Say that my beauty was but small,
Among court ladies all despised,
Why didst thou rend it from that hall
Where, scornful Earl, ’twas dearly prized?
No more thou com’st with wonted speed,
Thy once beloved bride to see;
But be she alive, or be she dead,
I fear, stern Earl, ‘s the same to thee.
Cumnor Hall, by William Julius Mickle.
The ladies of fashion of the present, or of any other period, must have allowed that the young and lovely Countess of Leicester had, besides her youth and beauty, two qualities which entitled her to a place amongst women of rank and distinction. She displayed, as we have seen in her interview with the pedlar, a liberal promptitude to make unnecessary purchases, solely for the pleasure of acquiring useless and showy trifles which ceased to please as soon as they were possessed; and she was, besides, apt to spend a considerable space of time every day in adorning her person, although the varied splendour of her attire could only attract the half satirical praise of the precise Janet, or an approving glance from the bright eyes which witnessed their own beams of triumph reflected from the mirror.
The Countess Amy had, indeed, to plead for indulgence in those frivolous tastes, that the education of the times had done little or nothing for a mind naturally gay and averse to study. If she had not loved to collect finery and to wear it, she might have woven tapestry or sewed embroidery, till her labours spread in gay profusion all over the walls and seats at Lidcote Hall; or she might have varied Minerva’s labours with the task of preparing a mighty pudding against the time that Sir Hugh Robsart returned from the greenwood. But Amy had no natural genius either for the loom, the needle, or the receipt-book. Her mother had died in infancy; her father contradicted her in nothing; and Tressilian, the only one that approached her who was able or desirous to attend to the cultivation of her mind, had much hurt his interest with her by assuming too eagerly the task of a preceptor, so that he was regarded by the lively, indulged, and idle girl with some fear and much respect, but with little or nothing of that softer emotion which it had been his hope and his ambition to inspire. And thus her heart lay readily open, and her fancy became easily captivated by the noble exterior and graceful deportment and complacent flattery of Leicester, even before he was known to her as the dazzling minion of wealth and power.
The frequent visits of Leicester at Cumnor, during the earlier part of their union, had reconciled the Countess to the solitude and privacy to which she was condemned; but when these visits became rarer and more rare, and when the void was filled up with letters of excuse, not always very warmly expressed, and generally extremely brief, discontent and suspicion began to haunt those splendid apartments which love had fitted up for beauty. Her answers to Leicester conveyed these feelings too bluntly, and pressed more naturally than prudently that she might be relieved from this obscure and secluded residence, by the Earl’s acknowledgment of their marriage; and in arranging her arguments with all the skill she was mistress of, she trusted chiefly to the warmth of the entreaties with which she urged them. Sometimes she even ventured to mingle reproaches, of which Leicester conceived he had good reason to complain.
“I have made her Countess,” he said to Varney; “surely she might wait till it consisted with my pleasure that she should put on the coronet?”
The Countess Amy viewed the subject in directly an opposite light.
“What signifies,” she said, “that I have rank and honour in reality, if I am to live an obscure prisoner, without either society or observance, and suffering in my character, as one of dubious or disgraced reputation? I care not for all those strings of pearl, which you fret me by warping into my tresses, Janet. I tell you that at Lidcote Hall, if I put but a fresh rosebud among my hair, my good father would call me to him, that he might see it more closely; and the kind old curate would smile, and Master Mumblazen would say something about roses gules. And now I sit here, decked out like an image with gold and gems, and no one to see my finery but you, Janet. There was the poor Tressilian, too — but it avails not speaking of him.”
“It doth not indeed, madam,” said her prudent attendant; “and verily you make me sometimes wish you would not speak of him so often, or so rashly.”
“It signifies nothing to warn me, Janet,” said the impatient and incorrigible Countess; “I was born free, though I am now mewed up like some fine foreign slave, rather than the wife of an English noble. I bore it all with pleasure while I was sure he loved me; but now my tongue and heart shall be free, let them fetter these limbs as they will. I tell thee, Janet, I love my husband — I will love him till my latest breath — I cannot cease to love him, even if I would, or if he — which, God knows, may chance — should cease to love me. But I will say, and loudly, I would have been happier than I now am to have remained in Lidcote Hall, even although I must have married poor Tressilian, with his melancholy look and his head full of learning, which I cared not for. He said, if I would read his favourite volumes, there would come a time that I should be glad of having done so. I think it is come now.”
