The Elixir of Life is a novel by British historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. It is slightly unusual in the Ainsworth repertoire as the action is entirely couched as a fantasy, so that the supernatural element (which occurs also, for instance, in his Guy Fawkes and his Windsor Castle) can take comparatively free rein. The story is accordingly a thoroughly gothic romance. It is in effect Ainsworth's contribution to the Faust genre. There is also a distinct connection with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in the kidnapping of girls theme, and in that the story concludes in the atmosphere of the lunatic's confinement (and possible recovery), and the villain of the story is his keeper.
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By William Harrison Ainsworth
THE Sixteenth Century drew to a close. It was the last day of the last year, and two hours only were wanting to the birth of another year and of another century.
The night was solemn and beautiful. Myriads of stars paved the deep vault of heaven; the crescent moon hung like a silver lamp in the midst of them; a stream of rosy and quivering light issuing from the north traversed the sky, like the tail of some stupendous comet; while from its point of effluence broke forth, ever and anon, coruscations rivalling in splendour and variety of hue the most brilliant discharge of fireworks.
A sharp frost prevailed; but the atmosphere was clear and dry, and neither wind nor snow aggravated the wholesome rigour of the season. The water lay in thick congealed masses around the conduits and wells, and the buckets were frozen on their stands. The thoroughfares were sheeted with ice, and dangerous to horsemen and vehicles; but the footways were firm and pleasant to the tread.
Here and there, a fire was lighted in the streets, round which ragged urchins and mendicants were collected, roasting fragments of meat stuck upon iron prongs; or quaffing deep draughts of metheglin and ale, out of leathern cups. Crowds were collected in the open places, watching the wonders in the heavens, and drawing auguries from them, chiefly sinister, for most of the beholders thought the signs portended the speedy death of the queen, and the advent of a new monarch from the north a safe and easy interpretation, considering the advanced age and declining health of the illustrious Elizabeth, together with the known appointment of her successor, James of Scotland.
Notwithstanding the early habits of the times, few persons had retired to rest, a universal wish prevailing among the citizens to see the new year in, and welcome the century accompanying it. Lights glimmered in most windows, revealing the holly-sprigs and laurel leaves stuck thickly in their diamond panes; while, whenever a door was opened, a ruddy gleam burst across the street; and a glance inside the dwelling showed its inmates either gathered round the glowing hearth, occupied in mirthful sports—fox-i'-th'-hole, blind-man's-buff, or shoe-the-mare—or seated at the ample board groaning with Christmas cheer.
Music and singing were heard at every comer, and bands of comely damsels, escorted by their sweethearts, went from house to house, bearing huge brown bowls dressed with ribands and rosemary, and filled with a drink called "lamb's-wool", composed of sturdy ale, sweetened with sugar, spiced with nutmeg, and having toasts and burnt crabs floating within it,—a draught from which seldom brought its pretty bearers less than a groat, and occasionally a more valuable coin. Such was the vigil of the year 1600.
On this night, and at the tenth hour, a man of striking and venerable appearance was seen to emerge upon a small wooden balcony, projecting from a bay-window near the top of a picturesque structure situated at the southern extremity of London-bridge.
The old man's beard and hair were as white as snow—the former descending almost to his girdle; so were the thick over—hanging brows that shaded his still piercing eyes. His forehead, was high, bald, and ploughed by innumerable wrinkles. His countenance, despite its death-like paleness, had a noble and majestic cast, and his figure, though worn to the bone by a life of the severest study, and bent by the weight of years, must have been once lofty and commanding. His dress consisted of a doublet and hose of sad-coloured cloth, over which he wore a loose gown of black silk. His head was covered by a square black cap, from beneath which his silver locks strayed over his shoulders.
Known by the name of Doctor Lamb, and addicted to alchemical and philosophical pursuits, this venerable personage was esteemed by the vulgar as little better than a wizard. Strange tales were reported and believed of him. Amongst others, it was said that he possessed a familiar, because he chanced to employ a deformed, crack-brained dwarf, who assisted him in his operations, and whom he appropriately enough denominated Flapdragon.
