Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The poisoned mind
THE POISONED MIND.
IN TWO PARTS.
PART I.—LAPIS PHILOSOPHORUM.
It is with a forced calmness that I write the history of that time in my life which has now passed away: a time combining so much happiness and agony, that I almost wonder now that I am alive and with a whole mind to tell it. The study that I then pursued was so fascinating, so wholly absorbing, that it seemed as if every other thought had been engulfed in it. It was not covetousness, nor the love of gold, that led me on in my researches. Wealth and position were both mine; but a particular course of study and reading had led me to pursue that part of science which relates to the mutability of metals—the possibility of resolving those bodies which we at present call elements. I was no visionary. It did not appear to me that I was following an unhallowed or unlawful employment: on the contrary, every supposition on which I acted was confirmed and supported by the leading men of science of our own day.
I do not wish to justify or palliate what I am about to relate in these pages. My old delight in the study of chemistry is long since vanished, and not a vestige of my laboratory nor its contents now remains. All I wish to impress is, that I commenced my researches in a true spirit of love for science. It appeared to me that the study of chemistry began with a cloudy, poetical dream of a menstruum universale, that was to give endless youth and ceaseless health. Wild hope! Vain dream! Civilisation pulled down the airy edifice, and left only the little foundation-work of utility. Yet to me, looking around in this unfanciful and iron age, it appeared inconsistently strange that we were once more tending back to that cloudy, poetical dream of the alchemists. Faraday and Murchison in England, and Dumas in France, seemed to point out clearly to my mind that the so-called elementary bodies are reciprocally resolvable. By degrees I became more and more absorbed in the subject: my laboratory and my study became my home. Gradually I separated myself from all my friends, and gave up every energy and faculty to the pursuit of my investigations.
My library contained a strange and valuable collection of books obtained at great expense and trouble. There were dingy papyrus leaves covered with mysterious characters, and bearing the name of Hermes Trismegistus; parchment rolls and palimpsests of Greece and Rome; rare manuscripts from the time of Caligula, and others that had been saved from the fire of Diocletian. Arabian and Egyptian works filled one part of the shelves, and in another those of Raymond Lully, Paracelsus, and Basilius Valentinus. I was not, however, content, and still added to the collection whenever an opportunity offered itself.
I had heard that some very scarce books and manuscripts were to be sold in Paris. I immediately set out for the Continent, as I believed that several of the works for sale would assist me in the discoveries which I had now determined to make.
It was at the sale of these literary treasures that I first met with Antonio Maffi, who had been, I believe, an Italian monk, but whose previous history I never learned. My attention was called to him by observing that he seemed anxious to buy the very books and documents in which I took an interest. My purse was longer than his, and the consequence was, that they nearly all fell to my lot.
As I was glancing over one of the purchases that I had just made, I suddenly became conscious that this man was looking at me intently. From the place where I stood I could see his reflection in a mirror which was placed against the wall. He perceived this, and turning round, looked into the mirror also, and thus our eyes met. He smiled—a thin, faint, forbidding smile—bowed slightly, and then came up to me. He apologised for his intrusion, as he called it, on the ground that he fancied that our tastes and studies led us both in the same direction.
He spoke in English, and remarkably well and fluently; I had observed that before this he had spoken both in Italian and French. I must confess that, although his face and expression were not pleasing, still there was something about his address and manners that prevented me from refusing his proffered acquaintance.
Let me describe him as he then appeared. He was tall and slender, with a slight stoop, and he appeared to have numbered about forty years. He was dressed entirely in black, with a loose black cloak over his shoulders. A dark sombrero or wideawake threw his face into the shade; but it was so striking in its character, that I remarked it well, and remember it well. Ay! and I shall remember it as long as memory lasts. It was long and pale—deadly pale. His eyebrows, which were small and very dark, almost met at the top of his straight, delicate nose, the nostrils of which seemed always dilated. A very black moustache entirely hid the expression of his mouth, except when smiling. His face, otherwise, was cleanly shaved, and his hair was cropped closely over his head. His brow was low, but square, and projected slightly over his bright, black, bead-like eyes.
After conversing with him for a short while, I was extremely struck with the intelligence of his remarks and the acuteness of his observation. Even in the short period during which I was with him in the sale-room I perceived that he was a man who had read profoundly, and in whose memory was stored up all that he had read. The charm of manner to which I have before alluded almost took away the sinister effect which his countenance had at first produced. I longed to see and know more of him, and we interchanged cards. From the card he handed to me I observed that he lived in furnished apartments, in a part of Paris that led me to suppose that his means were limited. At any rate it furnished me with a plea for asking him to dine with me at my hotel that evening. After some slight hesitation, he consented.