“I bought you some books, madam,” said Janet, “from a lame fellow who sold them in the Market-place — and who stared something boldly, at me, I promise you.”
“Let me see them, Janet,” said the Countess; “but let them not be of your own precise cast — How is this, most righteous damsel? — ‘A Pair of Snuffers for the Golden Candlestick‘—’Handfull of Myrrh and Hyssop to put a Sick Soul to Purgation‘—’A Draught of Water from the Valley of Baca‘—’Foxes and Firebrands‘— what gear call you this, maiden?”
“Nay, madam,” said Janet, “it was but fitting and seemly to put grace in your ladyship’s way; but an you will none of it, there are play-books, and poet-books, I trow.”
The Countess proceeded carelessly in her examination, turning over such rare volumes as would now make the fortune of twenty retail booksellers. Here was a “Boke of Cookery, Imprinted by Richard Lant,” and “Skelton’s Books“—”The Passtime of the People“—”The Castle of Knowledge,” etc. But neither to this lore did the Countess’s heart incline, and joyfully did she start up from the listless task of turning over the leaves of the pamphlets, and hastily did she scatter them through the floor, when the hasty clatter of horses’ feet, heard in the courtyard, called her to the window, exclaiming, “It is Leicester! — it is my noble Earl! — it is my Dudley! — every stroke of his horse’s hoof sounds like a note of lordly music!”
There was a brief bustle in the mansion, and Foster, with his downward look and sullen manner, entered the apartment to say, “That Master Richard Varney was arrived from my lord, having ridden all night, and craved to speak with her ladyship instantly.”
“Varney?” said the disappointed Countess; “and to speak with me? — pshaw! But he comes with news from Leicester, so admit him instantly.”
Varney entered her dressing apartment, where she sat arrayed in her native loveliness, adorned with all that Janet’s art and a rich and tasteful undress could bestow. But the most beautiful part of her attire was her profuse and luxuriant light-brown locks, which floated in such rich abundance around a neck that resembled a swan’s, and over a bosom heaving with anxious expectation, which communicated a hurried tinge of red to her whole countenance.
Varney entered the room in the dress in which he had waited on his master that morning to court, the splendour of which made a strange contrast with the disorder arising from hasty riding during a dark night and foul ways. His brow bore an anxious and hurried expression, as one who has that to say of which he doubts the reception, and who hath yet posted on from the necessity of communicating his tidings. The Countess’s anxious eye at once caught the alarm, as she exclaimed, “You bring news from my lord, Master Varney — Gracious Heaven! is he ill?”
“No, madam, thank Heaven!” said Varney. “Compose yourself, and permit me to take breath ere I communicate my tidings.”
“No breath, sir,” replied the lady impatiently; “I know your theatrical arts. Since your breath hath sufficed to bring you hither, it may suffice to tell your tale — at least briefly, and in the gross.”
“Madam,” answered Varney, “we are not alone, and my lord’s message was for your ear only.”
“Leave us, Janet, and Master Foster,” said the lady; “but remain in the next apartment, and within call.”
Foster and his daughter retired, agreeably to the Lady Leicester’s commands, into the next apartment, which was the withdrawing-room. The door which led from the sleeping-chamber was then carefully shut and bolted, and the father and daughter remained both in a posture of anxious attention, the first with a stern, suspicious, anxious cast of countenance, and Janet with folded hands, and looks which seemed divided betwixt her desire to know the fortunes of her mistress, and her prayers to Heaven for her safety. Anthony Foster seemed himself to have some idea of what was passing through his daughter’s mind, for he crossed the apartment and took her anxiously by the hand, saying, “That is right — pray, Janet, pray; we have all need of prayers, and some of us more than others. Pray, Janet — I would pray myself, but I must listen to what goes on within — evil has been brewing, love — evil has been brewing. God forgive our sins, but Varney’s sudden and strange arrival bodes us no good.”
Janet had never before heard her father excite or even permit her attention to anything which passed in their mysterious family; and now that he did so, his voice sounded in her ear — she knew not why — like that of a screech-owl denouncing some deed of terror and of woe. She turned her eyes fearfully towards the door, almost as if she expected some sounds of horror to be heard, or some sight of fear to display itself.