Doctor Lamb's gaze was fixed intently upon the heavens, and he seemed to be noting the position of the moon with reference to some particular star.
After remaining in this posture for a few minutes, he was about to retire, when a loud crash arrested him, and he turned to see whence it proceeded.
Immediately before him stood the Southwark Gateway—a square stone building, with a round, embattled turret at each corner, and a flat, leaden roof, planted with a forest of poles, fifteen or sixteen feet high, garnished with human heads. To his surprise, the doctor perceived that two of these poles had just been overthrown by a tall man, who was in the act of stripping them of their grisly burdens.
Having accomplished his object, the mysterious plunderer thrust his spoil into a leathern bag with which he was provided, tied its mouth, and was about to take his departure by means of a rope-ladder attached to the battlements, when his retreat was suddenly cut off by the gatekeeper, armed with a halberd, and bearing a lantern, who issued from a door opening upon the leads.
The baffled marauder looked round, and remarking the open window at which Doctor Lamb was stationed, hurled the sack and its contents through it. He then tried to gain the ladder, but was intercepted by the gatekeeper, who dealt him a severe blow on the head with his halberd. The plunderer uttered a loud cry, and attempted to draw his sword; but before he could do so, he received a thrust in the side from his opponent. He then fell, and the gatekeeper would have repeated the blow, if the doctor had not called to him to desist.
"Do not kill him, good Baldred," he cried. "The attempt may not be so criminal as it appears. Doubtless, the mutilated remains which the poor wretch has attempted to carry off, are those of his kindred, and horror at their exposure must have led him to commit the offence."
"It may be, doctor," replied Baldred; "and if so I shall be sorry I have hurt him. But I am responsible for the safe custody of these traitorous relics, and it is as much as my own head is worth to permit their removal."
"I know it," replied Doctor Lamb; "and you are fully justified in what you have done. It may throw some light upon the matter, to know whose miserable remains have been disturbed."
"They were the heads of two rank, papists," replied Baldred, "who were decapitated on Tower Hill, on Saint Nicholas's day, three weeks ago, for conspiring against the queen."
"But their names?" demanded the doctor. "How were they called?"
"They were father and son," replied Baldred;—"Sir Simon Darcy and Master Reginald Darcy. Perchance they were known to your worship?"
"Too well—too well!" replied Doctor Lamb, in a voice of emotion, that startled his hearer. "They were near kinsmen mine own. What is he like who has made this strange attempt?"
"Of a verity, a fair youth," replied Baldred, holding down the lantern. "Heaven grant I have not wounded him to the death! No, his heart still beats. Ha! here are his tablets," he added, taking a small book from his doublet; "these may give the information you seek. You were right in your conjecture, doctor. The name herein inscribed is the same as that borne by the others—Auriol Darcy."
"I see it all," cried Lamb. "It was a pious and praiseworthy deed. Bring the unfortunate youth to my dwelling, Baldred, and you shall be well rewarded. Use despatch, I pray you."
As the gatekeeper essayed to comply, the wounded man groaned deeply, as if in great pain.
"Ring me the weapon with which you smote him," cried Doctor Lamb, in accents of commiseration, "and I will anoint it with the powder of sympathy. His anguish will be speedily abated."
"I know your worship can accomplish wonders," cried Baldred, throwing the halberd into the balcony. "I will do my part as gently as I can."
And as the alchemist took up the weapon, and disappeared through the window, the gatekeeper lifted the wounded man by the shoulders, and conveyed him down a narrow winding staircase to a lower chamber. Though he proceeded carefully, the sufferer was put to excruciating pain; and when Baldred placed him on a wooden bench, and held a lamp towards him, he perceived that his features were darkened and distorted.
"I fear it's all over with him," murmured the gatekeeper; "I shall have a dead body to take to Doctor Lamb. It would be a charity to knock him on the head, rather than let him suffer thus. The doctor passes for a cunning man, but if he can cure this poor youth without seeing him, by the help of his sympathetic ointment, I shall begin to believe, what some folks avouch, that he has relations with the devil."
While Baldred was ruminating in this manner, a sudden and extraordinary change took place in the sufferer. As if by magic, the contraction of the muscles subsided; the features assumed a wholesome hue, and the respiration was no longer laborious. Baldred stared as if a miracle had been wrought.
