This story was discussed at the Council's January
IN the latter part of the last century there lived a man of science, an
eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy, who not long
before our story opens had made experience of a spiritual affinity more
attractive than any chemical one. He had left his laboratory to the care
of an assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace smoke,
washed the stain of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful
woman to become his wife. In those days when the comparatively recent
discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed
to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love
of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy.
The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart
might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their
ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence
to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of
creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. We know not whether
Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man's ultimate control over Nature.
He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies
ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young
wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining
itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter
to his own.
Such a union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly remarkable
consequences and a deeply impressive moral. One day, very soon after their
marriage, Aylmer sat gazing at his wife with a trouble in his countenance
that grew stronger until he spoke.
"Georgiana," said he, "has it never occurred to you that
the mark upon your cheek might be removed?"
"No, indeed," said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness
of his manner, she blushed deeply. "To tell you the truth it has
been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might
"Ah, upon another face perhaps it might," replied her husband;
"but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect
from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we
hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the
visible mark of earthly imperfection."
"Shocks you, my husband!" cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first
reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. "Then
why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks
To explain this conversation it must be mentioned that in the centre of
Georgiana's left cheek there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven, as
it were, with the texture and substance of her face. In the usual state
of her complexion -- a healthy though delicate bloom -- the mark wore
a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the
surrounding rosiness. When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct,
and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the
whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused
her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow,
in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. Its shape
bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest
pygmy size. But it would be as reasonable to say that one of those small
blue stains which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble would
convert the Eve of Powers to a monster. Masculine observers, if the birthmark
did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it
away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness
without the semblance of a flaw. After his marriage, -- for he thought
little or nothing of the matter before, -- Aylmer discovered that this
was the case with himself.
Had she been less beautiful, -- if Envy's self could have found aught
else to sneer at, -- he might have felt his affection heightened by the
prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing
forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that
throbbed within her heart; but seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found
this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their
united lives. It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape
or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply
that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought
by toil and pain. The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which
mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading
them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like
whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it
as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death,
Aylmer's sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a
frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's
beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.
At all the seasons which should have been their happiest, he invariably
and without intending it, nay, in spite of a purpose to the contrary,
reverted to this one disastrous topic. Trifling as it at first appeared,
it so connected itself with innumerable trains of thought and modes of
feeling that it became the central point of all. With the morning twilight
Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife's face and recognized the symbol
of imperfection; and when they sat together at the evening hearth his
eyes wandered stealthily to her cheek, and beheld, flickering with the
blaze of the wood fire, the spectral hand that wrote mortality where he
would fain have worshipped. Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze.
It needed but a glance with the peculiar expression that his face often
wore to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid
which the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bas-relief of
ruby on the whitest marble.
Late one night when the lights were growing dim, so as hardly to betray
the stain on the poor wife's cheek, she herself, for the first time, voluntarily
took up the subject.
"Do you remember, my dear Aylmer," said she, with a feeble attempt
at a smile, "have you any recollection of a dream last night about
this odious hand?"
"None! none whatever!" replied Aylmer, starting; but then he
added, in a dry, cold tone, affected for the sake of concealing the real
depth of his emotion, "I might well dream of it; for before I fell
asleep it had taken a pretty firm hold of my fancy."
"And you did dream of it?" continued Georgiana, hastily; for
she dreaded lest a gush of tears should interrupt what she had to say.
"A terrible dream! I wonder that you can forget it. Is it possible
to forget this one expression? -- 'It is in her heart now; we must have
it out!' Reflect, my husband; for by all means I would have you recall
The mind is in a sad state when Sleep, the all-involving, cannot confine
her spectres within the dim region of her sway, but suffers them to break
forth, affrighting this actual life with secrets that perchance belong
to a deeper one. Aylmer now remembered his dream. He had fancied himself
with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of
the birthmark; but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand,
until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's
heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or
wrench it away.
When the dream had shaped itself perfectly in his memory, Aylmer sat in
his wife's presence with a guilty feeling. Truth often finds its way to
the mind close muffled in robes of sleep, and then speaks with uncompromising
directness of matters in regard to which we practise an unconscious self-deception
during our waking moments. Until now he had not been aware of the tyrannizing
influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which
he might find in his heart to go for the sake of giving himself peace.