All, however, was as still as death, and the voices of those who spoke in the inner chamber were, if they spoke at all, carefully subdued to a tone which could not be heard in the next. At once, however, they were heard to speak fast, thick, and hastily; and presently after the voice of the Countess was heard exclaiming, at the highest pitch to which indignation could raise it, “Undo the door, sir, I command you! — undo the door! — I will have no other reply!” she continued, drowning with her vehement accents the low and muttered sounds which Varney was heard to utter betwixt whiles. “What ho! without there!” she persisted, accompanying her words with shrieks, “Janet, alarm the house! — Foster, break open the door — I am detained here by a traitor! Use axe and lever, Master Foster — I will be your warrant!”
“It shall not need, madam,” Varney was at length distinctly heard to say. “If you please to expose my lord’s important concerns and your own to the general ear, I will not be your hindrance.”
The door was unlocked and thrown open, and Janet and her father rushed in, anxious to learn the cause of these reiterated exclamations.
When they entered the apartment Varney stood by the door grinding his teeth, with an expression in which rage, and shame, and fear had each their share. The Countess stood in the midst of her apartment like a juvenile Pythoness under the influence of the prophetic fury. The veins in her beautiful forehead started into swoln blue lines through the hurried impulse of her articulation — her cheek and neck glowed like scarlet — her eyes were like those of an imprisoned eagle, flashing red lightning on the foes which it cannot reach with its talons. Were it possible for one of the Graces to have been animated by a Fury, the countenance could not have united such beauty with so much hatred, scorn, defiance, and resentment. The gesture and attitude corresponded with the voice and looks, and altogether presented a spectacle which was at once beautiful and fearful; so much of the sublime had the energy of passion united with the Countess Amy’s natural loveliness. Janet, as soon as the door was open, ran to her mistress; and more slowly, yet with more haste than he was wont, Anthony Foster went to Richard Varney.
“In the Truth’s name, what ails your ladyship?” said the former.
“What, in the name of Satan, have you done to her?” said Foster to his friend.
“Who, I? — nothing,” answered Varney, but with sunken head and sullen voice; “nothing but communicated to her her lord’s commands, which, if the lady list not to obey, she knows better how to answer it than I may pretend to do.”
“Now, by Heaven, Janet!” said the Countess, “the false traitor lies in his throat! He must needs lie, for he speaks to the dishonour of my noble lord; he must needs lie doubly, for he speaks to gain ends of his own, equally execrable and unattainable.”
“You have misapprehended me, lady,” said Varney, with a sulky species of submission and apology; “let this matter rest till your passion be abated, and I will explain all.”
“Thou shalt never have an opportunity to do so,” said the Countess. —“Look at him, Janet. He is fairly dressed, hath the outside of a gentleman, and hither he came to persuade me it was my lord’s pleasure — nay, more, my wedded lord’s commands — that I should go with him to Kenilworth, and before the Queen and nobles, and in presence of my own wedded lord, that I should acknowledge him — him there — that very cloak-brushing, shoe-cleaning fellow — him there, my lord’s lackey, for my liege lord and husband; furnishing against myself, Great God! whenever I was to vindicate my right and my rank, such weapons as would hew my just claim from the root, and destroy my character to be regarded as an honourable matron of the English nobility!”
“You hear her, Foster, and you, young maiden, hear this lady,” answered Varney, taking advantage of the pause which the Countess had made in her charge, more for lack of breath than for lack of matter —“you hear that her heat only objects to me the course which our good lord, for the purpose to keep certain matters secret, suggests in the very letter which she holds in her hands.”
Foster here attempted to interfere with a face of authority, which he thought became the charge entrusted to him, “Nay, lady, I must needs say you are over-hasty in this. Such deceit is not utterly to be condemned when practised for a righteous end I and thus even the patriarch Abraham feigned Sarah to be his sister when they went down to Egypt.”
“Ay, sir,” answered the Countess; “but God rebuked that deceit even in the father of His chosen people, by the mouth of the heathen Pharaoh. Out upon you, that will read Scripture only to copy those things which are held out to us as warnings, not as examples!”