Now that the countenance of the youth had regained its original expression, the gatekeeper could not help being struck by its extreme beauty. The face was a perfect oval, with regular and delicate features. A short silken moustache covered the upper lip, which was short and proud, and a pointed beard terminated the chin. The hair was black, glossy, and cut short, so as to disclose a highly intellectual expanse of brow.
The youth's figure was slight, but admirably proportioned His attire consisted of a black satin doublet, slashed with white, hose of black silk, and a short velvet mantle. His eyes were still closed, and it was difficult to say what effect they might give to the face when they lighted it up; but notwithstanding its beauty, it was impossible not to admit that a strange, sinister, and almost demoniacal expression pervaded the countenance.
All at once, and with as much suddenness as his cure had been effected, the young man started, uttering a piercing cry, and placed his hand to his side.
"Caitiff!" he cried, fixing his blazing eyes on the gatekeeper, "why do you torture me thus? Finish me at once—Oh!"
And overcome by anguish, he sank back again.
"I have not touched you, sir," replied Baldred. "I brought you here to succour you. You will be easier anon. Doctor Lamb must have wiped the halberd," he added to himself.
Another sudden change. The pain fled from the sufferer's countenance, and he became easy as before.
"What have you done to me?" he asked, with a look of gratitude; "the torture of my wound has suddenly ceased, and I feel as if a balm had been dropped into it, Let me remain in this state if you have any pity—or despatch me, for my late agony was almost insupportable."
"You are cared for by one who has greater skill than any surgeon in London," replied Baldred. "If I can manage to transport you to his lodgings, he will speedily heal your wounds."
"Do not delay, then," replied Auriol, faintly; "for though I am free from pain, I feel that my life is ebbing fast away.
"Press this handkerchief to your side, and lean on me." said Baldred. "Doctor Lamb's dwelling is but a step from the gateway—in fact, the first house on the bridge. By the way, the doctor declares he is your kinsman."
"It is the first I ever heard of him," replied Auriol, faintly; "but take me to him quickly, or it will be too late."
In another moment they were at the doctor's door. Baldred tapped against it, and the summons was instantly answered by a diminutive personage, clad in a jerkin of coarse grey serge, and having a leathern apron tied round his waist. This was Flapdragon.
Blear-eyed, smoke-begrimed, lantern-jawed, the poor dwarf seemed as if his whole life had been spent over the furnace. And so, in fact, it had been. He had become little better than a pair of human bellows. In his hand he held the halberd with which Auriol had been wounded.
"So you have been playing the leech., Flapdragon, eh?" cried Baldred. .
"Ay, marry have I," replied the dwarf, with a wild grin, and displaying a wolfish set of teeth, "My master ordered me to smear the halberd with the sympathetic ointment. I obeyed him; rubbed the steel point, first on one side, then on the other; next wiped it; and then smeared it again."
"Whereby you put the patient to exquisite pain," replied Baldred; "but help me to transport him to the laboratory'."
"I know not if the doctor will care to be disturbed," said Flapdragon. "He is busily engaged on a grand operation."
"I will take the risk on myself," said Baldred. "The youth will die if he remains here. See, he has fainted already!"
Thus urged, the dwarf laid down the halberd, and between the two, Auriol was speedily conveyed up a wide oaken staircase to the laboratory. Doctor Lamb was plying the bellows at the furnace, on which a large alembic was placed, and he was so engrossed by his task, that he scarcely noticed the entrance of the others.
"Place the youth on the ground, and rear his head against the chair," he cried, hastily, to the dwarf. "Bathe his brows with the decoction in that crucible. I will attend to him anon. Come to me on the morrow, Baldred, and I will repay thee for thy trouble. I am busy now."
"These relics, doctor," cried the gatekeeper, glancing at the bag, which was lying on the ground, and from which a bald head extruded—"I ought to take them back with me."
"Heed them not—they will be safe in my keeping," cried Doctor Lamb, impatiently; "tomorrow—tomorrow."