"Aylmer," resumed Georgiana, solemnly, "I know not what
may be the cost to both of us to rid me of this fatal birthmark. Perhaps
its removal may cause cureless deformity; or it may be the stain goes
as deep as life itself. Again: do we know that there is a possibility,
on any terms, of unclasping the firm gripe of this little hand which was
laid upon me before I came into the world?"
"Dearest Georgiana, I have spent much thought upon the subject,"
hastily interrupted Aylmer. "I am convinced of the perfect practicability
of its removal."
"If there be the remotest possibility of it," continued Georgiana,
"let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me;
for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and
disgust, -- life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either
remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life! You have deep science.
All the world bears witness of it. You have achieved great wonders. Cannot
you remove this little, little mark, which I cover with the tips of two
small fingers? Is this beyond your power, for the sake of your own peace,
and to save your poor wife from madness?"
"Noblest, dearest, tenderest wife," cried Aylmer. rapturously,
"doubt not my power. I have already given this matter the deepest
thought -- thought which might almost have enlightened me to create a
being less perfect than yourself. Georgiana, you have led me deeper than
ever into the heart of science. I feel myself fully competent to render
this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and then, most beloved, what
will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect
in her fairest work! Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed
life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be."
"It is resolved, then," said Georgiana, faintly smiling. "And,
Aylmer, spare me not, though you should find the birthmark take refuge
in my heart at last."
Her husband tenderly kissed her cheek -- her right cheek -- not that which
bore the impress of the crimson hand.
The next day Aylmer apprised his wife of a plan that he had formed whereby
he might have opportunity for the intense thought and constant watchfulness
which the proposed operation would require; while Georgiana, likewise,
would enjoy the perfect repose essential to its success. They were to
seclude themselves in the extensive apartments occupied by Aylmer as a
laboratory, and where, during his toilsome youth, he had made discoveries
in the elemental powers of Nature that had roused the admiration of all
the learned societies in Europe. Seated calmly in this laboratory, the
pale philosopher had investigated the secrets of the highest cloud region
and of the profoundest mines; he had satisfied himself of the causes that
kindled and kept alive the fires of the volcano; and had explained the
mystery of fountains, and how it is that they gush forth, some so bright
and pure, and others with such rich medicinal virtues, from the dark bosom
of the earth. Here, too, at an earlier period, he had studied the wonders
of the human frame, and attempted to fathom the very process by which
Nature assimilates all her precious influences from earth and air, and
from the spiritual world, to create and foster man, her masterpiece.
The latter pursuit, however, Aylmer had long laid aside in unwilling recognition
of the truth -- against which all seekers sooner or later stumble -- that
our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working
in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets,
and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results.
She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous
patentee, on no account to make. Now, however, Aylmer resumed these half-forgotten
investigations; not, of course, with such hopes or wishes as first suggested
them; but because they involved much physiological truth and lay in the
path of his proposed scheme for the treatment of Georgiana.
As he led her over the threshold of the laboratory, Georgiana was cold
and tremulous. Aylmer looked cheerfully into her face, with intent to
reassure her, but was so startled with the intense glow of the birthmark
upon the whiteness of her cheek that he could not restrain a strong convulsive
shudder. His wife fainted.
"Aminadab! Aminadab!" shouted Aylmer, stamping violently on
Forthwith there issued from an inner apartment a man of low stature, but
bulky frame, with shaggy hair hanging about his visage, which was grimed
with the vapors of the furnace. This personage had been Aylmer's underworker
during his whole scientific career, and was admirably fitted for that
office by his great mechanical readiness, and the skill with which, while
incapable of comprehending a single principle, he executed all the details
of his master's experiments. With his vast strength, his shaggy hair,
his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that incrusted him,
he seemed to represent man's physical nature; while Aylmer's slender figure,
and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual
"Throw open the door of the boudoir, Aminadab," said Aylmer,
"and burn a pastil."
"Yes, master," answered Aminadab, looking intently at the lifeless
form of Georgiana; and then he muttered to himself, "If she were
my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark."
When Georgiana recovered consciousness she found herself breathing an
atmosphere of penetrating fragrance, the gentle potency of which had recalled
her from her deathlike faintness. The scene around her looked like enchantment.
Aylmer had converted those smoky, dingy, sombre rooms, where he had spent
his brightest years in recondite pursuits, into a series of beautiful
apartments not unfit to be the secluded abode of a lovely woman. The walls
were hung with gorgeous curtains, which imparted the combination of grandeur
and grace that no other species of adornment can achieve; and as they
fell from the ceiling to the floor, their rich and ponderous folds, concealing
all angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite
space. For aught Georgiana knew, it might be a pavilion among the clouds.