“But Sarah disputed not the will of her husband, an it be your pleasure,” said Foster, in reply, “but did as Abraham commanded, calling herself his sister, that it might be well with her husband for her sake, and that his soul might live because of her beauty.”
“Now, so Heaven pardon me my useless anger,” answered the Countess, “thou art as daring a hypocrite as yonder fellow is an impudent deceiver! Never will I believe that the noble Dudley gave countenance to so dastardly, so dishonourable a plan. Thus I tread on his infamy, if indeed it be, and thus destroy its remembrance for ever!”
So saying, she tore in pieces Leicester’s letter, and stamped, in the extremity of impatience, as if she would have annihilated the minute fragments into which she had rent it.
“Bear witness,” said Varney, collecting himself, “she hath torn my lord’s letter, in order to burden me with the scheme of his devising; and although it promises nought but danger and trouble to me, she would lay it to my charge, as if I had any purpose of mine own in it.”
“Thou liest, thou treacherous slave!” said the Countess in spite of Janet’s attempts to keep her silent, in the sad foresight that her vehemence might only furnish arms against herself —“thou liest,” she continued. —“Let me go, Janet — were it the last word I have to speak, he lies. He had his own foul ends to seek; and broader he would have displayed them had my passion permitted me to preserve the silence which at first encouraged him to unfold his vile projects.”
“Madam,” said Varney, overwhelmed in spite of his effrontery, “I entreat you to believe yourself mistaken.”
“As soon will I believe light darkness,” said the enraged Countess. “Have I drunk of oblivion? Do I not remember former passages, which, known to Leicester, had given thee the preferment of a gallows, instead of the honour of his intimacy. I would I were a man but for five minutes! It were space enough to make a craven like thee confess his villainy. But go — begone! Tell thy master that when I take the foul course to which such scandalous deceits as thou hast recommended on his behalf must necessarily lead me, I will give him a rival something worthy of the name. He shall not be supplanted by an ignominious lackey, whose best fortune is to catch a gift of his master’s last suit of clothes ere it is threadbare, and who is only fit to seduce a suburb-wench by the bravery of new roses in his master’s old pantoufles. Go, begone, sir! I scorn thee so much that I am ashamed to have been angry with thee.”
Varney left the room with a mute expression of rage, and was followed by Foster, whose apprehension, naturally slow, was overpowered by the eager and abundant discharge of indignation which, for the first time, he had heard burst from the lips of a being who had seemed, till that moment, too languid and too gentle to nurse an angry thought or utter an intemperate expression. Foster, therefore, pursued Varney from place to place, persecuting him with interrogatories, to which the other replied not, until they were in the opposite side of the quadrangle, and in the old library, with which the reader has already been made acquainted. Here he turned round on his persevering follower, and thus addressed him, in a tone tolerably equal, that brief walk having been sufficient to give one so habituated to command his temper time to rally and recover his presence of mind.
“Tony,” he said, with his usual sneering laugh, “it avails not to deny it. The Woman and the Devil, who, as thine oracle Holdforth will confirm to thee, cheated man at the beginning, have this day proved more powerful than my discretion. Yon termagant looked so tempting, and had the art to preserve her countenance so naturally, while I communicated my lord’s message, that, by my faith, I thought I might say some little thing for myself. She thinks she hath my head under her girdle now, but she is deceived. Where is Doctor Alasco?”
“In his laboratory,” answered Foster. “It is the hour he is spoken not withal. We must wait till noon is past, or spoil his important — what said I? important! — I would say interrupt his divine studies.”
“Ay, he studies the devil’s divinity,” said Varney; “but when I want him, one hour must suffice as well as another. Lead the way to his pandemonium.”
So spoke Varney, and with hasty and perturbed steps followed Foster, who conducted him through private passages, many of which were well-nigh ruinous, to the opposite side of the quadrangle, where, in a subterranean apartment, now occupied by the chemist Alasco, one of the Abbots of Abingdon, who had a turn for the occult sciences, had, much to the scandal of his convent, established a laboratory, in which, like other fools of the period, he spent much precious time, and money besides, in the pursuit of the grand arcanum.