We parted, and met again at dinner. I spent an evening in entire accordance with my own tastes, chemistry and speculative philosophy being the standard themes of our discourse.
During the course of the evening I could not help asking Signor Maffi of his intentions and prospects in life. At first he seemed reserved; but observing that I was not asking through idle curiosity, but more for the purpose of assisting him, if it lay in my power, he told me in a very few words his position. He had heard of the probable sale of these books and manuscripts in Palermo, his native town. Poor as he was, he had intended to offer everything in his power for them. Fortunately he had found an occasion for going to England, he might call it a business object, since he was paid for it. Availing himself of the opportunity, he had determined to make Paris a station in his route, and thus try to secure the treasures in which I had forestalled him. He then pointed out and proved to me that several of the manuscripts which I had purchased were of much greater value than I had supposed.
More than ever fascinated by his manner, I asked him if he had made any definite engagement as to what he would do after his arrangements in England were completed. He told me that he had no fixed purpose, and no particular tie that bound him to Palermo. He was a man of few words, and in a short time we made an agreement that as soon as possible he was to join me as assistant and partner in my studies and researches. I explained to him that my laboratory was not conducted for any personal profit, but for the love of science alone; however, in case any advantageous discoveries were made, he was to receive his full share of the prize.
We parted, to all appearances mutually satisfied, Antonio promising to meet me, in three days’ time, at Boulogne.
My affairs all being settled in Paris, on the third day I set out by rail for Boulogne, and arriving there in the evening, I at once went on board the steamer. It was a beautiful summer evening, and as I walked backwards and forwards on the deck, I waited impatiently for the arrival of my new colleague. I had made several cigars vanish in smoke in the still air, passengers and luggage had come bundling on board with their usual noise and confusion; but still there was no appearance of my Italian friend. Darkness came on, for the moon had not yet risen, and my eyes ranged ceaselessly along the dusky quay line, but I waited and looked in vain. The bell rang, the official with the cocked hat and cutlass growled his last ill-natured growl about the visés, strangers left, ladders were removed, and with much screeching and splashing we steamed out between the piers.
I was disappointed at not having met my new acquaintance; but having given him my address in London, I still hoped to see him shortly, as I felt convinced that he would be a valuable auxiliary.
It was a lovely night. There was very little wind, the sky was cloudless, and as the moon rose she cast a long glancing white pathway on the crests of the waves. I stood, leaning over the side-rail, watching the beautiful change and glancing of the reflection, and forgetting everything else around me. There was, however, a considerable swell on the sea, notwithstanding the calmness of the weather, and in a short time most of the passengers were either below or hors de combat.
I looked round at the remainder, and was immediately struck with a young lady who was sitting in the covered seats a short distance from me. I never gazed on so lovely a face. She seemed to be dressed in deep mourning, and had thrown back her thick crape veil in order to look at the reflection of the moonlight on the waters, which I had just been watching. Her complexion appeared almost paler than was natural in the moonbeams, while her large brown eyes had a tenderly mournful expression in them that thrilled through my heart, and I fancied I saw tears in them; a suspicion almost confirmed by the nervous movement of her exquisitely formed mouth.
Seeing that she had no wrappers, I hastened to offer her some that I had, for it was now very cold. She accepted them with a startled flush and a pleased and grateful smile—such a smile, it appeared to me, as we only meet with in those who are not much accustomed to meet with even little acts of kindness. I sat down opposite to her, and we soon entered into conversation. I was charmed with her freshness, her frankness, and her simplicity. As she spoke on any subject that interested her, her face lighted up with such intelligence and enthusiasm, that in my eyes she looked more and more beautiful every instant.
With an almost childish cry of delight she pointed out a falling star, and I, instead of looking at the star, was looking at her with feelings of admiration and affection that had long been strangers to my breast, when I was suddenly conscious that I was watched by one who stood between me and the light.
With a start of astonishment, I discovered in the dark figure before me the Italian chemist Antonio Maffi.
I rose up instantly, saying:
“Signor Maffi, I am glad to see you. I had given you up, as I did not observe you on board before we left the harbour.”
“I have to request your pardon, signor,” said he, “for not having seen you before. My passage is taken in the fore part of the vessel, and as I felt tired when I came on board, I have been asleep ever since. Pray accept my apologies.”
He bowed and, passing me, went up to my young companion, who had drawn down her veil on hearing his voice. He addressed her respectfully, but in rather stern tones.
“Miss Hawthorne, I am rather surprised to find you on deck. Would it not be better for you to go below to the cabin.”