And Aylmer, excluding the sunshine, which would have interfered with his
chemical processes, had supplied its place with perfumed lamps, emitting
flames of various hue, but all uniting in a soft, impurpled radiance.
He now knelt by his wife's side, watching her earnestly, but without alarm;
for he was confident in his science, and felt that he could draw a magic
circle round her within which no evil might intrude.
"Where am I? Ah, I remember," said Georgiana, faintly; and she
placed her hand over her cheek to hide the terrible mark from her husband's
"Fear not, dearest!" exclaimed he. "Do not shrink from
me! Believe me, Georgiana, I even rejoice in this single imperfection,
since it will be such a rapture to remove it."
"Oh, spare me!" sadly replied his wife. "Pray do not look
at it again. I never can forget that convulsive shudder."
In order to soothe Georgiana, and, as it were, to release her mind from
the burden of actual things, Aylmer now put in practice some of the light
and playful secrets which science had taught him among its profounder
lore. Airy figures, absolutely bodiless ideas, and forms of unsubstantial
beauty came and danced before her, imprinting their momentary footsteps
on beams of light. Though she had some indistinct idea of the method of
these optical phenomena, still the illusion was almost perfect enough
to warrant the belief that her husband possessed sway over the spiritual
world. Then again, when she felt a wish to look forth from her seclusion,
immediately, as if her thoughts were answered, the procession of external
existence flitted across a screen. The scenery and the figures of actual
life were perfectly represented, but with that bewitching, yet indescribable
difference which always makes a picture, an image, or a shadow so much
more attractive than the original. When wearied of this, Aylmer bade her
cast her eyes upon a vessel containing a quantity of earth. She did so,
with little interest at first; but was soon startled to perceive the germ
of a plant shooting upward from the soil. Then came the slender stalk;
the leaves gradually unfolded themselves; and amid them was a perfect
and lovely flower.
"It is magical!" cried Georgiana. "I dare not touch it."
"Nay, pluck it," answered Aylmer, -- "pluck it, and inhale
its brief perfume while you may. The flower will wither in a few moments
and leave nothing save its brown seed vessels; but thence may be perpetuated
a race as ephemeral as itself."
But Georgiana had no sooner touched the flower than the whole plant suffered
a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire.
"There was too powerful a stimulus," said Aylmer, thoughtfully.
To make up for this abortive experiment, he proposed to take her portrait
by a scientific process of his own invention. It was to be effected by
rays of light striking upon a polished plate of metal. Georgiana assented;
but, on looking at the result, was affrighted to find the features of
the portrait blurred and indefinable; while the minute figure of a hand
appeared where the cheek should have been. Aylmer snatched the metallic
plate and threw it into a jar of corrosive acid.
Soon, however, he forgot these mortifying failures. In the intervals of
study and chemical experiment he came to her flushed and exhausted, but
seemed invigorated by her presence, and spoke in glowing language of the
resources of his art. He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists,
who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the
golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer
appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether
within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium;
"but," he added, "a philosopher who should go deep enough
to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise
of it." Not less singular were his opinions in regard to the elixir
vitf. He more than intimated that it was at his option to concoct a liquid
that should prolong life for years, perhaps interminably; but that it
would produce a discord in Nature which all the world, and chiefly the
quaffer of the immortal nostrum, would find cause to curse.
"Aylmer, are you in earnest?" asked Georgiana, looking at him
with amazement and fear. "It is terrible to possess such power, or
even to dream of possessing it."
"Oh, do not tremble, my love," said her husband. "I would
not wrong either you or myself by working such inharmonious effects upon
our lives; but I would have you consider how trifling, in comparison,
is the skill requisite to remove this little hand."
At the mention of the birthmark, Georgiana, as usual, shrank as if a redhot
iron had touched her cheek.
Again Aylmer applied himself to his labors. She could hear his voice in
the distant furnace room giving directions to Aminadab, whose harsh, uncouth,
misshapen tones were audible in response, more like the grunt or growl
of a brute than human speech. After hours of absence, Aylmer reappeared
and proposed that she should now examine his cabinet of chemical products
and natural treasures of the earth. Among the former he showed her a small
vial, in which, he remarked, was contained a gentle yet most powerful
fragrance, capable of impregnating all the breezes that blow across a
kingdom. They were of inestimable value, the contents of that little vial;
and, as he said so, he threw some of the perfume into the air and filled
the room with piercing and invigorating delight.