Anthony Foster paused before the door, which was scrupulously secured within, and again showed a marked hesitation to disturb the sage in his operations. But Varney, less scrupulous, roused him by knocking and voice, until at length, slowly and reluctantly, the inmate of the apartment undid the door. The chemist appeared, with his eyes bleared with the heat and vapours of the stove or alembic over which he brooded and the interior of his cell displayed the confused assemblage of heterogeneous substances and extraordinary implements belonging to his profession. The old man was muttering, with spiteful impatience, “Am I for ever to be recalled to the affairs of earth from those of heaven?”
“To the affairs of hell,” answered Varney, “for that is thy proper element. — Foster, we need thee at our conference.”
“Foster slowly entered the room. Varney, following, barred the door, and they betook themselves to secret council.
In the meanwhile, the Countess traversed the apartment, with shame and anger contending on her lovely cheek.
“The villain,” she said —“the cold-blooded, calculating slave! — But I unmasked him, Janet — I made the snake uncoil all his folds before me, and crawl abroad in his naked deformity; I suspended my resentment, at the danger of suffocating under the effort, until he had let me see the very bottom of a heart more foul than hell’s darkest corner. — And thou, Leicester, is it possible thou couldst bid me for a moment deny my wedded right in thee, or thyself yield it to another? — But it is impossible — the villain has lied in all. — Janet, I will not remain here longer — I fear him — I fear thy father. I grieve to say it, Janet — but I fear thy father, and, worst of all, this odious Varney, I will escape from Cumnor.”
“Alas! madam, whither would you fly, or by what means will you escape from these walls?”
“I know not, Janet,” said the unfortunate young lady, looking upwards! and clasping her hands together, “I know not where I shall fly, or by what means; but I am certain the God I have served will not abandon me in this dreadful crisis, for I am in the hands of wicked men.”
“Do not think so, dear lady,” said Janet; “my father is stern and strict in his temper, and severely true to his trust — but yet —”
At this moment Anthony Foster entered the apartment, bearing in his hand a glass cup and a small flask. His manner was singular; for, while approaching the Countess with the respect due to her rank, he had till this time suffered to become visible, or had been unable to suppress, the obdurate sulkiness of his natural disposition, which, as is usual with those of his unhappy temper, was chiefly exerted towards those over whom circumstances gave him control. But at present he showed nothing of that sullen consciousness of authority which he was wont to conceal under a clumsy affectation of civility and deference, as a ruffian hides his pistols and bludgeon under his ill-fashioned gaberdine. And yet it seemed as if his smile was more in fear than courtesy, and as if, while he pressed the Countess to taste of the choice cordial, which should refresh her spirits after her late alarm, he was conscious of meditating some further injury. His hand trembled also, his voice faltered, and his whole outward behaviour exhibited so much that was suspicious, that his daughter Janet, after she had stood looking at him in astonishment for some seconds, seemed at once to collect herself to execute some hardy resolution, raised her head, assumed an attitude and gait of determination and authority, and walking slowly betwixt her father and her mistress, took the salver from the hand of the former, and said in a low but marked and decided tone, “Father, I will fill for my noble mistress, when such is her pleasure.”
“Thou, my child?” said Foster, eagerly and apprehensively; “no, my child — it is not thou shalt render the lady this service.”
“And why, I pray you,” said Janet, “if it be fitting that the noble lady should partake of the cup at all?”
“Why — why?” said the seneschal, hesitating, and then bursting into passion as the readiest mode of supplying the lack of all other reason —“why, because it is my pleasure, minion, that you should not! Get you gone to the evening lecture.”
“Now, as I hope to hear lecture again,” replied Janet, “I will not go thither this night, unless I am better assured of my mistress’s safety. Give me that flask, father”— and she took it from his reluctant hand, while he resigned it as if conscience-struck. “And now,” she said, “father, that which shall benefit my mistress, cannot do me prejudice. Father, I drink to you.”
Foster, without speaking a word, rushed on his daughter and wrested the flask from her hand; then, as if embarrassed by what he had done, and totally unable to resolve what he should do next, he stood with it in his hand, one foot advanced and the other drawn back, glaring on his daughter with a countenance in which rage, fear, and convicted villainy formed a hideous combination.
“This is strange, my father,” said Janet, keeping her eye fixed on his, in the manner in which those who have the charge of lunatics are said to overawe their unhappy patients; “will you neither let me serve my lady, nor drink to her myself?”
