bring ill-fortune to the marriage_.]
"Why do you talk such nonsense, Sibyl?" asked Rose. "You love me, I am
sure, and wish me well; and your smile, such as it is, will be the promise
of prosperity, and I wish for it on my wedding-day."
"I am an ill-fate, a sinister demon, Rose; a thing that has sprung out of a
grave; and you had better not entreat me to twine my poison tendrils round
your destinies. You would repent it."
"Oh, hush, hush!" said Rose, putting her hand over her friend's mouth.
"Naughty one! you can bless me, if you will, only you are wayward."
"Bless you, then, dearest Rose, and all happiness on your marriage!"
Septimius had been duly present at the marriage, and kissed his sister with
moist eyes, it is said, and a solemn smile, as he gave her into the
keeping of Robert Hagburn; and there was something in the words he then
used that afterwards dwelt on her mind, as if they had a meaning in them
that asked to be sought into, and needed reply.
"There, Rose," he had said, "I have made myself ready for my destiny. I
have no ties any more, and may set forth on my path without scruple."
"Am I not your sister still, Septimius?" said she, shedding a tear or two.
"A married woman is no sister; nothing but a married woman till she becomes
a mother; and then what shall I have to do with you?"
He spoke with a certain eagerness to prove his case, which Rose could not
understand, but which was probably to justify himself in severing, as he
was about to do, the link that connected him with his race, and making for
himself an exceptional destiny, which, if it did not entirely insulate
him, would at least create new relations with all. There he stood, poor
fellow, looking on the mirthful throng, not in exultation, as might have
been supposed, but with a strange sadness upon him. It seemed to him, at
that final moment, as if it were Death that linked together all; yes, and
so gave the warmth to all. Wedlock itself seemed a brother of Death;
wedlock, and its sweetest hopes, its holy companionship, its mysteries,
and all that warm mysterious brotherhood that is between men; passing as
they do from mystery to mystery in a little gleam of light; that wild,
sweet charm of uncertainty and temporariness,--how lovely it made them
all, how innocent, even the worst of them; how hard and prosaic was his
own situation in comparison to theirs. He felt a gushing tenderness for
them, as if he would have flung aside his endless life, and rushed among
"Embrace me! I am still one of you, and will not leave you! Hold me fast!"
After this it was not particularly observed that both Septimius and Sibyl
Dacy had disappeared from the party, which, however, went on no less
merrily without them. In truth, the habits of Sibyl Dacy were so wayward,
and little squared by general rules, that nobody wondered or tried to
account for them; and as for Septimius, he was such a studious man, so
little accustomed to mingle with his fellow-citizens on any occasion, that
it was rather wondered at that he should have spent so large a part of a
sociable evening with them, than that he should now retire.
After they were gone the party received an unexpected addition, being no
other than the excellent Doctor Portsoaken, who came to the door,
announcing that he had just arrived on horseback from Boston, and that,
his object being to have an interview with Sibyl Dacy, he had been to
Robert Hagburn's house in quest of her; but, learning from the old
grandmother that she was here, he had followed.
Not finding her, he evinced no alarm, but was easily induced to sit down
among the merry company, and partake of some brandy, which, with other
liquors, Robert had provided in sufficient abundance; and that being a day
when man had not learned to fear the glass, the doctor found them all in a
state of hilarious chat. Taking out his German pipe, he joined the group
of smokers in the great chimney-corner, and entered into conversation with
them, laughing and joking, and mixing up his jests with that mysterious
suspicion which gave so strange a character to his intercourse.
"It is good fortune, Mr. Hagburn," quoth he, "that brings me here on this
auspicious day. And how has been my learned young friend Dr.
Septimius,--for so he should be called,--and how have flourished his
studies of late? The scientific world may look for great fruits from that
decoction of his."
