The winter swept over, and spring was just beginning to spread its green flush over the more favored exposures of the landscape, although on the north side of stone-walls, and the northern nooks of hills, there were still the remnants of snow-drifts. Septimius's hill-top, which was of a soil which quickly rid itself of moisture, now began to be a genial place of resort to him, and he was one morning taking his walk there, meditating upon the still insurmountable difficulties which interposed themselves against the interpretation of the manuscript, yet feeling the new gush of spring bring hope to him, and the energy and elasticity for new effort. Thus pacing to and fro, he was surprised, as he turned at the extremity of his walk, to see a figure advancing towards him; not that of the pale maiden whom he was accustomed to see there, but a figure as widely different as possible. [He sees a spider dangling from his web, and examines him minutely.] It was that of a short, broad, somewhat elderly man, dressed in a surtout that had a half-military air; the cocked hat of the period, well worn, and having a fresher spot in it, whence, perhaps, a cockade had been recently taken off; and this personage carried a well blackened German pipe in his hand, which, as he walked, he applied to his lips, and puffed out volumes of smoke, filling the pleasant western breeze with the fragrance of some excellent Virginia. He came slowly along, and Septimius, slackening his pace a little, came as slowly to meet him, feeling somewhat indignant, to be sure, that anybody should intrude on his sacred hill; until at last they met, as it happened, close by the memorable little hillock, on which the grass and flower-leaves also had begun to sprout. The stranger looked keenly at Septimius, made a careless salute by putting his hand up, and took the pipe from his mouth.
"Mr. Septimius Felton, I suppose?" said he.
"That is my name," replied Septimius.
"I am Doctor Jabez Portsoaken," said the stranger, "late surgeon of his Majesty's sixteenth regiment, which I quitted when his Majesty's army quitted Boston, being desirous of trying my fortunes in your country, and giving the people the benefit of my scientific knowledge; also to practise some new modes of medical science, which I could not so well do in the army."
"I think you are quite right, Doctor Jabez Portsoaken," said Septimius, a little confused and bewildered, so unused had he become to the society of strangers.
"And as to you, sir," said the doctor, who had a very rough, abrupt way of speaking, "I have to thank you for a favor done me."
"Have you, sir?" said Septimius, who was quite sure that he had never seen the doctor's uncouth figure before.
"Oh, ay, me," said the doctor, puffing coolly,–"me in the person of my niece, a sickly, poor, nervous little thing, who is very fond of walking on your hill-top, and whom you do not send away."
"You are the uncle of Sibyl Dacy?" said Septimius.
"Even so, her mother's brother," said the doctor, with a grotesque bow. "So, being on a visit, the first that the siege allowed me to pay, to see how the girl was getting on, I take the opportunity to pay my respects to you; the more that I understand you to be a young man of some learning, and it is not often that one meets with such in this country."
"No," said Septimius, abruptly, for indeed he had half a suspicion that this queer Doctor Portsoaken was not altogether sincere,–that, in short, he was making game of him. "You have been misinformed. I know nothing whatever that is worth knowing."
"Oho!" said the doctor, with a long puff of smoke out of his pipe. "If you are convinced of that, you are one of the wisest men I have met with, young as you are. I must have been twice your age before I got so far; and even now, I am sometimes fool enough to doubt the only thing I was ever sure of knowing. But come, you make me only the more earnest to collogue with you. If we put both our shortcomings together, they may make up an item of positive knowledge."
"What use can one make of abortive thoughts?" said Septimius.
"Do your speculations take a scientific turn?" said Doctor Portsoaken. "There I can meet you with as much false knowledge and empiricism as you can bring for the life of you. Have you ever tried to study spiders?–there is my strong point now! I have hung my whole interest in life on a spider's web."
"I know nothing of them, sir," said Septimius, "except to crush them when I see them running across the floor, or to brush away the festoons of their webs when they have chanced to escape my Aunt Keziah's broom."
"Crush them! Brush away their webs!" cried the doctor, apparently in a rage, and shaking his pipe at Septimius. "Sir, it is sacrilege! Yes, it is worse than murder. Every thread of a spider's web is worth more than a thread of gold; and before twenty years are passed, a housemaid will be beaten to death with her own broomstick if she disturbs one of these sacred animals. But, come again. Shall we talk of botany, the virtues of herbs?"
"My Aunt Keziah should meet you there, doctor," said Septimius. "She has a native and original acquaintance with their virtues, and can save and kill with any of the faculty. As for myself, my studies have not turned that way."