She excused herself in a collected manner, saying that the cabin was very close, and that she was warmly wrapped up. Antonio sat down by her side, and, as I walked away, I heard them speaking earnestly in low tones.
As I could see that my company was not then desired, I kept away; but, on returning about half an hour afterwards, I found my young friend once more alone, and again had the pleasure of hearing her speak and of gazing on her beautiful face.
The brief account which she then gave me of herself, rather reluctantly, I may as well now state:
Louisa Hawthorne was the only daughter of a clergyman who died a few years after her birth. Her widowed mother strove to give her daughter a lady’s education, but, in consequence of poverty and ill-health, Louisa, shortly after leaving school, was obliged to take the post of governess in an English family about to travel on the Continent. She obtained this situation through the exertions of the lady principal in the school where she had been educated. The family in which Miss Hawthorne was engaged at length determined to settle in Palermo, and whilst in that town she received the news of her mother’s death. Her health and spirits both sank, and she was advised by the medical men of the town to return to England. Through the exertions of the gentleman in whose house she was residing, she was now returning to her old instructress, under the guidance of Signor Maffi.
The simplicity and artlessness with which she told her history endeared her to me more than ever; but I could not help thinking that Antonio had spoken to her in a more dictatorial manner than his position warranted. I stated this to her as delicately as I possibly could. I thought she blushed as I spoke; but she answered rather hurriedly:
“Signor Maffi has several times spoken to me in a manner that is painful to me. I am, however, in his charge and under his protection at present. I am afraid that I have spoken to him rather too plainly this evening, as he is very hot-tempered and unforgiving. Still, he has been very kind—but, hush! Let us change the conversation, if you please, for I see that he is again coming this way.”
Antonio came up a few seconds afterwards; but I could not see the expression of his face, since his hat was drawn over his brow. He spoke, however, calmly, and to me alone. He led the conversation dexterously to my favourite topics, and for the rest of the night, close to the time of our arrival at Dover, we walked the deck speculating and philosophising. I forgot everybody and everything, except our one grand subject, until we were almost in port, and then I suddenly recollected my beautiful young friend. She was asleep, but woke as I came up. I apologised for my rudeness, and begged to know if I might call upon her in town. She smiled pleasantly, and gave me her address; but seeing her draw down her veil again rapidly, I turned, and once more saw the ill-omened figure of the Italian.
I took him rather roughly by the sleeve, and led him away.
When we had arrived at a quiet part of the deck I spoke:
“Antonio Maffi, I have only known you a short time, but I consider that I am justified, knowing what I do, in warning you that your conduct is exciting both fear and distrust in the mind of that young lady.”
“Signor,” he replied, coldly, “I regret to hear you say that which I have feared myself, but—and remember that my pulse at this moment is beating more evenly than yours—I love Louisa Hawthorne—I love her, I tell you—and it will be an evil day for the man that steps in between my love and her.”
His manner and his voice were cold, but I could see that his eyes flashed as he spoke.
“Antonio,” said I, reluctantly, laying my hand upon his shoulder, “believe me that you will never gain that young girl’s heart by harsh language and cruelty of manner.”
He moved from under my hand with a muttered laugh, saying:
“Thanks, signor, for your advice; but, I pray you, do not forget the words that I have said.”
He left me, and went forward into the shadow of the boat, and I neither saw him nor Louisa till we landed, when they both bade me farewell, Maffi promising to call upon me in a day or two.
I travelled alone and undisturbed in the railway carriage to London, at times falling into uneasy slumber, haunted by the white face and dry, sardonic laugh of the Italian; but as the daylight filled the air, pleasanter recollections of Louisa’s beautiful eyes and beaming smile drove my more gloomy thoughts away. I longed to see her again.
After a few days, during which I never saw Antonio, I determined to call at the address which Louisa had given me. I found her at home, and could not mistake her smile of welcome, and I left her, more than ever charmed with her society. She had not seen Maffi since the day of their arrival in London. As I was leaving the house I fancied I saw a tall figure in a black cloak which reminded me of him, but I lost sight of it a moment afterwards. However, I had a note from him, the next day, informing me that he had met with some old friends from Italy, and was about to go with them into Scotland for a short time, at the expiration of which he would be ready to commence his engagement. Notwithstanding this information, I frequently thought that I perceived his figure at a distance, especially when I had been calling upon Louisa. This, however, might have been fancy only.
It would be needless to dwell on the next few months. Suffice it to say that my visits to Miss Hawthorne became very frequent and regular; my love was preferred and accepted, and very soon afterwards we were married. All thought of the future and dread of the past vanished from our minds, and we lived on, happy in the present and in each other’s society.