"And what is this?" asked Georgiana, pointing to a small crystal
globe containing a gold-colored liquid. "It is so beautiful to the
eye that I could imagine it the elixir of life."
"In one sense it is," replied Aylmer; "or, rather, the
elixir of immortality. It is the most precious poison that ever was concocted
in this world. By its aid I could apportion the lifetime of any mortal
at whom you might point your finger. The strength of the dose would determine
whether he were to linger out years, or drop dead in the midst of a breath.
No king on his guarded throne could keep his life if I, in my private
station, should deem that the welfare of millions justified me in depriving
him of it."
"Why do you keep such a terrific drug?" inquired Georgiana in
"Do not mistrust me, dearest," said her husband, smiling; "its
virtuous potency is yet greater than its harmful one. But see! here is
a powerful cosmetic. With a few drops of this in a vase of water, freckles
may be washed away as easily as the hands are cleansed. A stronger infusion
would take the blood out of the cheek, and leave the rosiest beauty a
"Is it with this lotion that you intend to bathe my cheek?"
asked Georgiana, anxiously.
"Oh, no," hastily replied her husband; "this is merely
superficial. Your case demands a remedy that shall go deeper."
In his interviews with Georgiana, Aylmer generally made minute inquiries
as to her sensations and whether the confinement of the rooms and the
temperature of the atmosphere agreed with her. These questions had such
a particular drift that Georgiana began to conjecture that she was already
subjected to certain physical influences, either breathed in with the
fragrant air or taken with her food. She fancied likewise, but it might
be altogether fancy, that there was a stirring up of her system -- a strange,
indefinite sensation creeping through her veins, and tingling, half painfully,
half pleasurably, at her heart. Still, whenever she dared to look into
the mirror, there she beheld herself pale as a white rose and with the
crimson birthmark stamped upon her cheek. Not even Aylmer now hated it
so much as she.
To dispel the tedium of the hours which her husband found it necessary
to devote to the processes of combination and analysis, Georgiana turned
over the volumes of his scientific library. In many dark old tomes she
met with chapters full of romance and poetry. They were the works of philosophers
of the middle ages, such as Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus,
and the famous friar who created the prophetic Brazen Head. All these
antique naturalists stood in advance of their centuries, yet were imbued
with some of their credulity, and therefore were believed, and perhaps
imagined themselves to have acquired from the investigation of Nature
a power above Nature, and from physics a sway over the spiritual world.
Hardly less curious and imaginative were the early volumes of the Transactions
of the Royal Society, in which the members, knowing little of the limits
of natural possibility, were continually recording wonders or proposing
methods whereby wonders might be wrought.
But to Georgiana the most engrossing volume was a large folio from her
husband's own hand, in which he had recorded every experiment of his scientific
career, its original aim, the methods adopted for its development, and
its final success or failure, with the circumstances to which either event
was attributable. The book, in truth, was both the history and emblem
of his ardent, ambitious, imaginative, yet practical and laborious life.
He handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet
spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong
and eager aspiration towards the infinite. In his grasp the veriest clod
of earth assumed a soul. Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and
loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence
on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could
not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably
failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest
diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison
with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach. The volume,
rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as
melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. It was the sad confession
and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man,
the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair
that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted
by the earthly part. Perhaps every man of genius in whatever sphere might
recognize the image of his own experience in Aylmer's journal.
So deeply did these reflections affect Georgiana that she laid her face
upon the open volume and burst into tears. In this situation she was found
by her husband.
"It is dangerous to read in a sorcerer's books," said he with
a smile, though his countenance was uneasy and displeased. "Georgiana,
there are pages in that volume which I can scarcely glance over and keep
my senses. Take heed lest it prove as detrimental to you."
"It has made me worship you more than ever," said she.
"Ah, wait for this one success," rejoined he, "then worship
me if you will. I shall deem myself hardly unworthy of it. But come, I
have sought you for the luxury of your voice. Sing to me, dearest."
