by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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 his own.
Such a 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
"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 motion 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 pygmy 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 birthmark 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
birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror
than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given
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 deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand was
brought strongly out, like a bass-relief of ruby on the whitest
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 odious hand?"
"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
"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 that dream."
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
birthmark; 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 birthmark. 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 removal."
"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 burden 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 birthmark 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 birthmark 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
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 vapors of the furnace. This
personage had been Aylmer's underworker 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 details of his master's experiments. With his vast strength,
his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable
earthiness that incrusted 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
"Throw open the door of the boudoir, Aminadab," said Aylmer, "and
burn a pastil."
"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 birthmark."
When Georgiana recovered consciousness she found herself
breathing an atmosphere of penetrating fragrance, the gentle
potency of which had recalled her from her deathlike 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, impurpled 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
"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 burden 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 flower.
"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 fire.
"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 acid.
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 birthmark, Georgiana, as usual, shrank as
if a redhot iron had touched her cheek.
Again Aylmer applied himself to his labors. 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
"And what is this?" asked Georgiana, pointing to a small crystal
globe containing a gold-colored 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
lifetime 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 terrific drug?" inquired Georgiana in
"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 birthmark 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 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, 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
shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened 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 Aylmer's journal.
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,
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 gayety, 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
birthmark, 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 eye 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 odors 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."
"Ho! ho!" 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 gripe 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
birthmark over my labors? It is not well done. Go, prying woman,
"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? 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
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 rapt 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 honorable 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 before.
The sound of her husband's footsteps aroused her. He bore a
crystal goblet containing a liquor colorless 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 fail."
"Save on your account, my dearest Aylmer," observed his wife, "I
might wish to put off this birthmark 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
"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
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
birthmark 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 the sky, and you will know how that mysterious symbol
"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 color. The
lightest 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 favored!" 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
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 birthmark--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 Alymer reached a profounder wisdom,
he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have
woven his mortal life of the selfsame 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.