But this was not the last.
A few days after we had returned from our short wedding-tour, I thought of my laboratory. Alas! all my old aspirations and ambitions had evaporated. I gave orders for my rooms to be opened and ready for my inspection on the morrow.
My library and working-room were situated at the end of the garden behind the house, and opened into the street beyond. The next morning, leaving my wife under the porch, I went down through the garden once more to my well-remembered toil. As I opened the dark door I glanced round, and saw my wife standing in the sunlight—a smiling sunbeam herself—and then I passed into the gloomy shade of the laboratory.
A tall black figure was standing over the furnace, peering into a crucible, and the red light of the glowing charcoal glanced upon a face that I remembered only too well.
“Ah! did you think that I had forgotten you, signor? No, no; Antonio Maffi never forgets.”
The words of the Italian sank deep into my heart, and I shuddered with an inexplicable dread of coming evil.
PART II. THE FATAL SECRET.
Thunderstruck as I was by the sudden appearance of Antonio, he accounted so readily and naturally for his presence, that the feeling of terror which rose at first in my mind quickly disappeared. His old manner had its old fascination for me, and in a short time I found myself talking with him exactly as I had talked in Paris only a few months before.
He told me he had called at my house some days previously, and had found I was away from home, but that I was expected to return shortly. He had been awaiting my arrival ever since. My laboratory he had easily discovered, and on passing along the street that morning had seen that it was open. He immediately entered, requesting the servants not to disturb me. Although, through deference to my wife’s feelings, I had never told her of my alliance with Maffi, still I had told my domestics I expected a foreign gentleman to assist me in my researches, and his request was consequently acceded to.
The disagreeable impression produced by his first appearance wore off rapidly, and I soon felt quite at ease. I perceived he had already laid the foundation work for a new course of research, and as he proceeded with his work noiselessly and carefully, I was struck with the extreme adroitness of his manipulation. When he had completed the preliminary stage of his experiments, we both adjourned to my study, which opened into the laboratory, and there we endeavoured to decipher and unriddle the mystical contents of my Parisian purchases. I was again astonished at the clearness of mind and calmness of judgment with which he discriminated facts of value among the vast amount of cumbersome uselessness with which they were surrounded. As he pointed them out, I made notes from time to time, and was delighted to find how important a fund of materials he soon extracted.
Time passed away unheeded, until the evening shades began to warn me it was late in the day. I was about to propose we should abstain from our labours, when I became aware that some one was moving about in the outer laboratory.
Antonio had risen, and was standing at the window, in order to see more distinctly the volume which he had taken up. Glancing from him to the door-way behind me, I saw the curtain gently lifted up, and my wife standing in the opening. As her eyes wandered through the gloom, they at last fell upon the form of Maffi. She started, and seemed spell-bound for an instant, and then dropping the curtain, moved silently away. I heard her passing quietly through the outer room, and the sound of the further door as it opened and shut.
All this time I remained silent,—a feeling of sorrow and remorse taking possession of me. I felt that I ought to have spoken to Louisa of my arrangements with the Italian, and it seemed now as if I had been deceiving her, if not with a suggestio falsi, at least with a suppressio veri. It had been often in my heart to tell her all, during the calm and happy time that had just passed away. But I feared to give her pain, for I knew she disliked if she did not fear the man. Latterly, however, I had become so wrapped up in my own happiness and in her society, that I had almost forgotten his existence, or if I did remember him, I almost fancied I should never see him again. When, therefore, my wife appeared thus silently, with that strange look of mingled sadness and terror in her face, I felt guilty,—guilty of treason to her young confiding love.
Full of these thoughts, I glanced up at Antonio, who was still reading intently, in the fading day-light, at the window, and I could not prevent a feeling of distrust and suspicion from rising in my breast. It might be the increasing uncertainty of the light, but certainly at that moment his countenance seemed absolutely fiendish,—and I fancied I saw that deadly smile hovering about his mouth.
At last he shut the book, and replaced it, saying:
“Well, Signor, I think we have done enough preliminary work to-day. We had better lose no time, but begin our practical investigations to-morrow.”
I cannot tell how it was, but whenever that man spoke to me on the subject of my studies, whenever he said a word that buoyed up my infatuated hopes and ambition, I forgot his repulsiveness immediately. He seemed to have a mysterious influence over my intellect and will.
I at once acquiesced in his proposal for avoiding delay, and promised to have everything arranged for commencing with our work in the morning.