So she poured out the liquid music of her voice to quench the thirst of
his spirit. He then took his leave with a boyish exuberance of gayety,
assuring her that her seclusion would endure but a little longer, and
that the result was already certain. Scarcely had he departed when Georgiana
felt irresistibly impelled to follow him. She had forgotten to inform
Aylmer of a symptom which for two or three hours past had begun to excite
her attention. It was a sensation in the fatal birthmark, not painful,
but which induced a restlessness throughout her system. Hastening after
her husband, she intruded for the first time into the laboratory.
The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish
worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of
soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was
a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were retorts,
tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research.
An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt
oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been
tormented forth by the processes of science. The severe and homely simplicity
of the apartment, with its naked walls and brick pavement, looked strange,
accustomed as Georgiana had become to the fantastic elegance of her boudoir.
But what chiefly, indeed almost solely, drew her attention, was the aspect
of Aylmer himself.
He was pale as death, anxious and absorbed, and hung over the furnace
as if it depended upon his utmost watchfulness whether the liquid which
it was distilling should be the draught of immortal happiness or misery.
How different from the sanguine and joyous mien that he had assumed for
"Carefully now, Aminadab; carefully, thou human machine; carefully,
thou man of clay!" muttered Aylmer, more to himself than his assistant.
"Now, if there be a thought too much or too little, it is all over."
"Ho! ho!" mumbled Aminadab. "Look, master! look!"
Aylmer raised his eyes hastily, and at first reddened, then grew paler
than ever, on beholding Georgiana. He rushed towards her and seized her
arm with a gripe that left the print of his fingers upon it.
"Why do you come hither? Have you no trust in your husband?"
cried he, impetuously. "Would you throw the blight of that fatal
birthmark over my labors? It is not well done. Go, prying woman, go!"
"Nay, Aylmer," said Georgiana with the firmness of which she
possessed no stinted endowment, "it is not you that have a right
to complain. You mistrust your wife; you have concealed the anxiety with
which you watch the development of this experiment. Think not so unworthily
of me, my husband. Tell me all the risk we run, and fear not that I shall
shrink; for my share in it is far less than your own."
"No, no, Georgiana!" said Aylmer, impatiently; "it must
"I submit," replied she calmly. "And, Aylmer, I shall quaff
whatever draught you bring me; but it will be on the same principle that
would induce me to take a dose of poison if offered by your hand."
"My noble wife," said Aylmer, deeply moved, "I knew not
the height and depth of your nature until now. Nothing shall be concealed.
Know, then, that this crimson hand, superficial as it seems, has clutched
its grasp into your being with a strength of which I had no previous conception.
I have already administered agents powerful enough to do aught except
to change your entire physical system. Only one thing remains to be tried.
If that fail us we are ruined."
"Why did you hesitate to tell me this?" asked she.
"Because, Georgiana," said Aylmer, in a low voice, "there
"Danger? There is but one danger -- that this horrible stigma shall
be left upon my cheek!" cried Georgiana. "Remove it, remove
it, whatever be the cost, or we shall both go mad!"
"Heaven knows your words are too true," said Aylmer, sadly.
"And now, dearest, return to your boudoir. In a little while all
will be tested."
He conducted her back and took leave of her with a solemn tenderness which
spoke far more than his words how much was now at stake. After his departure
Georgiana became rapt in musings. She considered the character of Aylmer,
and did it completer justice than at any previous moment. Her heart exulted,
while it trembled, at his honorable love -- so pure and lofty that it
would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented
with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of. She felt how much more
precious was such a sentiment than that meaner kind which would have borne
with the imperfection for her sake, and have been guilty of treason to
holy love by degrading its perfect idea to the level of the actual; and
with her whole spirit she prayed that, for a single moment, she might
satisfy his highest and deepest conception. Longer than one moment she
well knew it could not be; for his spirit was ever on the march, ever
ascending, and each instant required something that was beyond the scope
of the instant before.
The sound of her husband's footsteps aroused her. He bore a crystal goblet
containing a liquor colorless as water, but bright enough to be the draught
of immortality. Aylmer was pale; but it seemed rather the consequence
of a highly-wrought state of mind and tension of spirit than of fear or
"The concoction of the draught has been perfect," said he, in
answer to Georgiana's look. "Unless all my science have deceived
me, it cannot fail."
"Save on your account, my dearest Aylmer," observed his wife,
"I might wish to put off this birthmark of mortality by relinquishing
mortality itself in preference to any other mode. Life is but a sad possession
to those who have attained precisely the degree of moral advancement at
which I stand. Were I weaker and blinder it might be happiness. Were I
stronger, it might be endured hopefully. But, being what I find myself,
methinks I am of all mortals the most fit to die."
