A FAINT smile seemed to pass over her face as she said this, vanishing, however, immediately into the melancholy of her usual expression. She went along Septimius’s path, while he stood gazing at her till she reached the brow where it sloped towards Robert Hagburn’s house ; then she turned, and seemed to wave a slight farewell towards the young man, and began to descend. When her figure had entirely sunk behind the brow of the hill, Septimius slowly followed along the ridge, meaning to watch from that elevated station the course she would take ; although, indeed, he would not have been surprised if he had seen nothing, no trace of her in the whole nearness or distance ; in short, if she had been a freak, an illusion, of a hardworking mind that had put itself ajar by deeply brooding on abstruse matters, an illusion of eyes that he had tried too much by poring over the inscrutable manuscript, and of intellect that was mystified and bewildered by trying to grasp things that could not be grasped. A thing of witchcraft, a sort of fungus-growth out of the grave, an unsubstantiality altogether ; although, certainly, she had weeded the grave with bodily fingers, at all events. Still he had so much of the hereditary mysticism of his race in him, that he might have held her supernatural, only that on reaching the brow of the hill he saw her feet approach the dwelling of Robert Hagburn’s mother, who, moreover, appeared at the threshold beckoning her to come, with a motherly, hospitable air, that denoted she knew the strange girl, and recognized her as human.
It did not lessen Septimius’s surprise, however, to think that such a singular being was established in the neighborhood without his knowledge ; considered as a real occurrence of this world, it seemed even more unaccountable than if it had been a thing of ghostology and witchcraft. Continually through the day the incident kept introducing its recollection among his thoughts and studies; continually, as he paced along his path, this form seemed to hurry along by his side on the track that she had claimed for her own, and he thought of her singular threat or promise, whichever it were to be held, that he should have a companion there in future. In the decline of the day, when he met the schoolmistress coming home from her little seminary, he snatched the first opportunity to mention the apparition of the morning, and ask Rose if she knew anything of her.
“ Very little,” said Rose, “ but she is flesh and blood, of that you may be quite sure. She is a girl who has been shut up in Boston by the siege ; perhaps a daughter of one of the British officers, and her health being frail, she requires better air than they have there, and so permission was got for her, from General Washington, to come and live in the country ; as any one may see, onr liberties have nothing to fear from this poor brain-stricken girl. And Robert Hagburn, having to bring a message from camp to the selectmen here, had it in charge to bring the girl, whom his mother has taken to board.”
“Then the poor thing is crazy?” asked Septimius.
“ A little brain-touched, that is all,” replied Rose, “ owing to some grief that she has had ; but she is quite harmless, Robert was told to say, and needs little or no watching, and will get a kind of fantastic happiness for herself, if only she is allowed to ramble about at her pleasure. If thwarted, she might be very wild and miserable.”
“ Have you spoken with her ? ” asked Septimius.
“A word or two this morning, as I was going to my school,” said Rose. “ She took me by the hand, and smiled, and said we would be friends, and that I should show her where the flowers grew ; for that she had a little spot of her own that she wanted to plant with them. And she asked me if the Sanguinea sanguinissima grew hereabout. I should not have taken her to be ailing in her wits, only for a kind of freespokenness and familiarity, as if we had been acquainted a long while ; or as if she had lived in some country where there are no forms and impediments in people’s getting acquainted.”
“Did you like her ?” inquired Septimius.
“ Yes ; almost loved her at first sight,” answered Rose, “ and I hope may do her some little good, poor thing, being of her own age, and the only companion, hereabouts, whom she is likely to find. But she has been well educated, and is a lady, that is easy to see.”
“ It is very strange,” said Septimius, “but I fear I shall be a good deal interrupted in my thoughts and studies, if she insists on haunting my hill-top as much as she tells me. My meditations are perhaps of a little too much importance to be shoved aside for the sake of gratifying a crazy girl’s fantasies.”
“Ah, that is a hard thing to say ! ” exclaimed Rose, shocked at her lover’s cold egotism, though not giving it that title. “ Let the poor thing glide quietly along in the path, though it be yours. Perhaps, after a while, she will help your thoughts.”
“ My thoughts,” said Septimius, “are of a kind that can have no help from any one; if from any, it would only be from some wise, long-studied, and experienced scientific man, who could enlighten me as to the bases and foundation of things, as to mystic writings, as to chemical elements, as to the mysteries of language, as to the principles and system on which we were created. Methinks these are not to be taught me by a girl touched in the wits.”
“ I fear,” replied Rose Garfield with gravity, and drawing imperceptibly apart from him, “ that no woman can help you much. You despise woman’s thought, and have no need of her affection.”