"They ought! they ought!" said the doctor, looking meaningly at him. "The whole thing lies in the blossom of an herb. Now, you ought to begin with what lies about you; on this little hillock, for instance;" and looking at the grave beside which they were standing, he gave it a kick which went to Septimius's heart, there seemed to be such a spite and scorn in it. "On this hillock I see some specimens of plants which would be worth your looking at."
Bending down towards the grave as he spoke, he seemed to give closer attention to what he saw there; keeping in his stooping position till his face began to get a purple aspect, for the erudite doctor was of that make of man who has to be kept right side uppermost with care. At length he raised himself, muttering, "Very curious! very curious!"
"Do you see anything remarkable there?" asked Septimius, with some interest.
"Yes," said the doctor, bluntly. "No matter what! The time will come when you may like to know it."
"Will you come with me to my residence at the foot of the hill, Doctor Portsoaken?" asked Septimius. "I am not a learned man, and have little or no title to converse with one, except a sincere desire to be wiser than I am. If you can be moved on such terms to give me your companionship, I shall be thankful."
"Sir, I am with you," said Doctor Portsoaken. "I will tell you what I know, in the sure belief (for I will be frank with you) that it will add to the amount of dangerous folly now in your mind, and help you on the way to ruin. Take your choice, therefore, whether to know me further or not."
"I neither shrink nor fear,–neither hope much," said Septimius, quietly. "Anything that you can communicate–if anything you can–I shall fearlessly receive, and return you such thanks as it may be found to deserve."
So saying, he led the way down the hill, by the steep path that descended abruptly upon the rear of his bare and unadorned little dwelling; the doctor following with much foul language (for he had a terrible habit of swearing) at the difficulties of the way, to which his short legs were ill adapted. Aunt Keziah met them at the door, and looked sharply at the doctor, who returned the gaze with at least as much keenness, muttering between his teeth, as he did so; and to say the truth, Aunt Keziah was as worthy of being sworn at as any woman could well be, for whatever she might have been in her younger days, she was at this time as strange a mixture of an Indian squaw and herb doctress, with the crabbed old maid, and a mingling of the witch-aspect running through all as could well be imagined; and she had a handkerchief over her head, and she was of hue a dusky yellow, and she looked very cross. As Septimius ushered the doctor into his study, and was about to follow him, Aunt Keziah drew him back.
"Septimius, who is this you have brought here?" asked she.
"A man I have met on the hill," answered her nephew; "a Doctor Portsoaken he calls himself, from the old country. He says he has knowledge of herbs and other mysteries; in your own line, it may be. If you want to talk with him, give the man his dinner, and find out what there is in him."
"And what do you want of him yourself, Septimius?" asked she.
"I? Nothing!–that is to say, I expect nothing," said Septimius. "But I am astray, seeking everywhere, and so I reject no hint, no promise, no faintest possibility of aid that I may find anywhere. I judge this man to be a quack, but I judge the same of the most learned man of his profession, or any other; and there is a roughness about this man that may indicate a little more knowledge than if he were smoother. So, as he threw himself in my way, I take him in."
"A grim, ugly-looking old wretch as ever I saw," muttered Aunt Keziah. "Well, he shall have his dinner; and if he likes to talk about yarb-dishes, I'm with him."
So Septimius followed the doctor into his study, where he found him with the sword in his hand, which he had taken from over the mantel-piece, and was holding it drawn, examining the hilt and blade with great minuteness; the hilt being wrought in openwork, with certain heraldic devices, doubtless belonging to the family of its former wearer.
"I have seen this weapon before," said the doctor.
"It may well be," said Septimius. "It was once worn by a person who served in the army of your king."
"And you took it from him?" said the doctor.
"If I did, it was in no way that I need be ashamed of, or afraid to tell, though I choose rather not to speak of it," answered Septimius.
"Have you, then, no desire nor interest to know the family, the personal history, the prospects, of him who once wore this sword, and who will never draw sword again?" inquired Doctor Portsoaken. "Poor Cyril Norton! There was a singular story attached to that young man, sir, and a singular mystery he carried about with him, the end of which, perhaps, is not yet."
Septimius would have been, indeed, well enough pleased to learn the mystery which he himself had seen that there was about the man whom he slew; but he was afraid that some question might be thereby started about the secret document that he had kept possession of; and he therefore would have wished to avoid the whole subject.
"I cannot be supposed to take much interest in English family history. It is a hundred and fifty years, at least, since my own family ceased to be English," he answered. "I care more for the present and future than for the past."
"It is all one," said the doctor, sitting down, taking out a pinch of tobacco and refilling his pipe.
