Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics
Chapter 1: The Search for Perfection
Nature is fallible and her works are imperfect. Human beings
are no exceptions; our bodies decay and perish and our powers
are limited. Seemingly from the beginning, human beings have
been alive to the many ways in which what we have been given
falls short of what we can envision and what we desire. We
are human, but can imagine gods. We die, but can imagine immortality.
But human beings have more than longings and imaginations.
Although we are far from omnipotent, we have extraordinary
powers, unique among the earth’s creatures, to shape our environment
and even ourselves according to our wills. It is perhaps not
surprising, therefore, that also from the beginning human
beings have struggled with two opposing responses to our lot.
Should we try to mold the imperfection we have been given
into something closer to our ideal? Or should we content ourselves
with beholding and enjoying it as it is? And what about our
own natures? Does our ability to flourish as human beings
depend on our ability to improve upon the human form or function?
Or might the contrary be true: does our flourishing depend
on accepting—or even celebrating—our natural limitations?
All the readings in our first chapter explore this ancient
and continuing dilemma. Our first reading, however, perhaps
captures it best. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great short story
“The Birth-mark” is the tale of an otherwise perfectly beautiful
woman with a birthmark on her left cheek, “the fatal flaw
of humanity which nature in one shape or another stamps ineffaceably
on all her productions.” This marked woman is married to an
idealistic scientist who seeks to remove her blemish, only
to discover that it is her “birthmark of mortality” and that
removing it removes her from life itself.
The remaining readings in this chapter treat various aspects
of the problem Hawthorne’s story presents.
The second reading—the Latin poet Ovid’s retelling of the
legends of Pygmalion and Myrrha—like “The Birth-mark” concerns
a frustrated idealist who creates the perfect woman he desires,
with disastrous consequences. The next two readings—Gerard
Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” and Lewis Thomas’s “The Wonderful
Mistake”—are odes to natural imperfection, its beauty and
genius. Where Hawthorne’s and Ovid’s protagonists act upon
nature to improve it, Hopkins and Thomas merely contemplate
nature to admire it.
Our next four readings consider the various human weaknesses
we are most tempted to seek to improve. An excerpt from Andrew
M. Niccols’s screenplay Gattaca imagines a future in
which we have improved our natural powers by manipulating
our genes. A passage from C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength
addresses the desire to shelter the “purity” of the mind from
the corporeality and decay of our bodies. Richard Selzer’s
“Imelda” is about the desire to perfect the body using plastic
surgery. Finally, the epilogue of Stephen Braun’s The Science
of Happiness looks forward to the perfection of the soul
and to a more perfect happiness.
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Birth-mark” is the story of a
great scientist who applies his vast knowledge to removing
a birthmark from the face of his otherwise perfect wife.
The scientist succeeds, but leaves his wife dead. The tale
of this disastrous assault on “the visible mark of earthly
imperfection” explores the troubled relationship between
the human condition and the loftiest aims of science.
While the scientist, Aylmer, is wooing
Georgiana, he is not troubled by her birthmark, which resembles
a tiny red hand in the center of her left cheek. After they
marry, though, he becomes obsessed by “the spectral Hand
that wrote mortality where he would fain have worshipped.”
Eventually Georgiana, made miserable by his revulsion, begs
him to remove her birthmark “at whatever risk.”
Even after Aylmer discovers that the
hand “has clutched its grasp into [her] being with a strength
of which I had no previous conception,” Georgiana remains
fixed in her purpose. She even reflects, at this point,
on her husband’s “honorable love,” which would not “make
itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed
of.” With her last breath, she cautions him not to “repent
that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected
the best the earth could offer.”
What is a birthmark? What does it mean
to be marked at and by birth? What does Hawthorne suggest
is the special significance of Georgiana’s birthmark?
What animates Aylmer? What about Georgiana?
Why does Georgiana allow her husband to do what he does?
Just before drinking the deadly draught,
Georgiana tells Aylmer: “Life is but a sad possession to
those who have attained precisely the degree of moral advancement
at which I stand.” Aylmer replies that she is “fit for heaven
without tasting death.” What degree of moral advancement
has Georgiana reached? What about Aylmer?
Why did Aylmer kiss the birthmark while
he waited for it to fade away?
When Aylmer shudders at Georgiana’s
birthmark, his shudder so distresses her that she faints.
Later, she reflects that even if she could survive the erasure
of her birthmark and be perfect, as Aylmer hopes, she would
“satisfy his highest and deepest conception” only briefly,
because for him, “each instant required something that was
beyond the scope of the instant before.” Yet Georgiana loves
and admires her husband. Why? What is the reader to think
By the end of the story, Aylmer and
Georgiana are powerfully bound together. Can the bond they
share be called a marriage? Why or why not?
What vision of marriage is suggested
in the story’s final paragraph? Is it significant that Aylmer
and Georgiana have no children? Is the pursuit of perfect
What are we to make of the close connections
that Hawthorne implies between the love of beauty, the desire
for control, and the quest for perfection? Are these things
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 its 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 be so.”
“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 you!”
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 emotion 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
pigmy size. Georgiana’s lovers were wont to say, that some
fairy, at her birth-hour, had laid her tiny hand upon the
infant’s cheek, and left this impress there, in token of the
magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all
hearts. Many a desperate swain would have risked life for
the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand.
It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought
by this fairy sign-manual varied exceedingly, according to
the difference of temperament in the beholders. Some fastidious
persons—but they were exclusively of her own sex—affirmed
that the Bloody Hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed
the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance
even hideous. 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 birth-mark 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 birth-mark 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 that dream.”
The mind is in a sad note, 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 birth-mark. 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 birth-mark.
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 burthen 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
“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
“It is resolved, then,” said Georgiana, faintly smiling,—“And,
Aylmer, spare me not, though you should find the birth-mark
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 apprized 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 birth-mark 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 the floor.
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 under-worker 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 practical 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 element.
“Throw open the door of the boudoir, Aminadab,” said Aylmer,
“and burn a pastille.”
“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 birth-mark.”
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, empurpled 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
“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 eyes.
“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 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 burthen 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 Vitae.
He more than intimated, that it was 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 birth-mark, Georgiana, as usual, shrank,
as if a red-hot 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
“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
“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 birth-mark 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, with 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 short-comings of the composite man—the
spirit burthened 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 gaiety, 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 birth-mark,
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 Georgiana’s
“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!”
“Hoh! hoh!” 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 birth-mark 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 not
“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 wrapt
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 doubt.
“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 birth-mark 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,
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 birth-mark, 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 of 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 slightest 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
“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 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 for.
“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 that 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 birth-mark—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
self-same 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. ~