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 an 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 death-like 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
"None!--none whatever!" replied Aylmer, starting; but then he added in a
dry, cold tone, affected for the sake of concealing the real depth of
his emotion:--"I might well dream of it; for, before I fell asleep, it
had taken a pretty firm hold of my fancy."
"And you did dream of it," continued Georgiana hastily; for she dreaded
lest a gush of tears should interrupt what she had to say--"A terrible
dream! I wonder that you can forget it. Is it possible to forget this
one expression?--'It is in her heart now--we must have it
out!'--Reflect, my husband; for by all means I would have you recall
The mind is in a sad state, when Sleep, the all-involving, cannot
confine her spectres within the dim region of her sway, but suffers them
to break forth, affrighting this actual life with secrets that perchance
belong to a deeper one. Aylmer now remembered his dream. He had fancied
himself, with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the
removal of the 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
"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 madness?"
"Noblest--dearest--tenderest wife!" cried Aylmer, rapturously. "Doubt
not my power. I have already given this matter the deepest
thought--thought which might almost have enlightened me to create a
being less perfect than yourself. Georgiana, you have led me deeper than
ever into the heart of science. I feel myself fully competent to render
this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and then, most beloved, what
will be my triumph, when I shall have corrected what Nature left
imperfect, in her fairest work! Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured
woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be."
"It is resolved, then," said Georgiana, faintly smiling,--"And, Aylmer,
spare me not, though you should find the 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 apprised his wife of a plan that he had formed,
whereby he might have opportunity for the intense thought and constant
watchfulness which the proposed operation would require; while
Georgiana, likewise, would enjoy the perfect repose essential to its
success. They were to seclude themselves in the extensive apartments
occupied by Aylmer as a laboratory, and where, during his toilsome
youth, he had made discoveries in the elemental powers of nature, that
had roused the admiration of all the learned societies in Europe. Seated
calmly in this laboratory, the pale philosopher had investigated the
secrets of the highest cloud-region, and of the profoundest mines; he
had satisfied himself of the causes that kindled and kept alive the
fires of the volcano; and had explained the mystery of fountains, and
how it is that they gush forth, some so bright and pure, and others with
such rich medicinal virtues, from the dark bosom of the earth. Here,
too, at an earlier period, he had studied the wonders of the human
frame, and attempted to fathom the very process by which Nature
assimilates all her precious influences from earth and air, and from the
spiritual world, to create and foster Man, her masterpiece. The latter
pursuit, however, Aylmer had long laid aside, in unwilling recognition
of the truth, against which all seekers sooner or later stumble, that
our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working
in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own
secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but
results. She permits us indeed to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a
jealous patentee, on no account to make. Now, however, Aylmer resumed
these half-forgotten investigations; not, of course, with such hopes or
wishes as first suggested them; but because they involved much
physiological truth, and lay in the path of his proposed scheme for the
treatment of Georgiana.
As he led her over the threshold of the laboratory, Georgiana was cold
and tremulous. Aylmer looked cheerfully into her face, with intent to
reassure her, but was so startled with the intense glow of the
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 vapours 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 encrusted 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
"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 death-like 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 might intrude.
"Where am I?--Ah, I remember!" said Georgiana, faintly; and she placed
her hand over her cheek, to hide the terrible mark from her husband's
"Fear not, dearest!" exclaimed he. "Do not shrink from me! Believe me,
Georgiana, I even rejoice in this single imperfection, since it will be
such a rapture to remove it."
"Oh, spare me!" sadly replied his wife. "Pray do not look at it again. I
never can forget that convulsive shudder."
In order to soothe Georgiana, and, as it were, to release her mind from
the 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
"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
"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
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 at his option to
concoct a liquid that should prolong life for years--perhaps
interminably--but that it would produce a discord in nature, which all
the world, and chiefly the quaffer of the immortal nostrum, would find
cause to curse.
"Aylmer, are you in earnest?" asked Georgiana, looking at him with
amazement and fear; "it is terrible to possess such power, or even to
dream of possessing it!"
"Oh, do not tremble, my love!" said her husband, "I would not wrong
either you or myself, by working such inharmonious effects upon our
lives. But I would have you consider how trifling, in comparison, is the
skill requisite to remove this little Hand."
At the mention of the birth-mark, Georgiana, as usual, shrank, as if a
red-hot iron had touched her cheek.
Again Aylmer applied himself to his labours. 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
"And what is this?" asked Georgiana, pointing to a small crystal globe,
containing a gold-coloured liquid. "It is so beautiful to the eye, that
I could imagine it the Elixir of Life."
"In one sense it is," replied Aylmer, "or rather the Elixir of
Immortality. It is the most precious poison that ever was concocted in
this world. By its aid, I could apportion the life-time 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 terrible drug?" inquired Georgiana in horror.
"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 pale ghost."
"Is it with this lotion that you intend to bathe my cheek?" asked
"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 the
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
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 eyes 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
odours, 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 encouragement!
"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 grip 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 labours? 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 be."
"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 is danger!"
"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 honourable 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
The sound of her husband's footsteps aroused her. He bore a crystal
goblet, containing a liquor colourless 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
"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, at sunset."
She spoke the last words with a gentle reluctance, as if it required
almost more energy than she could command to pronounce the faint and
lingering syllables. Scarcely had they loitered through her lips, ere
she was lost in slumber. Aylmer sat by her side, watching her aspect
with the emotions proper to a man, the whole value of whose existence
was involved in the process now to be tested. Mingled with this mood,
however, was the philosophic investigation, characteristic of the man of
science. Not the minutest symptom escaped him. A heightened flush of the
cheek--a slight irregularity of breath--a quiver of the eyelid--a hardly
perceptible tremor through the frame--such were the details which, as
the moments passed, he wrote down in his folio volume. Intense thought
had set its stamp upon every previous page of that volume; but the
thoughts of years were all concentrated upon the last.
While thus employed, he failed not to gaze often at the fatal Hand, and
not without a shudder. Yet once, by a strange and unaccountable impulse,
he pressed it with his lips. His spirit recoiled, however, in the very
act, and Georgiana, out of the midst of her deep sleep, moved uneasily
and murmured, as if in remonstrance. Again, Aylmer resumed his watch.
Nor was it without avail. The Crimson Hand, which at first had been
strongly visible upon the marble paleness of Georgiana's cheek now grew
more faintly outlined. She remained not less pale than ever; but the
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-colour. 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 delight.
"Ah, clod! Ah, earthly mass!" cried Aylmer, laughing in a sort of
frenzy. "You have served me well! Matter and Spirit--Earth and
Heaven--have both done their part in this! Laugh, thing of the senses!
You have earned the right to laugh."
These exclamations broke Georgiana's sleep. She slowly unclosed her
eyes, and gazed into the mirror, which her husband had arranged for that
purpose. A faint smile flitted over her lips, when she recognized how
barely perceptible was now that Crimson Hand, which had once blazed
forth with such disastrous brilliancy as to scare away all their
happiness. But then her eyes sought Aylmer's face, with a trouble and
anxiety that he could by no means account for.
"My poor Aylmer!" murmured she.
"Poor? Nay, richest! Happiest! Most favoured!" exclaimed he. "My
peerless bride, it is successful! You are perfect!"
"My poor Aylmer!" she repeated, with a more than human tenderness. "You
have aimed loftily!--you have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so
high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could
offer. Aylmer--dearest Aylmer, I am dying!"
Alas, it was too true! The fatal Hand had grappled with the mystery of
life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union
with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the 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 Aylmer 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.
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