"He'll never equal Aunt Keziah for herb-drinks," said an old woman, smoking
her pipe in the corner, "though I think likely he'll make a good doctor
enough by and by. Poor Kezzy, she took a drop too much of her mixture,
after all. I used to tell her how it would be; for Kezzy and I were pretty
good friends once, before the Indian in her came out so strongly,--the
squaw and the witch, for she had them both in her blood, poor yellow
"Yes! had she indeed?" quoth the doctor; "and I have heard an odd story,
that if the Feltons chose to go back to the old country, they'd find a
home and an estate there ready for them."
The old woman mused, and puffed at her pipe. "Ah, yes," muttered she, at
length, "I remember to have heard something about that; and how, if Felton
chose to strike into the woods, he'd find a tribe of wild Indians there
ready to take him for their sagamore, and conquer the whites; and how, if
he chose to go to England, there was a great old house all ready for him,
and a fire burning in the hall, and a dinner-table spread, and the
tall-posted bed ready, with clean sheets, in the best chamber, and a man
waiting at the gate to show him in. Only there was a spell of a bloody
footstep left on the threshold by the last that came out, so that none of
his posterity could ever cross it again. But that was all nonsense!"
"Strange old things one dreams in a chimney-corner," quoth the doctor. "Do
you remember any more of this?"
"No, no; I'm so forgetful nowadays," said old Mrs. Hagburn; "only it seems
as if I had my memories in my pipe, and they curl up in smoke. I've known
these Feltons all along, or it seems as if I had; for I'm nigh ninety
years old now, and I was two year old in the witch's time, and I have seen
a piece of the halter that old Felton was hung with."
Some of the company laughed.
"That must have been a curious sight," quoth the doctor.
"It is not well," said the minister seriously to the doctor, "to stir up
these old remembrances, making the poor old lady appear absurd. I know not
that she need to be ashamed of showing the weaknesses of the generation to
which she belonged; but I do not like to see old age put at this
disadvantage among the young."
"Nay, my good and reverend sir," returned the doctor, "I mean no such
disrespect as you seem to think. Forbid it, ye upper powers, that I should
cast any ridicule on beliefs,--superstitions, do you call them?--that are
as worthy of faith, for aught I know, as any that are preached in the
pulpit. If the old lady would tell me any secret of the old Felton's
science, I shall treasure it sacredly; for I interpret these stories about
his miraculous gifts as meaning that he had a great command over natural
science, the virtues of plants, the capacities of the human body."
"While these things were passing, or before they passed, or some time in
that eventful night, Septimius had withdrawn to his study, when there was
a low tap at the door, and, opening it, Sibyl Dacy stood before him. It
seemed as if there had been a previous arrangement between them; for
Septimius evinced no surprise, only took her hand and drew her in.
"How cold your hand is!" he exclaimed. "Nothing is so cold, except it be
the potent medicine. It makes me shiver."
"Never mind that," said Sibyl. "You look frightened at me."
"Do I?" said Septimius. "No, not that; but this is such a crisis; and
methinks it is not yourself. Your eyes glare on me strangely."
"Ah, yes; and you are not frightened at me? Well, I will try not to be
frightened at myself. Time was, however, when I should have been."
She looked round at Septimius's study, with its few old books, its
implements of science, crucibles, retorts, and electrical machines; all
these she noticed little; but on the table drawn before the fire, there
was something that attracted her attention; it was a vase that seemed of
crystal, made in that old fashion in which the Venetians made their
glasses,--a most pure kind of glass, with a long stalk, within which was a
curved elaboration of fancy-work, wreathed and twisted. This old glass was
an heirloom of the Feltons, a relic that had come down with many
traditions, bringing its frail fabric safely through all the perils of
time, that had shattered empires; and, if space sufficed, I could tell
many stories of this curious vase, which was said, in its time, to have
been the instrument both of the Devil's sacrament in the forest, and of
the Christian in the village meeting-house. But, at any rate, it had been
a part of the choice household gear of one of Septimius's ancestors, and
was engraved with his arms, artistically done.
"Is that the drink of immortality?" said Sibyl.
"Yes, Sibyl," said Septimius. "Do but touch the goblet; see how cold it
She put her slender, pallid fingers on the side of the goblet, and
shuddered, just as Septimius did when he touched her hand.