It is unnecessary to follow up the description of the visit of the eccentric doctor through the day. Suffice it to say that there was a sort of charm, or rather fascination, about the uncouth old fellow, in spite of his strange ways; in spite of his constant puffing of tobacco; and in spite, too, of a constant imbibing of strong liquor, which he made inquiries for, and of which the best that could be produced was a certain decoction, infusion, or distillation, pertaining to Aunt Keziah, and of which the basis was rum, be it said, done up with certain bitter herbs of the old lady's own gathering, at proper times of the moon, and which was a well-known drink to all who were favored with Aunt Keziah's friendship; though there was a story that it was the very drink which used to be passed round at witch-meetings, being brewed from the Devil's own recipe. And, in truth, judging from the taste (for I once took a sip of a draught prepared from the same ingredients, and in the same way), I should think this hellish origin might be the veritable one.
["I thought" quoth the doctor, "I could drink anything, but"–]
But the valiant doctor sipped, and sipped again, and said with great blasphemy that it was the real stuff, and only needed henbane to make it perfect. Then, taking from his pocket a good-sized leathern-covered flask, with a silver lip fastened on the muzzle, he offered it to Septimius, who declined, and to Aunt Keziah, who preferred her own decoction, and then drank it off himself, with a loud smack of satisfaction, declaring it to be infernally good brandy.
Well, after this Septimius and he talked; and I know not how it was, but there was a great deal of imagination in this queer man, whether a bodily or spiritual influence it might be hard to say. On the other hand Septimius had for a long while held little intercourse with men; none whatever with men who could comprehend him; the doctor, too, seemed to bring the discourse singularly in apposition with what his host was continually thinking about, for he conversed on occult matters, on people who had had the art of living long, and had only died at last by accident, on the powers and qualities of common herbs, which he believed to be so great, that all around our feet–growing in the wild forest, afar from man, or following the footsteps of man wherever he fixes his residence, across seas, from the old homesteads whence he migrated, following him everywhere, and offering themselves sedulously and continually to his notice, while he only plucks them away from the comparatively worthless things which he cultivates, and flings them aside, blaspheming at them because Providence has sown them so thickly–grow what we call weeds, only because all the generations, from the beginning of time till now, have failed to discover their wondrous virtues, potent for the curing of all diseases, potent for procuring length of days.
"Everything good," said the doctor, drinking another dram of brandy, "lies right at our feet, and all we need is to gather it up."
"That's true," quoth Keziah, taking just a little sup of her hellish preparation; "these herbs were all gathered within a hundred yards of this very spot, though it took a wise woman to find out their virtues."
The old woman went off about her household duties, and then it was that Septimius submitted to the doctor the list of herbs which he had picked out of the old document, asking him, as something apposite to the subject of their discourse, whether he was acquainted with them, for most of them had very queer names, some in Latin, some in English.
The bluff doctor put on his spectacles, and looked over the slip of yellow and worn paper scrutinizingly, puffing tobacco-smoke upon it in great volumes, as if thereby to make its hidden purport come out; he mumbled to himself, he took another sip from his flask; and then, putting it down on the table, appeared to meditate.
"This infernal old document," said he, at length, "is one that I have never seen before, yet heard of, nevertheless; for it was my folly in youth (and whether I am any wiser now is more than I take upon me to say, but it was my folly then) to be in quest of certain kinds of secret knowledge, which the fathers of science thought attainable. Now, in several quarters, amongst people with whom my pursuits brought me in contact, I heard of a certain recipe which had been lost for a generation or two, but which, if it could be recovered, would prove to have the true life-giving potency in it. It is said that the ancestor of a great old family in England was in possession of this secret, being a man of science, and the friend of Friar Bacon, who was said to have concocted it himself, partly from the precepts of his master, partly from his own experiments, and it is thought he might have been living to this day, if he had not unluckily been killed in the Wars of the Roses; for you know no recipe for long life would be proof against an old English arrow, or a leaden bullet from one of our own firelocks."
"And what has been the history of the thing after his death?" asked Septimius.