As he drew on his hat and folded his cloak round him before leaving, he said:
“Remember we will be long together. The undertaking which we are about to commence is no trivial one, and will absorb much of your time,—that is, if you enter upon it in the same spirit in which you spoke to me in Paris. In order that we may work together effectually, it is necessary that you inform the Signora, your wife, of the whole of our engagement. I could see plainly,” he continued, lighting a cigar with deliberation, “by her look of astonishment this evening, that I was an unexpected guest.”
I had fancied he did not observe Louisa’s entrance. He noticed my start and said, with that laugh which I had begun to hate:
“Aha, Signor! We, who have looked so long into the dark secrets of nature, are not quite blind. Good night.”
He was gone, with the evil smile upon his face; and again that gloomy expectant feeling of evil fell around me with the shadows of the place.
I found my wife pale and frightened, but I endeavoured in every way that lay in my power to re-assure her. I explained to her my reasons for not having told her before of my agreement with Antonio, and expatiated so fully on his knowledge and ability, and of the great assistance that he was able to afford me, that she soon coincided, or appeared to coincide with me, fully. She confessed to a feeling of distrust towards the Italian, and so did I; but we both determined we would endeavour to conquer a feeling which could only be a prejudice. Louisa herself remembered that in Palermo he was esteemed as a very learned man, against whom nothing could be said except that he was reserved and cold.
I myself had not forgotten the words which he had uttered to me on board the steam-boat. But now, these words seemed to mean very little, although at the time they were spoken they appeared to me to be uttered with all the depth and feeling of his heart. I can only account for this change and deadening of perception on my part, by the strange effect of the man’s conversation and manners upon me, when in his company. He seemed so utterly bound up in, and carried away by, our grand pursuit, that I could not disunite him from it. He appeared to be almost part of my own mind,—so congenial was he to my tastes, desires and hopes. Singular as it may appear, although I feared and distrusted him, I felt I could not separate myself from him.
On the next day Antonio and I were deep in our chemical researches. Every fresh experiment and every result called forth my wonder and delight, and the time passed over rapidly. Days succeeded days, and we became more and more devoted to our tasks.
Engaged as we were thus constantly, it would have appeared strange if I had not asked my companion to spend a few of his leisure hours in my house. I often did so, but he as often declined. He remained in the laboratory all day, usually arriving before me in the morning, and often remaining till late in the day.
During this time, although I felt I was absenting myself too much from my young wife’s company,—and although I struggled hard to overcome it,—I felt I was drawn towards my colleague by a sympathy and attraction too powerful to resist.
At length we had our arrangements so far completed that we determined to make a decisive trial of the reality of our projects. We failed signally. Antonio laid the entire blame on our not having devoted sufficient time and attention to the work. This was disheartening to me, for I had bestowed every available moment on it, and had had many a heart-ache in consequence; for I knew that all day long Louisa was alone, and pining at my absence. He noticed my look of discomfiture, and with his diabolical laugh he taunted me with growing tired of my hobby,—of being palled with my own enthusiasm. I could not bear his sneers, I writhed under them. I insisted upon recommencing our labours at once, and declared that not one moment should be wasted by me, and that if necessary I would watch and work night and day in order to secure my long dreamed-of desire.
I think I see him now, as I spoke in my enthusiasm, with his cold cruel smile and his glittering black eyes fixed upon me. Why did I not fell him to the earth then and there? Why did I listen for a moment to his smooth-tongued words, that now, molten hot, are searing into my inmost soul?
We commenced our work afresh with more assiduity and application than ever. My thoughts and imagination were so carried away by our plans that,—I am almost ashamed to write it,—I seldom, if ever, thought of my young wife.
My colleague, as the time passed on, very rarely left the laboratory,—encasing himself in his ample cloak he would take his rest hurriedly, either in the study, or on the floor outside of the furnace doors.
Louisa, who had begun to look pale and ill, at length spoke to me about my apparent neglect. I tried to excuse my conduct, but failed; and she entreated me so earnestly that she might at all events be allowed to come into the laboratory with me during my work, that I at last consented.
I spoke to Maffi on the subject, but he scarcely made any remark,—only observing, in an under tone, that he did not think a laboratory a suitable place for a lady.
However, during the day, as he saw me trying to make the room a little more orderly,—arranging a work-table with flowers, and placing a couch by the window overlooking the garden,—I thought I saw him, once or twice, look up from his work stealthily, with his deadly smile.
The next day Louisa came down with me, and remained for the most part of the day. It was a pleasant relief to me, at times, to turn my eyes from the smoke and gloom of the furnaces to the bright little form of my wife, as she sat reading or working at the window. Whenever I looked towards her she met me with a pleasant smile. All the while Antonio Maffi worked on, scarcely ever raising his head.
