The Wondersmith, by Fitz James O'Brien

The Poisoning of the Swords.

IT was New Year’s Eve, and eleven o’clock at night. All over this great land, and in every great city in the land, curly heads were lying on white pillows, dreaming of the coming of the generous Santa Claus. Innumerable stockings hung by countless bedsides. Visions of beautiful toys, passing in splendid pageantry through myriads of dimly lit dormitories, made millions of little hearts palpitate in sleep. Ah! what heavenly toys those were that the children of this soil beheld, that mystic night, in their dreams! Painted cars with orchestral wheels, making music more delicious than the roll of planets. Agile men of cylindrical figure, who sprang unexpectedly out of meek-looking boxes, with a supernatural fierceness in their crimson cheeks and fur-whiskers. Herds of marvellous sheep, with fleeces as impossible as the one that Jason sailed after; animals entirely indifferent to grass and water and “rot” and “ticks.” Horses spotted with an astounding regularity, and furnished with the most ingenious methods of locomotion. Slender foreigners, attired in painfully short tunics, whose existence passed in continually turning heels over head down a steep flight of steps, at the bottom of which they lay in an exhausted condition with dislocated limbs, until they were restored to their former elevation, when they went at it again as if nothing had happened. Stately swans, that seemed to have a touch of the ostrich in them; for they swam continually after a piece of iron which was held before them, as if consumed with a ferruginous hunger. Whole farm~yards of roosters, whose tails curled the wrong way — a slight defect, that was, however, amply atoned for by the size and brilliancy of their scarlet combs, which, it would appear, Providence had intended for pen-wipers. Pears, that, when applied to youthful lips, gave forth sweet and inspiring sounds. Regiments of soldiers, that performed neat, but limited evolutions on cross-jointed contractile battle~fields. All these things, idealized, transfigured, and illuminated by the powers and atmosphere and colored lamps of Dreamland, did the millions of dear sleeping children behold, the night of the New Year’s Eve of which I speak.

It was on this night, when Time was preparing to shed his skin and come out young and golden and glossy as ever — when, in the vast chambers of the universe, silent and infallible preparations were making for the wonderful birth of the coming year — when mystic dews were secreted for his baptism, and mystic instruments were tuned in space to welcome him — it was at this holy and solemn hour that the Wondersmith and his three gypsy companions sat in close conclave in the little parlor before mentioned.

There was a fire roaring in the grate. On a table, nearly in the centre of the room, stood a huge decanter of Port wine, that glowed in the blaze which lit the chamber like a flask of crimson fire. On every side, piled in heaps, inanimate, but scowling with the same old wondrous scowl, lay myriads of the manikins, all clutching in their wooden hands their tiny weapons. The Wondersmith held in one hand a small silver bowl filled with a green, glutinous substance, which he was delicately applying, with the aid of a camel’s-hair brush, to the tips of tiny swords and daggers. A horrible smile wandered over his sallow face — a smile as unwholesome in appearance as the sickly light that plays above reeking graveyards.

“Let us drink great draughts, brothers,” he cried, leaving off his strange anointment for a while, to lift a great glass, filled with sparkling liquor, to his lips. “Let us drink to our approaching triumph. Let us drink to the great poison, Macousha. Subtle seed of Death — swift hurricane that sweeps away Life — vast hammer that crushes brain and heart and artery with its resistless weight — I drink to it.”

“It is a noble decoction, Duke Balthazar,” said the old fortune-teller and mid-wife, Madame Filomel, nodding in her chair as she swallowed her wine in great gulps. “Where did you obtain it?”

“It is made,” said the Wondersmith, swallowing another great goblet~full of wine ere he replied, “in the wild woods of Guiana, in silence and in mystery. But one tribe of Indians, the Macoushi Indians, know the secret. It is simmered over fires built of strange woods, and the maker of it dies in the making. The place, for a mile around the spot where it is fabricated, is shunned as accursed. Devils hover over the pot in which it stews; and the birds of the air, scenting the smallest breath of its vapor from far away, drop to earth with paralyzed wings, cold and dead.”

“It kills, then, fast?” asked Kerplonne, the artificial eyemaker — his own eyes gleaming, under the influence of the wine, with a sinister lustre, as if they had been fresh from the factory, and were yet untarnished by use.

“Kills?” echoed the Wondersmith, derisively; “it is swifter than thunderbolts, stronger than lightning. But you shall see it proved before we let forth our army on the city accursed. You shall see a wretch die, as if smitten by a falling fragment of the sun.”

“What? Do you mean Solon?” asked Oaksmith and the fortune-teller together.

“Ah! you mean the young man who makes the commerce with books?” echoed Kerplonne. “It is well. His agonies will instruct us.”

“Yes! Solon,” answered Hippe, with a savage accent. “I hate him, and he shall die this horrid death. Ah! how the little fellows will leap upon him, when I bring him in, bound and helpless, and give their beautiful wicked souls to them! How they will pierce him in ten thousand spots with their poisoned weapons, until his skin turns blue and violet and crimson, and his form swells with the venom — until his hump is lost in shapeless flesh! He hears what I say, every word of it. He is in the closet next door, and is listening. How comfortable he feels! How the sweat of terror rolls on his brow! How he tries to loosen his bonds, and curses all earth and heaven when he finds that he cannot! Ho! ho! Handsome lover of Zonela, will she kiss you when you are livid and swollen? Brothers, let us drink again — drink always. Here, Oaksmith, take these brushes — and you, Filomel — and finish the anointing of these swords. This wine is grand. This poison is grand. It is fine to have good wine to drink, and good poison to kill with; is it not?” and, with flushed face and rolling eyes, the Wondersmith continued to drink and use his brush alternately.

The others hastened to follow his example. It was a horrible scene: those four wicked faces; those myriads of tiny faces, just as wicked; the certain unearthly air that pervaded the apartment; the red, unwholesome glare cast by the fire; the wild and reckless way in which the weird company drank the red-illumined wine.

The anointing of the swords went on rapidly, and the wine went as rapidly down the throats of the four poisoners. Their faces grew more and more inflamed each instant; their eyes shone like rolling fireballs; their hair was moist and dishevelled. The old fortune~teller rocked to and fro in her chair, like those legless plaster figures that sway upon convex loaded bottoms. All four began to mutter incoherent sentences, and babble unintelligible wickednesses. Still the anointing of the swords went on.

“I see the faces of millions of young corpses,” babbled Herr Hippe, gazing, with swimming eyes, into the silver bowl that contained the Macousha poison — “all young, all Christians — and the little fellows dancing, dancing, and stabbing, stabbing. Filomel, Filomel, I say!”

“Well, Grand Duke,” snored the old woman, giving a violent lurch.

“Where’s the bottle of souls?”

“In my right-hand pocket, Herr Hippe”; and she felt, so as to assure herself that it was there. She half drew out the black bottle, before described in this narrative, and let it slide again into her pocket — let it slide again, but it did not completely regain its former place. Caught by some accident, it hung half out, swaying over the edge of the pocket, as the fat midwife rolled backwards and forwards in her drunken efforts at equilibrium.

“All right,” said Herr Hippe, “perfectly right! Let’s drink.”

He reached out his hand for his glass, and, with a dull sigh, dropped on the table, in the instantaneous slumber of intoxication. Oaksmith soon fell back in his chair, breathing heavily. Kerplonne followed. And the heavy, stertorous breathing of Filomel told that she slumbered also; but still her chair retained its rocking motion, and still the bottle of souls balanced itself on the edge of her pocket.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06