"Why should it be so cold?" said she, looking at Septimius.
"Nay, I know not, unless because endless life goes round the circle and
meets death, and is just the same with it. O Sibyl, it is a fearful thing
that I have accomplished! Do you not feel it so? What if this shiver
should last us through eternity?"
"Have you pursued this object so long," said Sibyl, "to have these fears
respecting it now? In that case, methinks I could be bold enough to drink
it alone, and look down upon you, as I did so, smiling at your fear to
take the life offered you."
"I do not fear," said Septimius; "but yet I acknowledge there is a strange,
powerful abhorrence in me towards this draught, which I know not how to
account for, except as the reaction, the revulsion of feeling, consequent
upon its being too long overstrained in one direction. I cannot help it.
The meannesses, the littlenesses, the perplexities, the general
irksomeness of life, weigh upon me strangely. Thou didst refuse to drink
with me. That being the case, methinks I could break the jewelled goblet
now, untasted, and choose the grave as the wiser part."
"The beautiful goblet! What a pity to break it!" said Sibyl, with her
characteristic malign and mysterious smile. "You cannot find it in your
heart to do it."
"I could,--I can. So thou wilt not drink with me?"
"Do you know what you ask?" said Sibyl. "I am a being that sprung up, like
this flower, out of a grave; or, at least, I took root in a grave, and,
growing there, have twined about your life, until you cannot possibly
escape from me. Ah, Septimius! you know me not. You know not what is in my
heart towards you. Do you remember this broken miniature? would you wish
to see the features that were destroyed when that bullet passed? Then look
"Sibyl! what do you tell me? Was it you--were they your features--which
that young soldier kissed as he lay dying?"
"They were," said Sibyl. "I loved him, and gave him that miniature, and the
face they represented. I had given him all, and you slew him."
"Then you hate me," whispered, Septimius.
"Do you call it hatred?" asked Sibyl, smiling. "Have I not aided you,
thought with you, encouraged you, heard all your wild ravings when you
dared to tell no one else? kept up your hopes; suggested; helped you with
my legendary lore to useful hints; helped you, also, in other ways, which
you do not suspect? And now you ask me if I hate you. Does this look like
"No," said Septimius. "And yet, since first I knew you, there has been
something whispering me of harm, as if I sat near some mischief. There is
in me the wild, natural blood of the Indian, the instinctive, the animal
nature, which has ways of warning that civilized life polishes away and
cuts out; and so, Sibyl, never did I approach you, but there were
reluctances, drawings back, and, at the same time, a strong impulse to
come closest to you; and to that I yielded. But why, then, knowing that in
this grave lay the man you loved, laid there by my hand,--why did you aid
me in an object which you must have seen was the breath of my life?"
"Ah, my friend,--my enemy, if you will have it so,--are you yet to learn
that the wish of a man's inmost heart is oftenest that by which he is
ruined and made miserable? But listen to me, Septimius. No matter for my
earlier life; there is no reason why I should tell you the story, and
confess to you its weakness, its shame. It may be, I had more cause to
hate the tenant of that grave, than to hate you who unconsciously avenged
my cause; nevertheless, I came here in hatred, and desire of revenge,
meaning to lie in wait, and turn your dearest desire against you, to eat
into your life, and distil poison into it, I sitting on this grave, and
drawing fresh hatred from it; and at last, in the hour of your triumph, I
meant to make the triumph mine."
"Is this still so?" asked Septimius, with pale lips: "or did your fell
"Septimius, I am weak,--a weak, weak girl,--only a girl, Septimius; only
eighteen yet," exclaimed Sibyl. "It is young, is it not? I might be
forgiven much. You know not how bitter my purpose was to you. But look,
Septimius,--could it be worse than this? Hush, be still! Do not stir!"
She lifted the beautiful goblet from the table, put it to her lips, and
drank a deep draught from it; then, smiling mockingly, she held it towards
"See; I have made myself immortal before you. Will you drink?"