Casting a furtive glance round the laboratory, and shrugging his shoulders, Baldred departed; and Flapdragon having bathed the sufferer's temples with the decoction, in obedience to his master's injunctions, turned to inquire what he should do next.
"Be gone!" cried the doctor, so fiercely that the dwarf darted out of the room, clapping the door after him.
Doctor Lamb then applied himself to his task with renewed ardour, and in a few seconds became wholly insensible of the presence of a stranger.
Revived by the stimulant, Auriol presently opened his eyes, and gazing round the room, thought he must be dreaming, so strange and fantastical did all appear. The floor was covered with the implements used by the adept—bolt-heads, crucibles, cucurbites, and retorts, scattered about without any attempt at arrangement. In one corner was a large terrestrial sphere; near it was an astrolabe; and near that a heap of disused glass vessels. On the other side, lay a black, mysterious-looking book, fastened with brazen clasps. Around it, were a ram's horn, a pair of forceps, a roll of parchment, a pestle and mortar, and a large plate of copper, graven with the mysterious symbols of the Isaical table. Near this was the leathern bag containing the two decapitated heads, one of which had burst forth. On a table, at the further end of the room, stood a large open volume, with parchment leaves, covered with cabbalistical characters, referring to the names of spirits. Near it were two parchment scrolls, written in letters, respectively denominated by the Chaldaic sages, "the Malachim", and "the Passing of the River". One of these scrolls was kept in its place by a skull. An ancient and grotesque-looking brass lamp, with two snake-headed burners, lighted the room. From the ceiling depended a huge scaly sea-monster, with outspread fins, open jaws, garnished with tremendous teeth, and great goggling eyes, Near it hung a celestial sphere. The chimney-piece, which was curiously carved, and projected far into the room, was laden with various implements of Hermetic science. Above it were hung dried bats and flitter-mice, interspersed with the skulls of birds and apes. Attached to the chimney-piece was a horary, sculptured in stone, near which hung a large star-fish. The fireplace was occupied by the furnace, in which, as has been stated, was placed an alembic, communicating by means of a long serpentine pipe with a receiver. Within the room were two skeletons, one of which, placed behind a curtain in the deep embrasure of the window, where its polished bones glistened in the white moonlight, had a horrible effect. The other enjoyed more comfortable quarters near the chimney, its fleshless feet dangling down in the smoke arising from the furnace.
Doctor Lamb, meanwhile, steadily pursued his task, though he ever and anon paused, to fling certain roots and drugs upon the charcoal. As he did this, various-coloured flames broke forth—now blue, now green, now blood-red.
Tinged by these fires, the different objects in the chamber seemed to take other forms, and to become instinct with animation. The gourd-shaped cucurbites were transformed into great bloated toads bursting with venom; the long-necked bolt-heads became monstrous serpents; the worm-like pipes turned into adders; the alembics looked like plumed helmets; the characters on the Isaical table, and those on the parchments, seemed traced in fire, and to be ever changing; the sea-monster bellowed and roared, and, flapping his fins, tried to burst from his hook; the skeletons wagged their jaws, and raised their fleshless fingers in mockery, while blue lights burnt in their eyeless sockets; the bellows became a prodigious bat fanning the fire with its wings: and the old Alchemist assumed the appearance of the arch-fiend presiding over a witches' sabbath.
Auriol's brain reeled, and he pressed his hand to his eyes, to exclude these phantasms from his sight. But even thus they pursued him; and he imagined he could hear the infernal riot going on around him.
Suddenly, he was roused by a loud joyful cry, and, uncovering his eyes, he beheld Doctor Lamb pouring the contents of the matrass—a bright, transparent liquid—into a small phial. Having carefully secured the bottle with a glass stopper, the old man held it towards the light, and gazed at it with rapture. "At length," he exclaimed aloud—"at length, the great work is achieved. With the birth of the century now expiring I first saw light, and the draught I hold in my hand shall enable me to see the opening of centuries and centuries to come. Composed of the lunar stones, the solar stones, and the mercurial stones—prepared according to the instructions of the Rabbi Ben Lucca, namely, by the separation of the pure from the impure, the volatilisation of the fixed, and the fixing of the volatile; this elixir shall renew my youth, like that of the eagle, and give me length of days greater than any patriarch ever enjoyed."