"It was supposed to be preserved in the family," said the doctor, "and it has always been said, that the head and eldest son of that family had it at his option to live forever, if he could only make up his mind to it. But seemingly there were difficulties in the way. There was probably a certain diet and regimen to be observed, certain strict rules of life to be kept, a certain asceticism to be imposed on the person, which was not quite agreeable to young men; and after the period of youth was passed, the human frame became incapable of being regenerated from the seeds of decay and death, which, by that time, had become strongly developed in it. In short, while young, the possessor of the secret found the terms of immortal life too hard to be accepted, since it implied the giving up of most of the things that made life desirable in his view; and when he came to a more reasonable mind, it was too late. And so, in all the generations since Friar Bacon's time, the Nortons have been born, and enjoyed their young days, and worried through their manhood, and tottered through their old age (unless taken off sooner by sword, arrow, ball, fever, or what not), and died in their beds, like men that had no such option; and so this old yellow paper has done not the least good to any mortal. Neither do I see how it can do any good to you, since you know not the rules, moral or dietetic, that are essential to its effect. But how did you come by it?"
"It matters not how," said Septimius, gloomily. "Enough that I am its rightful possessor and inheritor. Can you read these old characters?"
"Most of them," said the doctor; "but let me tell you, my young friend, I have no faith whatever in this secret; and, having meddled with such things myself, I ought to know. The old physicians and chemists had strange ideas of the virtues of plants, drugs, and minerals, and equally strange fancies as to the way of getting those virtues into action. They would throw a hundred different potencies into a caldron together, and put them on the fire, and expect to brew a potency containing all their potencies, and having a different virtue of its own. Whereas, the most likely result would be that they would counteract one another, and the concoction be of no virtue at all; or else some more powerful ingredient would tincture the whole."
He read the paper again, and continued:–
"I see nothing else so remarkable in this recipe, as that it is chiefly made up of some of the commonest things that grow; plants that you set your foot upon at your very threshold, in your garden, in your wood-walks, wherever you go. I doubt not old Aunt Keziah knows them, and very likely she has brewed them up in that hell-drink, the remembrance of which is still rankling in my stomach. I thought I had swallowed the Devil himself, whom the old woman had been boiling down. It would be curious enough if the hideous decoction was the same as old Friar Bacon and his acolyte discovered by their science! One ingredient, however, one of those plants, I scarcely think the old lady can have put into her pot of Devil's elixir; for it is a rare plant, that does not grow in these parts."
"And what is that?" asked Septimius.
"Sanguinea sanguinissima" said the doctor; "it has no vulgar name; but it produces a very beautiful flower, which I have never seen, though some seeds of it were sent me by a learned friend in Siberia. The others, divested of their Latin names, are as common as plantain, pig-weed, and burdock; and it stands to reason that, if vegetable Nature has any such wonderfully efficacious medicine in store for men, and means them to use it, she would have strewn it everywhere plentifully within their reach."
"But, after all, it would be a mockery on the old dame's part," said the young man, somewhat bitterly, "since she would thus hold the desired thing seemingly within our reach; but because she never tells us how to prepare and obtain its efficacy, we miss it just as much as if all the ingredients were hidden from sight and knowledge in the centre of the earth. We are the playthings and fools of Nature, which she amuses herself with during our little lifetime, and then breaks for mere sport, and laughs in our faces as she does so."
"Take care, my good fellow," said the doctor, with his great coarse laugh. "I rather suspect that you have already got beyond the age when the great medicine could do you good; that speech indicates a great toughness and hardness and bitterness about the heart that does not accumulate in our tender years."
Septimius took little or no notice of the raillery of the grim old doctor, but employed the rest of the time in getting as much information as he could out of his guest; and though he could not bring himself to show him the precious and sacred manuscript, yet he questioned him as closely as possible without betraying his secret, as to the modes of finding out cryptic writings. The doctor was not without the perception that his dark-browed, keen-eyed acquaintance had some purpose not openly avowed in all these pertinacious, distinct questions; he discovered a central reference in them all, and perhaps knew that Septimius must have in his possession some writing in hieroglyphics, cipher, or other secret mode, that conveyed instructions how to operate with the strange recipe that he had shown him.
"You had better trust me fully, my good sir," said he. "Not but what I will give you all the aid I can without it; for you have done me a greater benefit than you are aware of, beforehand. No–you will not? Well, if you can change your mind, seek me out in Boston, where I have seen fit to settle in the practice of my profession, and I will serve you according to your folly; for folly it is, I warn you."