"You are fit for heaven without tasting death!" replied her
husband "But why do we speak of dying? The draught cannot fail. Behold
its effect upon this plant."
On the window seat there stood a geranium diseased with yellow blotches,
which had overspread all its leaves. Aylmer poured a small quantity of
the liquid upon the soil in which it grew. In a little time, when the
roots of the plant had taken up the moisture, the unsightly blotches began
to be extinguished in a living verdure.
"There needed no proof," said Georgiana, quietly. "Give
me the goblet I joyfully stake all upon your word."
"Drink, then, thou lofty creature!" exclaimed Aylmer, with fervid
admiration. "There is no taint of imperfection on thy spirit. Thy
sensible frame, too, shall soon be all perfect."
She quaffed the liquid and returned the goblet to his hand.
"It is grateful," said she with a placid smile. "Methinks
it is like water from a heavenly fountain; for it contains I know not
what of unobtrusive fragrance and deliciousness. It allays a feverish
thirst that had parched me for many days. Now, dearest, let me sleep.
My earthly senses are closing over my spirit like the leaves around the
heart of a rose at sunset."
She spoke the last words with a gentle reluctance, as if it required almost
more energy than she could command to pronounce the faint and lingering
syllables. Scarcely had they loitered through her lips ere she was lost
in slumber. Aylmer sat by her side, watching her aspect with the emotions
proper to a man the whole value of whose existence was involved in the
process now to be tested. Mingled with this mood, however, was the philosophic
investigation characteristic of the man of science. Not the minutest symptom
escaped him. A heightened flush of the cheek, a slight irregularity of
breath, a quiver of the eyelid, a hardly perceptible tremor through the
frame, -- such were the details which, as the moments passed, he wrote
down in his folio volume. Intense thought had set its stamp upon every
previous page of that volume, but the thoughts of years were all concentrated
upon the last.
While thus employed, he failed not to gaze often at the fatal hand, and
not without a shudder. Yet once, by a strange and unaccountable impulse
he pressed it with his lips. His spirit recoiled, however, in the very
act, and Georgiana, out of the midst of her deep sleep, moved uneasily
and murmured as if in remonstrance. Again Aylmer resumed his watch. Nor
was it without avail. The crimson hand, which at first had been strongly
visible upon the marble paleness of Georgiana's cheek, now grew more faintly
outlined. She remained not less pale than ever; but the birthmark with
every breath that came and went, lost somewhat of its former distinctness.
Its presence had been awful; its departure was more awful still. Watch
the stain of the rainbow fading out the sky, and you will know how that
mysterious symbol passed away.
"By Heaven! it is well-nigh gone!" said Aylmer to himself, in
almost irrepressible ecstasy. "I can scarcely trace it now. Success!
success! And now it is like the faintest rose color. The lightest flush
of blood across her cheek would overcome it. But she is so pale!"
He drew aside the window curtain and suffered the light of natural day
to fall into the room and rest upon her cheek. At the same time he heard
a gross, hoarse chuckle, which he had long known as his servant Aminadab's
expression of delight.
"Ah, clod! ah, earthly mass!" cried Aylmer, laughing in a sort
of frenzy, "you have served me well! Matter and spirit -- earth and
heaven -- have both done their part in this! Laugh, thing of the senses!
You have earned the right to laugh."
These exclamations broke Georgiana's sleep. She slowly unclosed her eyes
and gazed into the mirror which her husband had arranged for that purpose.
A faint smile flitted over her lips when she recognized how barely perceptible
was now that crimson hand which had once blazed forth with such disastrous
brilliancy as to scare away all their happiness. But then her eyes sought
Aylmer's face with a trouble and anxiety that he could by no means account
"My poor Aylmer!" murmured she.
"Poor? Nay, richest, happiest, most favored!" exclaimed he.
"My peerless bride, it is successful! You are perfect!"
"My poor Aylmer," she repeated, with a more than human tenderness,
"you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that
with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth
could offer. Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying!"
Alas! it was too true! The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of
life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union
with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark -- that
sole token of human imperfection -- faded from her cheek, the parting
breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul,
lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight. Then
a hoarse, chuckling laugh was heard again! Thus ever does the gross fatality
of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which,
in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a
higher state. Yet, had Alymer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not
thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life
of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance
was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of
time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future
in the present.