At length we made our arrangements so complete that we once more determined to make the great attempt. Assiduous as we had been before, we now doubled our assiduity. I only snatched a few hours’ rest now and then. One of us was always awake. The boiling over of a crucible, or the fracture of a retort was liable to throw us back in the ground we had gained; therefore we were always on the alert. My wife hovered ever in or near the room, like a ray of sunlight through the storm-clouds of my anxiety.
The decisive night at last arrived. Louisa, seeing my troubled expression, begged she might be allowed to stay with me. I wished her to retire to the house, but she entreated me to grant her this favour. She made her request so touchingly,—I could not bear to see the tears in her deep, brown eyes,—that I consented. As I did so, I glanced at the Italian. Although he was busily engaged, to all appearances, I found he was regarding us with a deep scowl of—what appeared to me—malignant satisfaction. He cast down his eyes, however, as he met mine, warning me coldly that there was no time to lose.
He had never yet spoken to my wife since she had commenced her visits to us. He merely bowed politely when she entered or left the room. This line of conduct was on the whole, I think, satisfactory both to Louisa and myself.
Cautiously and resolutely, then, Maffi and I began our final experiments, my wife sitting at the table, by the lamp, reading.
There was a small chafing-dish, containing spirits of wine, which stood on a raised tripod, in the middle of the apartment, and which we used occasionally, when we wanted a very subdued light.
We had been working for some time in silence, when it was found necessary to use this chafing-dish. I lighted the spirits of wine, and walking forward to the table where my wife was, I turned down the flame of the lamp. The burning spirit in the chafing-dish cast a flickering and ghastly light through the room. Strange, black shadows like phantoms leapt and danced about the walls and ceiling, while the uncouth retorts, stills, phials, and electric apparatus loomed duskily and mysteriously in the uncertain light.
As I looked about me, I could with difficulty distinguish the black form of the Italian, as he glided noiselessly through the gloom. I lost sight of him, but was conscious that he was behind me—at my elbow. A strange feeling of faintness suddenly came over me, from which I was roused in an instant by a few low words, spoken by my wife at my side.
“Fools that you are!” she said, “you would seek for the Great Secret, and yet you still stumble blindly on, from error to error, from lie to lie.”
I shuddered from head to foot, and gazed on her with unspeakable feelings of terror. Yet she spoke calmly and distinctly,—repeating slowly what she had just said, seeing that I was at first too agitated to understand her.
I could hardly believe my senses, as she continued to speak; she seemed to understand the whole of our operations, and pointed out, with a strange tone of contemptuous authority, several mistakes we had made, and cleared up, also, several points on which we had been in doubt.
It was the wonderful knowledge which she exhibited that struck me with terror. Up to that moment I had fancied she was entirely ignorant of the true nature of our researches; nay, from many conversations I had had with her, I felt convinced she knew nothing more than the bare rudiments of chemistry.
As she continued to speak I felt the strange faintness that had come over me before, again stealing about me; but I was conscious throughout that Maffi was close behind me, though I did not see him.
Indistinctly, I perceived my wife rise from her seat; she laid her hand upon my arm, and led me to one of the furnaces; then, still in the same low, clear voice, she pointed out an error that would have been fatal to our undertaking, if persisted in. I heard her drowsily, as if in a dream; but, nevertheless, I felt in my mind her remarks were correct. A peculiar humming noise now sounded painfully in my ears, and the light in the room seemed changed to a deep rose colour. I saw my wife suddenly raise her arms and press her hands violently against her temples, and a piercing shriek rang through the air. Casting off my faintness with a desperate effort, I caught her as she was falling to the ground. At this instant I became aware that Antonio had opened the door leading to the garden, and rushing past him I stumbled forward, bearing the fainting form of my wife into the cool night air.
Some days elapsed before Louisa entirely recovered. The physician who attended her said she seemed to be suffering from the effects of some narcotic poison. I told him she had been seized with fainting while sitting with me in my laboratory. He said, and I agreed with him, that the heat and closeness of the air in the room, together with the escape, perhaps, of some volatile essence, had brought on the attack. He advised that she should not again venture into its precincts.
While my wife was unwell I seldom entered my work-rooms, except for a short time now and then, to see how Antonio was progressing. He spoke little, but continued his work laboriously. I refrained from alluding to the events which had occurred, but I noticed, with a strange feeling at my heart, that he seemed to be acting entirely on the advice which had fallen from my wife on that memorable night. I said nothing, but watched him going on quietly and deliberately, step by step, correcting the errors she had pointed out, and proceeding in the manner she had indicated.