Nothing else worthy of record is known to have passed during the doctor's visit; and in due time he disappeared, as it were, in a whiff of tobacco-smoke, leaving an odor of brandy and tobacco behind him, and a traditionary memory of a wizard that had been there. Septimius went to work with what items of knowledge he had gathered from him; but the interview had at least made him aware of one thing, which was, that he must provide himself with all possible quantity of scientific knowledge of botany, and perhaps more extensive knowledge, in order to be able to concoct the recipe. It was the fruit of all the scientific attainment of the age that produced it (so said the legend, which seemed reasonable enough), a great philosopher had wrought his learning into it; and this had been attempered, regulated, improved, by the quick, bright intellect of his scholar. Perhaps, thought Septimius, another deep and earnest intelligence added to these two may bring the precious recipe to still greater perfection. At least it shall be tried. So thinking, he gathered together all the books that he could find relating to such studies; he spent one day, moreover, in a walk to Cambridge, where he searched the alcoves of the college library for such works as it contained; and borrowing them from the war-disturbed institution of learning, he betook himself homewards, and applied himself to the study with an earnestness of zealous application that perhaps has been seldom equalled in a study of so quiet a character. A month or two of study, with practice upon such plants as he found upon his hill-top, and along the brook and in other neighboring localities, sufficed to do a great deal for him. In this pursuit he was assisted by Sibyl, who proved to have great knowledge in some botanical departments, especially among flowers; and in her cold and quiet way, she met him on this subject and glided by his side, as she had done so long, a companion, a daily observer and observed of him, mixing herself up with his pursuits, as if she were an attendant sprite upon him.
But this pale girl was not the only associate of his studies, the only instructress, whom Septimius found. The observation which Doctor Portsoaken made about the fantastic possibility that Aunt Keziah might have inherited the same recipe from her Indian ancestry which had been struck out by the science of Friar Bacon and his pupil had not failed to impress Septimius, and to remain on his memory. So, not long after the doctor's departure, the young man took occasion one evening to say to his aunt that he thought his stomach was a little out of order with too much application, and that perhaps she could give him some herb-drink or other that would be good for him.
"That I can, Seppy, my darling," said the old woman, "and I'm glad you have the sense to ask for it at last. Here it is in this bottle; and though that foolish, blaspheming doctor turned up his old brandy nose at it, I'll drink with him any day and come off better than he."
So saying, she took out of the closet her brown jug, stopped with a cork that had a rag twisted round it to make it tighter, filled a mug half full of the concoction and set it on the table before Septimius.
"There, child, smell of that; the smell merely will do you good; but drink it down, and you'll live the longer for it."
"Indeed, Aunt Keziah, is that so?" asked Septimius, a little startled by a recommendation which in some measure tallied with what he wanted in a medicine. "That's a good quality."
He looked into the mug, and saw a turbid, yellow concoction, not at all attractive to the eye; he smelt of it, and was partly of opinion that Aunt Keziah had mixed a certain unfragrant vegetable, called skunk-cabbage, with the other ingredients of her witch-drink. He tasted it; not a mere sip, but a good, genuine gulp, being determined to have real proof of what the stuff was in all respects. The draught seemed at first to burn in his mouth, unaccustomed to any drink but water, and to go scorching all the way down into his stomach, making him sensible of the depth of his inwards by a track of fire, far, far down; and then, worse than the fire, came a taste of hideous bitterness and nauseousness, which he had not previously conceived to exist, and which threatened to stir up his bowels into utter revolt; but knowing Aunt Keziah's touchiness with regard to this concoction, and how sacred she held it, he made an effort of real heroism, squelched down his agony, and kept his face quiet, with the exception of one strong convulsion, which he allowed to twist across it for the sake of saving his life.
"It tastes as if it might have great potency in it, Aunt Keziah," said this unfortunate young man. "I wish you would tell me what it is made of, and how you brew it; for I have observed you are very strict and secret about it."
"Aha! you have seen that, have you?" said Aunt Keziah, taking a sip of her beloved liquid, and grinning at him with a face and eyes as yellow as that she was drinking. In fact the idea struck him, that in temper, and all appreciable qualities, Aunt Keziah was a good deal like this drink of hers, having probably become saturated by them while she drank of it. And then, having drunk, she gloated over it, and tasted, and smelt of the cup of this hellish wine, as a winebibber does of that which is most fragrant and delicate. "And you want to know how I make it? But first, child, tell me honestly, do you love this drink of mine? Otherwise, here, and at once, we stop talking about it."
"I love it for its virtues," said Septimius, temporizing with his conscience, "and would prefer it on that account to the rarest wines."
"So far good," said Aunt Keziah, who could not well conceive that her liquor should be otherwise than delicious to the palate. "It is the most virtuous liquor that ever was; and therefore one need not fear drinking too much of it. And you want to know what it is made of? Well; I have often thought of telling you, Seppy, my boy, when you should come to be old enough; for I have no other inheritance to leave you, and you are all of my blood, unless I should happen to have some far-off uncle among the Cape Indians. But first, you must know how this good drink, and the faculty of making it, came down to me from the chiefs, and sachems, and Peow-wows, that were your ancestors and mine, Septimius, and from the old wizard who was my great-grandfather and yours, and who, they say, added the fire-water to the other ingredients, and so gave it the only one thing that it wanted to make it perfect."