He eagerly held out his hand to receive the goblet, but Sibyl, holding it
beyond his reach a moment, deliberately let it fall upon the hearth, where
it shivered into fragments, and the bright, cold water of immortality was
all spilt, shedding its strange fragrance around.
"Sibyl, what have you done?" cried Septimius in rage and horror.
"Be quiet! See what sort of immortality I win by it,--then, if you like,
distil your drink of eternity again, and quaff it."
"It is too late, Sibyl; it was a happiness that may never come again in a
lifetime. I shall perish as a dog does. It is too late!"
"Septimius," said Sibyl, who looked strangely beautiful, as if the drink,
giving her immortal life, had likewise the potency to give immortal beauty
answering to it, "listen to me. You have not learned all the secrets that
lay in those old legends, about which we have talked so much. There were
two recipes, discovered or learned by the art of the studious old Gaspar
Felton. One was said to be that secret of immortal life which so many old
sages sought for, and which some were said to have found; though, if that
were the case, it is strange some of them have not lived till our day. Its
essence lay in a certain rare flower, which mingled properly with other
ingredients of great potency in themselves, though still lacking the
crowning virtue till the flower was supplied, produced the drink of
"Yes, and I had the flower, which I found in a grave," said Septimius, "and
distilled the drink which you have spilt."
"You had a flower, or what you called a flower," said the girl. "But,
Septimius, there was yet another drink, in which the same potent
ingredients were used; all but the last. In this, instead of the beautiful
flower, was mingled the semblance of a flower, but really a baneful growth
out of a grave. This I sowed there, and it converted the drink into a
poison, famous in old science,--a poison which the Borgias used, and Mary
de Medicis,--and which has brought to death many a famous person, when it
was desirable to his enemies. This is the drink I helped you to distil. It
brings on death with pleasant and delightful thrills of the nerves. O
Septimius, Septimius, it is worth while to die, to be so blest, so
exhilarated as I am now."
"Good God, Sibyl, is this possible?"
"Even so, Septimius. I was helped by that old physician, Doctor Portsoaken,
who, with some private purpose of his own, taught me what to do; for he
was skilled in all the mysteries of those old physicians, and knew that
their poisons at least were efficacious, whatever their drinks of
immortality might be. But the end has not turned out as I meant. A girl's
fancy is so shifting, Septimius. I thought I loved that youth in the grave
yonder; but it was you I loved,--and I am dying. Forgive me for my evil
purposes, for I am dying."
"Why hast thou spilt the drink?" said Septimius, bending his dark brows
upon her, and frowning over her. "We might have died together."
"No, live, Septimius," said the girl, whose face appeared to grow bright
and joyous, as if the drink of death exhilarated her like an intoxicating
fluid. "I would not let you have it, not one drop. But to think," and here
she laughed, "what a penance,--what months of wearisome labor thou hast
had,--and what thoughts, what dreams, and how I laughed in my sleeve at
them all the time! Ha, ha, ha! Then thou didst plan out future ages, and
talk poetry and prose to me. Did I not take it very demurely, and answer
thee in the same style? and so thou didst love me, and kindly didst wish
to take me with thee in thy immortality. O Septimius, I should have liked
it well! Yes, latterly, only, I knew how the case stood. Oh, how I
surrounded thee with dreams, and instead of giving thee immortal life, so
kneaded up the little life allotted thee with dreams and vaporing stuff,
that thou didst not really live even that. Ah, it was a pleasant pastime,
and pleasant is now the end of it. Kiss me, thou poor Septimius, one
[_She gives the ridiculous aspect to his scheme, in an airy way_.]
But as Septimius, who seemed stunned, instinctively bent forward to obey
her, she drew back. "No, there shall be no kiss! There may a little poison
linger on my lips. Farewell! Dost thou mean still to seek for thy liquor
of immortality?--ah, ah! It was a good jest. We will laugh at it when we
meet in the other world."