Up to this period I had never spoken to Louisa of the night in the laboratory. However, as she was now well enough to be down stairs, and nothing ailing her more than a little weakness and languor, I thought I would ask her for some explanation. To my surprise, she denied all knowledge of what had taken place; she asserted she never did and never could understand chemistry; that she was perfectly ignorant of our experiments and ultimate intentions, and again repeated she had no recollection whatever of the events of that strange night.
I would have felt angry and indignant at these strange assertions—indeed, words of reproach were on my tongue—but when I looked at her ingenuous face I could not help feeling she spoke the truth. Many times I tried afterwards to lead her to talk about the object of our experiments, but I could only get one reply from her, that she was entirely ignorant of the whole subject.
All she could tell me of the night in the laboratory was this. She remembered my igniting the spirits-of-wine in the chafing-dish, and then coming forward to dim the light in the lamp. She recollected also that as I lowered the flame she saw Antonio step up noiselessly behind me; he had a mask or respirator on the lower part of his face. She then saw him distinctly pour a few drops from a phial into the chafing-dish, and she remembered that the flame changed from violet to a deep rose colour. All this occupied only a few seconds, after which the Italian stepped backwards into the shadow, holding out his arms towards her, as if making mesmeric passes. She remembered nothing more.
Her story never varied: but I could not help thinking it was the result of an overheated imagination; yet the fact that she had shown herself perfectly acquainted with the science of chemistry, and with our intricate experiments, remained deeply rooted in my mind. I could not think of it without a feeling of mysterious awe.
I went out of town for a few days with Louisa, and on my return I visited the laboratory. I found Maffi in the study, leisurely engaged in perusing a manuscript copy of one of Geber’s mystic works on alchymy. On my asking him how matters were progressing, he told me that at present they were stationary. He was and had been waiting for me for some time.
“And now,” he continued, looking at me intently, “let me impress upon you once more that if we are to gain our ends we must work with heart and soul in our work. Are you tired of it? Shall we give it up, and throw all our labours to the winds?”
“I will never give up the search,” I replied; “latterly I have not been with you as much as I desired, but somehow it appears to me as if our investigations were all fraught with evil results to—to—to one whom I love—”
“A coward easily peoples the dark with difficulties,” he sneered.
“I am no coward,” answered I, warmly, “nor will I permit you to taunt me with such a name.” I saw his eyes flashing as I spoke. “I care nothing for your sneers,” I continued, “and I should never have experienced them if it had not been that ever since the last night I spent with you in yonder laboratory, I have feared for the happiness—nay, for the life—of one whose life and happiness are dearer to me than—”
“Peace, idiot!” he exclaimed, in a tone and with a gesture that made me start back. “Peace! Do you think I am blind, and that I have not noted everything that has occurred? Do you think I was not listening to every word she uttered on that night? Who, think you, was it that made her speak? Who drew from her the secret knowledge of her inner spirit?”
As he spoke he rose up to his full height, his eyes sparkling and flashing, while I almost crouched into a seat under his impetuous bearing.
“Listen,” he continued, scarcely less calmly; “it was not long after I met her—you know whom I mean—that I discovered I had encountered no ordinary being. I read it in the deep glow of her brown eyes. I read there that in her inmost soul lay the secret which I was striving for, and which you were longing for. I loved her—I told you I loved her—but I loved science more. If I had gained her, the Great Secret would even now have been mine; but she is yours, and all is left with you—all to lose, or all to gain.”
Since the time when my wife declared that she was in a trance and utterly ignorant of all she had uttered in the laboratory, an unacknowledged dread had possessed me that the Italian had a strong influence over her mental powers, and the words he now spoke confirmed my suspicion.
I know now also he must have exerted a power over me that subdued me almost to servility when in his presence. Whence otherwise could have come that strange mixture of abhorrence and attachment which I always felt in his company?
I listened to his harangue in amazement, and then asked him, in a faltering voice, how he could possibly suppose that Louisa was able to comprehend the secret of our search.
He smiled—his death-like smile—and drew from his bosom a small phial of cut crystal, silver-clasped and containing a bright amber-coloured liquid. It was about three parts full.
“Bright, translucent and harmless though it looks, there is nothing more powerful, more deadly than the poison this phial contains. I tell you this in order that there may be no secrets between us. Five years ago it was given to me in Rome, by one who had chosen for his study the direct action of poisons on the physical and mental powers. He is dead now, but this secret of his is alive with me.