Septimius said something soft and sweet, and in a measure true, in regard to the necessity he felt for the affection and sympathy of one woman at least — the one now by his side — to keep his life warm and to make the empty chambers of his heart comfortable. But even while he spoke there was something that dragged upon his tongue ; for he felt that the solitary pursuit in which he was engaged carried him apart from the sympathy of which he spoke, and that he was concentrating his efforts and interest entirely upon himself, and that the more he succeeded the more remotely he should be carried away, and that his final triumph would be the complete seclusion of himself from all that breathed, — the converting him, from an interested actor, into a cold and disconnected spectator of all mankind’s warm and sympathetic life. So, as it turned out, this interview with Rose was one of those in which, coming no one knows from whence, a nameless cloud springs up between two lovers, and keeps them apart from one another by a cold, sullen spell. Usually, however, it requires only one word, spoken out of the heart, to break that spell, and compel the invisible, unsympathetic medium which the enemy of love has stretched cunningly between them, to vanish, and let them come closer together than ever ; but, in this case, it might be that the love was the illusive state, and the estrangement the real truth, the disenchanted verity. At all events, when the feeling passed away, in Rose’s heart there was no reaction, no warmer love, as is generally the case. As for Septimius, he had other things to think about, and when he next met Rose Garfield, had forgotten that he had been sensible of a little wounded feeling, on her part, at parting.
By dint of continued poring over the manuscript, Septimius now began to comprehend that it was written in a singular mixture of Latin and ancient English, with constantly recurring paragraphs of what he was convinced was a mystic writing ; and these recurring passages of complete unintelligibility seemed to be necessary to the proper understanding of any part of the document. What was discoverable was quaint, curious, but thwarting and perplexing, because it seemed to imply some very great purpose, only to be brought out by what was hidden.
Septimius had read, in the old college library during his pupilage, a work on ciphers and cryptic writing, but being drawn to it only by his curiosity respecting whatever was hidden, and not expecting ever to use his knowledge, he had obtained only the barest idea of what was necessary to the deciphering a secret passage. Judging by what he could pick out, he would have thought the whole essay was upon the moral conduct ; all parts of that he could make out seeming to refer to a certain ascetic rule of life ; to denial of pleasures ; these topics being repeated and insisted on everywhere, although without any discoverable reference to religious or moral motives ; and always when the author seemed verging towards a definite purpose, he took refuge in his cipher. Yet withal, imperfectly (or not at all, rather) as Septimius could comprehend its purport, this strange writing had a mystic influence, that wrought upon his imagination, and with the late singular incidents of his life, his continual thought on this one subject, his walk on the hill-top, lonely, or only interrupted by the pale shadow of a girl, combined to set him outside of the living world. Rose Garfield perceived it, knew and felt that he was gliding away from her, and met him with a reserve which she could not overcome.
It was a pity that his early friend, Robert Hagburn, could not at present have any influence over him, having now regularly joined the Continental Army, and being engaged in the expedition of Arnold against Quebec. Indeed, this war, in which the country was so earnestly and enthusiastically engaged, had perhaps an influence on Septimius’s state of mind, for it put everybody into an exaggerated and unnatural state, united enthusiasms of all sorts, heightened everybody either into its own heroism or into the peculiar madness to which each person was inclined ; and Septimius walked so much the more wildly on his lonely course, because the people were going enthusiastically on another. In times of revolution and public disturbance all absurdities are more unrestrained ; the measure of calm sense, the habits, the orderly decency, are partially lost. More people become insane, I should suppose ; offences against public morality, female license, are more numerous ; suicides, murders, all ungovernable outbreaks, of men’s thoughts, embodying themselves in wild acts, take place more frequently, and with less horror to the lookers-on. So with Septimius ; there was not, as there would have been at an ordinary time, the same calmness and truth in the public observation, scrutinizing everything with its keen criticism, in that time of seething opinions and overturned principles ; a new time was coming, and Septimius’s phase of novelty attracted less attention so far as it was known.
So he continued to brood over the manuscript in his study, and to hide it under lock and key in a recess of the wall, as if it were a secret of murder; to walk, too, on his hill-top, where at sunset always came the pale, crazy maiden, who still seemed to watch the little hillock with a pertinacious care that was strange to Septimius. By and by came the winter and the deep snows ; and even then, unwilling to give up his habitual place of exercise, the monotonousness of which promoted his wish to keep before his mind one subject of thought, Septimius wore a path through the snow, and still walked there. Here, however, he lost for a time the companionship of the girl ; for when the first snow came, she shivered, and looked at its white heap over the hillock, and said to Septimius, “ I will look for it again in spring.”
[Septimius is at the point of despair for want of a guide in his studies.]
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 hilltop, 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.
“ O, 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 witchmeetings, 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 ascetism 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, into the modes of finding out cryptic writings. The doctor was not without the perception that his dark-browed, keeneyed 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 tobaccosmoke, 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 hilltop, 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 receipt 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.
41 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 witchdrink. 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.