And here poor Sibyl Dacy's laugh grew fainter, and dying away, she seemed
to die with it; for there she was, with that mirthful, half-malign
expression still on her face, but motionless; so that however long
Septimius's life was likely to be, whether a few years or many centuries,
he would still have her image in his memory so. And here she lay among his
broken hopes, now shattered as completely as the goblet which held his
draught, and as incapable of being formed again.
* * * * *
The next day, as Septimius did not appear, there was research for him on
the part of Doctor Portsoaken. His room was found empty, the bed
untouched. Then they sought him on his favorite hill-top; but neither was
he found there, although something was found that added to the wonder and
alarm of his disappearance. It was the cold form of Sibyl Dacy, which was
extended on the hillock so often mentioned, with her arms thrown over it;
but, looking in the dead face, the beholders were astonished to see a
certain malign and mirthful expression, as if some airy part had been
played out,--some surprise, some practical joke of a peculiarly airy kind
had burst with fairy shoots of fire among the company.
"Ah, she is dead! Poor Sibyl Dacy!" exclaimed Doctor Portsoaken. "Her
scheme, then, has turned out amiss."
This exclamation seemed to imply some knowledge of the mystery; and it so
impressed the auditors, among whom was Robert Hagburn, that they thought
it not inexpedient to have an investigation; so the learned doctor was not
uncivilly taken into custody and examined. Several interesting
particulars, some of which throw a certain degree of light on our
narrative, were discovered. For instance, that Sibyl Dacy, who was a niece
of the doctor, had been beguiled from her home and led over the sea by
Cyril Norton, and that the doctor, arriving in Boston with another
regiment, had found her there, after her lover's death. Here there was
some discrepancy or darkness in the doctor's narrative. He appeared to
have consented to, or instigated (for it was not quite evident how far his
concurrence had gone) this poor girl's scheme of going and brooding over
her lover's grave, and living in close contiguity with the man who had
slain him. The doctor had not much to say for himself on this point; but
there was found reason to believe that he was acting in the interest of
some English claimant of a great estate that was left without an apparent
heir by the death of Cyril Norton, and there was even a suspicion that he,
with his fantastic science and antiquated empiricism, had been at the
bottom of the scheme of poisoning, which was so strangely intertwined with
Septimius's notion, in which he went so nearly crazed, of a drink of
immortality. It was observable, however, that the doctor--such a humbug in
scientific matters, that he had perhaps bewildered himself--seemed to have
a sort of faith in the efficacy of the recipe which had so strangely come
to light, provided the true flower could be discovered; but that flower,
according to Doctor Portsoaken, had not been seen on earth for many
centuries, and was banished probably forever. The flower, or fungus, which
Septimius had mistaken for it, was a sort of earthly or devilish
counterpart of it, and was greatly in request among the old poisoners for
its admirable uses in their art. In fine, no tangible evidence being found
against the worthy doctor, he was permitted to depart, and disappeared
from the neighborhood, to the scandal of many people, unhanged; leaving
behind him few available effects beyond the web and empty skin of an
As to Septimius, he returned no more to his cottage by the wayside, and
none undertook to tell what had become of him; crushed and annihilated, as
it were, by the failure of his magnificent and most absurd dreams. Rumors
there have been, however, at various times, that there had appeared an
American claimant, who had made out his right to the great estate of
Smithell's Hall, and had dwelt there, and left posterity, and that in the
subsequent generation an ancient baronial title had been revived in favor
of the son and heir of the American. Whether this was our Septimius, I
cannot tell; but I should be rather sorry to believe that after such
splendid schemes as he had entertained, he should have been content to
settle down into the fat substance and reality of English life, and die in
his due time, and be buried like any other man.
A few years ago, while in England, I visited Smithell's Hall, and was
entertained there, not knowing at the time that I could claim its owner as
my countryman by descent; though, as I now remember, I was struck by the
thin, sallow, American cast of his face, and the lithe slenderness of his
figure, and seem now (but this may be my fancy) to recollect a certain
Indian glitter of the eye and cast of feature.
As for the Bloody Footstep, I saw it with my own eyes, and will venture to
suggest that it was a mere natural reddish stain in the stone, converted
by superstition into a Bloody Footstep.