And so Aunt Keziah, who had now put herself into a most comfortable and jolly state by sipping again, and after pressing Septimius to mind his draught (who declined, on the plea that one dram at a time was enough for a new beginner, its virtues being so strong, as well as admirable), the old woman told him a legend strangely wild and uncouth, and mixed up of savage and civilized life, and of the superstitions of both, but which yet had a certain analogy, that impressed Septimius much, to the story that the doctor had told him.
She said that, many ages ago, there had been a wild sachem in the forest, a king among the Indians, and from whom, the old lady said, with a look of pride, she and Septimius were lineally descended, and were probably the very last who inherited one drop of that royal, wise, and warlike blood. The sachem had lived very long, longer than anybody knew, for the Indians kept no record, and could only talk of a great number of moons; and they said he was as old, or older, than the oldest trees; as old as the hills almost, and could remember back to the days of godlike men, who had arts then forgotten. He was a wise and good man, and could foretell as far into the future as he could remember into the past; and he continued to live on, till his people were afraid that he would live forever, and so disturb the whole order of nature; and they thought it time that so good a man, and so great a warrior and wizard, should be gone to the happy hunting-grounds, and that so wise a counsellor should go and tell his experience of life to the Great Father, and give him an account of matters here, and perhaps lead him to make some changes in the conduct of the lower world. And so, all these things duly considered, they very reverently assassinated the great, never-dying sachem; for though safe against disease, and undecayable by age, he was capable of being killed by violence, though the hardness of his skull broke to fragments the stone tomahawk with which they at first tried to kill him.
So a deputation of the best and bravest of the tribe went to the great sachem, and told him their thought, and reverently desired his consent to be put out of the world; and the undying one agreed with them that it was better for his own comfort that he should die, and that he had long been weary of the world, having learned all that it could teach him, and having, chiefly, learned to despair of ever making the red race much better than they now were. So he cheerfully consented, and told them to kill him if they could; and first they tried the stone hatchet, which was broken against his skull; and then they shot arrows at him, which could not pierce the toughness of his skin; and finally they plastered up his nose and mouth (which kept uttering wisdom to the last) with clay, and set him to bake in the sun; so at last his life burnt out of his breast, tearing his body to pieces, and he died.
[Make this legend grotesque, and express the weariness of the tribe at the intolerable control the undying one had of them; his always bringing up precepts from his own experience, never consenting to anything new, and so impeding progress; his habits hardening into him, his ascribing to himself all wisdom, and depriving everybody of his right to successive command; his endless talk, and dwelling on the past, so that the world could not bear him. Describe his ascetic and severe habits, his rigid calmness, etc.]
But before the great sagamore died he imparted to a chosen one of his tribe, the next wisest to himself, the secret of a potent and delicious drink, the constant imbibing of which, together with his abstinence from luxury and passion, had kept him alive so long, and would doubtless have compelled him to live forever. This drink was compounded of many ingredients, all of which were remembered and handed down in tradition, save one, which, either because it was nowhere to be found, or for some other reason, was forgotten; so that the drink ceased to give immortal life as before. They say it was a beautiful purple flower. [Perhaps the Devil taught him the drink, or else the Great Spirit,–doubtful which.] But it still was a most excellent drink, and conducive to health, and the cure of all diseases; and the Indians had it at the time of the settlement by the English; and at one of those wizard meetings in the forest, where the Black Man used to meet his red children and his white ones, and be jolly with them, a great Indian wizard taught the secret to Septimius's great-grandfather, who was a wizard, and died for it; and he, in return, taught the Indians to mix it with rum, thinking that this might be the very ingredient that was missing, and that by adding it he might give endless life to himself and all his Indian friends, among whom he had taken a wife.
"But your great-grandfather, you know, had not a fair chance to test its virtues, having been hanged for a wizard; and as for the Indians, they probably mixed too much fire-water with their liquid, so that it burnt them up, and they all died; and my mother, and her mother,–who taught the drink to me,–and her mother afore her, thought it a sin to try to live longer than the Lord pleased, so they let themselves die. And though the drink is good, Septimius, and toothsome, as you see, yet I sometimes feel as if I were getting old, like other people, and may die in the course of the next half-century; so perhaps the rum was not just the thing that was wanting to make up the recipe. But it is very good! Take a drop more of it, dear."