“If a few drops of this potent poison volatilised are inhaled by any one, a dull faintness immediately ensues. Ha! I saw you start. You are right, though, you have breathed it. Listen! Under that faintness, if the organisation is of the character I desire, I can draw out the inner secrets of the soul, by the influence of a powerful exertion of will.”
How I sat there and listened to his fiendish words I cannot tell. I seemed under a spell, but I listened to him attentively and in silence. He went on:
“I found in the Signora, your wife, a mind of the most sensitive and impressible kind. What I had long suspected I proved the other night, and you yourself must have seen that, under the influence of only a few drops of this elixir, I was able to make her disclose, in an instant, truths that might have taken us months to discover. Notwithstanding its seemingly baneful effects you perceive you feel no ill-effects after inhaling it, and the Signora, your wife, though slightly overcome at the time, is now as well and as lovely as ever. See, there she is under the trees in the garden.”
I looked from the window and saw Louisa walking slowly along one of the paths. She looked exquisitely beautiful, but as I gazed I felt surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery and terror. The Italian continued speaking earnestly, and I listened to him moodily, while the serpent of ambition quietly coiled itself round my heart.
He pointed out to me, with great force, that the object of our pursuit was now in my grasp. He made light of my hesitation, and laughed at my fears. Never venture, never win, was the theme of his discourse, to which he constantly returned. As I have observed, an atmosphere of mystery seemed round me—I was bewildered. I longed, with all the desire in my being, to possess the great secret now within my reach, but I dreaded hurting a hair of my young wife’s head. I was silent.
The demon Maffi saw my weakness and indecision in a moment. His words seemed absolutely to creep insidiously into my brain. He pointed out that the present time—that very instant—was the proper time for exerting the new power we possessed.
Oh, Heaven! How can I live to think of it now? That I—I who loved her so dearly—should have gone out to her there,—in that still summer afternoon, among the flowers, and have led her into the dark, hateful shadow of that cursed room. Everything appears to me now more like a dream than a reality.
But it was done. Again, she was sitting on the couch by the window and talking with me, while the subtle Italian again glided noiselessly about the room.
Without seeing him I was conscious he had ignited the spirits of wine and had poured the deadly drops into the flame. I knew it by the faint rosy glow and a delicate perfume like that of jasmine pervading the apartment.
I hastily placed a small respirator containing an antidote, which Maffi had forced upon me, over my face, and, with a mind torn by conflicting emotions, I watched the result.
My wife’s face turned to an ashy paleness, and she darted one look at me full of pity, anger and surprise. I shall never forget that look. It rises up before me in the solemn dead of night, and will haunt me to my death. But it lasted only for an instant. She rose quickly, and again, with that unnatural air of contemptuous authority, passed across the room. She examined all the apparatus and every particular of our process, as far as Antonio had completed them. She expressed her approval of what we had done haughtily,—in such a manner as an empress might speak to her slaves. For a few moments she appeared lost in thought, and then retired slowly towards the table. She sat down again, leaning her head upon her hand, and gazing straight forward with a listless expression.
Although diffused daylight, mingled with the red glow from the tripod, spread through the room, yet I had never distinguished the form of Maffi. He either kept behind me, or else in the darker parts of the laboratory. Without seeing him, I now felt his hot breath on my cheek, as I leaned over Louisa, and I heard his hateful whisper in my ear.
“Speak to her now—ask her for the secret that we long to know—time is passing.”
I did speak to her, but she gently put my hand from her and motioned me to be silent. She still gazed forward fixedly into vacancy.
A minute or two elapsed in profound silence, until the Italian again muttered his request angrily in my ear. Trembling with anxiety and fear I spoke to her once more, but she did not seem to heed me. Urged on by Maffi’s whispered solicitations, I begged, I entreated, I threw myself at her feet and prayed that she would speak to me. I spoke wildly, but she sat pale and unheeding, until at last she turned her white face languidly towards me and essayed to speak once or twice. Her face had in it the look of death, but my heart was callous. I saw one bright flash in her eyes, and then she fell forward and down on the floor lifeless at my side.
I was stunned and paralyzed, but was roused by the maddening sound of the Italian’s laugh. In an instant I sprung from the earth and seized him by the throat, but his hand was upon me like a vice. We struggled long and violently. Ah! how I longed to kill him; but his strength overcame me, and he dashed me with tremendous force to the ground.
Long afterwards I awoke, in the darkness, from a deep swoon—awoke to find myself alone among the ruins of my wild hopes and ambitious dreams; alone in my bitterness and despair; alone—and yet not alone, for stretching out my arms I felt the dead, cold hand of my young wife who lay by my side, a corpse, in the gloom and stillness of that awful night.
A. G. G.