While thus speaking, he held up the sparkling liquid, and gazed at it like a Persian worshipping the sun.
"To live for ever!" he cried, after a pause—"to escape the jaws of death just when they are opening to devour me!—to be free from all accidents!—'tis a glorious thought! Ha! I bethink me, the rabbi said there was one peril against which the elixir could not guard me—one vulnerable point; by which, like the heel of Achilles, death might reach me! What is it?—where can it lie?"
And he relapsed into deep thought.
"This uncertainty will poison all my happiness," he continued; "I shall live in constant dread, as of an invisible enemy. But no matter! Perpetual life!—perpetual youth!—what more need be desired?"
"What more, indeed!" cried Auriol.
"Ha!" exclaimed the doctor, suddenly recollecting the wounded man, and concealing the phial beneath his gown.
"Your caution is vain, doctor," said Auriol. "I have heard what you have uttered. You fancy you have discovered the elixir vitae."
"Fancy, I have discovered it!" cried Doctor Lamb. "The matter is past all doubt. I am the possessor of the wondrous secret, which the greatest philosophers of all ages have sought to discover—the miraculous preservative of the body against decay."
"The man who brought me hither told me you were my kinsman," said Auriol. "Is it so?"
"It is," replied the doctor, "and you shall now learn the connect ion that subsists between us. Look at that ghastly relic," he added, pointing to the head protruding from the bag, "that was once my son Simon. His son's head is within the sack—your father's head—so that four generations are brought together. "
"Gracious Heaven!" exclaimed the young man, raising himself on his elbow. "You, then, are my great-grandsire. My father supposed you had died in his infancy. An old tale runs in the family that you were charged with sorcery, and fled to avoid the stake."
"It is true that I fled, and took the name I bear at present," replied the old man, "but I need scarcely say that the charge brought against me was false. I have devoted myself to abstrusest science; have held commune with the stars; and have wrested the most hidden secrets from Nature—but that is all. Two crimes alone have stained my soul, but both, I trust, have been expiated by repentance."
"Were they deeds of blood?" asked Auriol.
"One was so," replied Darcy, with a shudder. "It was a cowardly and treacherous deed, aggravated by the basest ingratitude. Listen, and you shall hear how it chanced. A Roman rabbi, named Ben Lucca, skilled in Hermetic science, came to this city. His fame reached me, and I sought him out, offering myself as his disciple. For months, I remained with him in his laboratory working at the furnace, and poring over mystic lore. One night, he showed me that volume, and, pointing to a page within it, said: 'Those characters contain the secret of confecting the elixir of life. I now explain them to you; and afterwards we will proceed to the operation.' With this, he unfolded the mystery; but he bade me observe, that the menstruum was defective on one point. Wherefore, he said, 'there will still be peril from some hidden cause.' Oh, with what greediness I drank in his words! How I gazed at the mystic characters, as he explained their import! What visions floated before me of perpetual youth and enjoyment. At that moment a demon whispered in my ear,—"This secret must be thine own. No one else must possess it."
"Ha!" exclaimed Auriol, starting.
"The evil thought was no sooner conceived than acted upon," pursued Darcy. "Instantly drawing my poniard, I plunged it to the rabbi's heart. But mark what followed. His blood fell upon the book, and obliterated the characters; nor could I by any effort of memory recall the composition of the elixir."
"When did you regain the secret?" asked Auriol, curiously.
"Tonight," replied Darcy—"within this hour. For nigh fifty years after that fatal night I have been making fruitless experiments. A film of blood has obscured my mental sight. I have proceeded by calcitration, solution, putrefaction—have produced the oils which will fix crude mercury, and convert all bodies into sol and luna; but I have ever failed in fermenting the stone into the true elixir. Tonight, it came into my head to wash the blood-stained page containing the secret with a subtle liquid. I did so; and doubting the efficacy of the experiment, left it to work, while I went forth to breath the air at my window. My eyes were cast upwards, and I was struck with the malignant aspect of my star. How to reconcile this with the good fortune which has just befallen me, I know not—but so it was. At this juncture, your rash, but pious attempt occurred. Having discovered our relationship, and enjoined the gatekeeper to bring you hither, I returned to my old laboratory. On glancing towards the mystic volume, what was my surprise to see the page free from blood!"