"Not at present, I thank you, Aunt Keziah," said Septimius, gravely; "but will you tell me what the ingredients are, and how you make it?"
"Yes, I will, my boy, and you shall write them down," said the old woman; "for it's a good drink, and none the worse, it may be, for not making you live forever. I sometimes think I had as lief go to heaven as keep on living here."
Accordingly, making Septimius take pen and ink, she proceeded to tell him a list of plants and herbs, and forest productions, and he was surprised to find that it agreed most wonderfully with the recipe contained in the old manuscript, as he had puzzled it out, and as it had been explained by the doctor. There were a few variations, it is true; but even here there was a close analogy, plants indigenous to America being substituted for cognate productions, the growth of Europe. Then there was another difference in the mode of preparation, Aunt Keziah's nostrum being a concoction, whereas the old manuscript gave a process of distillation. This similarity had a strong effect on Septimius's imagination. Here was, in one case, a drink suggested, as might be supposed, to a primitive people by something similar to that instinct by which the brute creation recognizes the medicaments suited to its needs, so that they mixed up fragrant herbs for reasons wiser than they knew, and made them into a salutary potion; and here, again, was a drink contrived by the utmost skill of a great civilized philosopher, searching the whole field of science for his purpose; and these two drinks proved, in all essential particulars, to be identically the same.
"O Aunt Keziah," said he, with a longing earnestness, "are you sure that you cannot remember that one ingredient?"
"No, Septimius, I cannot possibly do it," said she. "I have tried many things, skunk-cabbage, wormwood, and a thousand things; for it is truly a pity that the chief benefit of the thing should be lost for so little. But the only effect was, to spoil the good taste of the stuff, and, two or three times, to poison myself, so that I broke out all over blotches, and once lost the use of my left arm, and got a dizziness in the head, and a rheumatic twist in my knee, a hardness of hearing, and a dimness of sight, and the trembles; all of which I certainly believe to have been caused by my putting something else into this blessed drink besides the good New England rum. Stick to that, Seppy, my dear."
So saying, Aunt Keziah took yet another sip of the beloved liquid, after vainly pressing Septimius to do the like; and then lighting her old clay pipe, she sat down in the chimney-corner, meditating, dreaming, muttering pious prayers and ejaculations, and sometimes looking up the wide flue of the chimney, with thoughts, perhaps, how delightful it must have been to fly up there, in old times, on excursions by midnight into the forest, where was the Black Man, and the Puritan deacons and ladies, and those wild Indian ancestors of hers; and where the wildness of the forest was so grim and delightful, and so unlike the common-placeness in which she spent her life. For thus did the savage strain of the woman, mixed up as it was with the other weird and religious parts of her composition, sometimes snatch her back into barbarian life and its instincts; and in Septimius, though further diluted, and modified likewise by higher cultivation, there was the same tendency.
Septimius escaped from the old woman, and was glad to breathe the free air again; so much had he been wrought upon by her wild legends and wild character, the more powerful by its analogy with his own; and perhaps, too, his brain had been a little bewildered by the draught of her diabolical concoction which she had compelled him to take. At any rate, he was glad to escape to his hill-top, the free air of which had doubtless contributed to keep him in health through so long a course of morbid thought and estranged study as he had addicted himself to.
Here, as it happened, he found both Rose Garfield and Sibyl Dacy, whom the pleasant summer evening had brought out. They had formed a friendship, or at least society; and there could not well be a pair more unlike,–the one so natural, so healthy, so fit to live in the world; the other such a morbid, pale thing. So there they were, walking arm in arm, with one arm round each other's waist, as girls love to do. They greeted the young man in their several ways, and began to walk to and fro together, looking at the sunset as it came on, and talking of things on earth and in the clouds.
"When has Robert Hagburn been heard from?" asked Septimius, who, involved in his own pursuits, was altogether behindhand in the matters of the war,–shame to him for it!
"There came news, two days past," said Rose, blushing. "He is on his way home with the remnant of General Arnold's command, and will be here soon."
"He is a brave fellow, Robert," said Septimius, carelessly. "And I know not, since life is so short, that anything better can be done with it than to risk it as he does."
"I truly think not," said Rose Garfield, composedly.
"What a blessing it is to mortals," said Sibyl Dacy, "what a kindness of Providence, that life is made so uncertain; that death is thrown in among the possibilities of our being; that these awful mysteries are thrown around us, into which we may vanish! For, without it, how would it be possible to be heroic, how should we plod along in commonplaces forever, never dreaming high things, never risking anything? For my part, I think man is more favored than the angels, and made capable of higher heroism, greater virtue, and of a more excellent spirit than they, because we have such a mystery of grief and terror around us; whereas they, being in a certainty of God's light, seeing his goodness and his purposes more perfectly than we, cannot be so brave as often poor weak man, and weaker woman, has the opportunity to be, and sometimes makes use of it. God gave the whole world to man, and if he is left alone with it, it will make a clod of him at last; but, to remedy that, God gave man a grave, and it redeems all, while it seems to destroy all, and makes an immortal spirit of him in the end."
"Dear Sibyl, you are inspired," said Rose, gazing in her face.
"I think you ascribe a great deal too much potency to the grave," said Septimius, pausing involuntarily alone by the little hillock, whose contents he knew so well. "The grave seems to me a vile pitfall, put right in our pathway, and catching most of us,–all of us,–causing us to tumble in at the most inconvenient opportunities, so that all human life is a jest and a farce, just for the sake of this inopportune death; for I observe it never waits for us to accomplish anything: we may have the salvation of a country in hand, but we are none the less likely to die for that. So that, being a believer, on the whole, in the wisdom and graciousness of Providence, I am convinced that dying is a mistake, and that by and by we shall overcome it. I say there is no use in the grave."
"I still adhere to what I said," answered Sibyl Dacy; "and besides, there is another use of a grave which I have often observed in old English graveyards, where the moss grows green, and embosses the letters of the gravestones; and also graves are very good for flower-beds."
Nobody ever could tell when the strange girl was going to say what was laughable,–when what was melancholy; and neither of Sibyl's auditors knew quite what to make of this speech. Neither could Septimius fail to be a little startled by seeing her, as she spoke of the grave as a flower-bed, stoop down to the little hillock to examine the flowers, which, indeed, seemed to prove her words by growing there in strange abundance, and of many sorts; so that, if they could all have bloomed at once, the spot would have looked like a bouquet by itself, or as if the earth were richest in beauty there, or as if seeds had been lavished by some florist. Septimius could not account for it, for though the hill-side did produce certain flowers,–the aster, the golden-rod, the violet, and other such simple and common things,–yet this seemed as if a carpet of bright colors had been thrown down there and covered the spot.
"This is very strange," said he.
"Yes," said Sibyl Dacy, "there is some strange richness in this little spot of soil."
"Where could the seeds have come from?–that is the greatest wonder," said Rose. "You might almost teach me botany, methinks, on this one spot."
"Do you know this plant?" asked Sibyl of Septimius, pointing to one not yet in flower, but of singular leaf, that was thrusting itself up out of the ground, on the very centre of the grave, over where the breast of the sleeper below might seem to be. "I think there is no other here like it."
Septimius stooped down to examine it, and was convinced that it was unlike anything he had seen of the flower kind; a leaf of a dark green, with purple veins traversing it, it had a sort of questionable aspect, as some plants have, so that you would think it very likely to be poison, and would not like to touch or smell very intimately, without first inquiring who would be its guarantee that it should do no mischief. That it had some richness or other, either baneful or beneficial, you could not doubt.
"I think it poisonous," said Rose Garfield, shuddering, for she was a person so natural she hated poisonous things, or anything speckled especially, and did not, indeed, love strangeness. "Yet I should not wonder if it bore a beautiful flower by and by. Nevertheless, if I were to do just as I feel inclined, I should root it up and fling it away."
"Shall she do so?" said Sibyl to Septimius.
"Not for the world," said he, hastily. "Above all things, I desire to see what will come of this plant."
"Be it as you please," said Sibyl. "Meanwhile, if you like to sit down here and listen to me, I will tell you a story that happens to come into my mind just now,–I cannot tell why. It is a legend of an old hall that I know well, and have known from my childhood, in one of the northern counties of England, where I was born. Would you like to hear it, Rose?"
"Yes, of all things," said she. "I like all stories of hall and cottage in the old country, though now we must not call it our country any more."
Sibyl looked at Septimius, as if to inquire whether he, too, chose to listen to her story, and he made answer:–
"Yes, I shall like to hear the legend, if it is a genuine one that has been adopted into the popular belief, and came down in chimney-corners with the smoke and soot that gathers there; and incrusted over with humanity, by passing from one homely mind to another. Then, such stories get to be true, in a certain sense, and indeed in that sense may be called true throughout, for the very nucleus, the fiction in them, seems to have come out of the heart of man in a way that cannot be imitated of malice aforethought. Nobody can make a tradition; it takes a century to make it."
"I know not whether this legend has the character you mean," said Sibyl, "but it has lived much more than a century; and here it is.