Auriol uttered a slight exclamation, and gazed at the book with superstitious awe.
"The sight was so surprising, that I dropped the sack I had brought with me," pursued Darcy. "Fearful of again losing the secret, I nerved myself to the task, and placing fuel on the fire, dismissed my attendant with brief injunctions relative to you. I then set to work. How I have succeeded, you perceive. I hold in my hand the treasure I have so long sought—so eagerly coveted. The whole world's wealth should not purchase it from me."
Auriol gazed earnestly at his aged relative, but he said nothing.
"In a few moments I shall be as full of vigour and activity as yourself," continued Darcy. "We shall be no longer the great-grandsire and his descendant, but friends—companions—equals,—equals in age, strength, activity, beauty, fortune—for youth is fortune ha! ha! Methinks I am already young again!"
"You spoke of two crimes with which your conscience was burdened," remarked Auriol. "You have mentioned but one."
"The other was not so foul as that I have described," replied Darcy, in an altered tone, "in as much as it was unintentional, and occasioned by no base motive. My wife, your ancestress, was a most lovely woman, and so passionately was I enamoured of her, that I tried by every art to heighten and preserve her beauty. I fed her upon the flesh of capons, nourished with vipers; caused her to steep her lovely limbs in baths distilled from roses and violets; and had recourse to the most potent cosmetics. At last I prepared a draught from poisons—yes, poisons—the effect of which I imagined would be wondrous. She drank it, and expired horribly disfigured. Conceive my despair at beholding the fair image of my idolatry destroyed—defaced by my hand. In my frenzy I should have laid violent hands upon myself, if I had not been restrained. Love may again rule my heart—beauty may again dazzle my eyes, but I shall never more feel the passion I entertained for my lost Amice—never more behold charms equal to hers."
And he pressed his hand to his face.
"The mistake you then committed should serve as a warning," replied Auriol. "What if it be poison you have now confected? Try a few drops of it on some animal."
"No—no; it is the true elixir," replied Darcy. "Not a drop must be wasted. You will witness its effect anon. Like the snake, I shall cast my slough, and come forth younger than I was at twenty."
"Meantime, I beseech you to render me some assistance," groaned Auriol, "or, while you are preparing for immortality, I shall expire before your eyes."
"Be not afraid," replied Darcy; "you shall take no harm. I will care for you presently; and I understand leechcraft so well, that I will answer for your speedy and perfect recovery."
"Drink, then, to it!" cried Auriol.
"I know not what stays my hand," said the old man, raising the phial; "but now that immortality is in my reach, I dare not grasp it."
"Give me the potion, then," cried Auriol.
"Not for worlds," rejoined Darcy, hugging the phial to his breast. "No; I will be young again—rich—happy. I will go forth into the world—I will bask in the smiles of beauty—I will feast, revel, sing—life shall be one perpetual round of enjoyment. Now for the trial—ha!" and, as he raised the potion towards his lips, a sudden pang shot across his heart. "What is this?" he cried, staggering. "Can death assail me when I am just about to enter upon perpetual life? Help me, good grandson! Place the phial to my lips. Pour its contents down my throat—quick! quick!"
"I am too weak to stir," groaned Auriol. "You have delayed it too long."
"Oh, Heavens! we shall both perish," shrieked Darcy, vainly endeavouring to raise his palsied arm,—"perish with the blissful shore in view."
And he sank backwards, and would have fallen to the ground if he had not caught at the terrestrial sphere for support.
"Help me—help me!" he screamed, fixing a glance of unutterable anguish on his relative.
"It is worth the struggle," cried Auriol. And, by a great effort, he raised himself, and staggered towards the old man.
"Saved—saved!" shrieked Darcy. "Pour it down my throat. An instant, and all will be well."
"Think you I have done this for you?" cried Auriol, snatching the potion; "no—no."
And, supporting himself against the furnace, he placed the phial to his lips, and eagerly drained its contents.
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