The courage of the Countess sustained her through this dreadful scene, of which the import was not the less obvious that it was not even hinted at. She preserved even the rash carelessness of her temper, and though her cheek had grown pale at the first alarm, her eye was calm and almost scornful. “Will you taste this rare cordial, Master Foster? Perhaps you will not yourself refuse to pledge us, though you permit not Janet to do so. Drink, sir, I pray you.”
“I will not,” answered Foster.
“And for whom, then, is the precious beverage reserved, sir?” said the Countess.
“For the devil, who brewed it!” answered Foster; and, turning on his heel, he left the chamber.
Janet looked at her mistress with a countenance expressive in the highest degree of shame, dismay, and sorrow.
“Do not weep for me, Janet,” said the Countess kindly.
“No, madam,” replied her attendant, in a voice broken by sobs, “it is not for you I weep; it is for myself — it is for that unhappy man. Those who are dishonoured before man — those who are condemned by God — have cause to mourn; not those who are innocent! Farewell, madam!” she said hastily assuming the mantle in which she was wont to go abroad.
“Do you leave me, Janet?” said her mistress —“desert me in such an evil strait?”
“Desert you, madam!” exclaimed Janet; and running back to her mistress, she imprinted a thousand kisses on her hand —“desert you I— may the Hope of my trust desert me when I do so! No, madam; well you said the God you serve will open you a path for deliverance. There is a way of escape. I have prayed night and day for light, that I might see how to act betwixt my duty to yonder unhappy man and that which I owe to you. Sternly and fearfully that light has now dawned, and I must not shut the door which God opens. Ask me no more. I will return in brief space.”
So speaking, she wrapped herself in her mantle, and saying to the old woman whom she passed in the outer room that she was going to evening prayer, she left the house.
Meanwhile her father had reached once more the laboratory, where he found the accomplices of his intended guilt. “Has the sweet bird sipped?” said Varney, with half a smile; while the astrologer put the same question with his eyes, but spoke not a word.
“She has not, nor she shall not from my hands,” replied Foster; “would you have me do murder in my daughter’s presence?”
“Wert thou not told, thou sullen and yet faint-hearted slave,” answered Varney, with bitterness, “that no murder as thou callest it, with that staring look and stammering tone, is designed in the matter? Wert thou not told that a brief illness, such as woman puts on in very wantonness, that she may wear her night-gear at noon, and lie on a settle when she should mind her domestic business, is all here aimed at? Here is a learned man will swear it to thee by the key of the Castle of Wisdom.”
“I swear it,” said Alasco, “that the elixir thou hast there in the flask will not prejudice life! I swear it by that immortal and indestructible quintessence of gold, which pervades every substance in nature, though its secret existence can be traced by him only to whom Trismegistus renders the key of the Cabala.”
“An oath of force,” said Varney. “Foster, thou wert worse than a pagan to disbelieve it. Believe me, moreover, who swear by nothing but by my own word, that if you be not conformable, there is no hope, no, not a glimpse of hope, that this thy leasehold may be transmuted into a copyhold. Thus, Alasco will leave your pewter artillery untransmigrated, and I, honest Anthony, will still have thee for my tenant.”
“I know not, gentlemen,” said Foster, “where your designs tend to; but in one thing I am bound up — that, fall back fall edge, I will have one in this place that may pray for me, and that one shall be my daughter. I have lived ill, and the world has been too weighty with me; but she is as innocent as ever she was when on her mother’s lap, and she, at least, shall have her portion in that happy City, whose walls are of pure gold, and the foundations garnished with all manner of precious stones.”
“Ay, Tony,” said Varney, “that were a paradise to thy heart’s content. — Debate the matter with him, Doctor Alasco; I will be with you anon.”
So speaking, Varney arose, and taking the flask from the table, he left the room.
“I tell thee, my son,” said Alasco to Foster, as soon as Varney had left them, “that whatever this bold and profligate railer may say of the mighty science, in which, by Heaven’s blessing, I have advanced so far that I would not call the wisest of living artists my better or my teacher — I say, howsoever yonder reprobate may scoff at things too holy to be apprehended by men merely of carnal and evil thoughts, yet believe that the city beheld by St. John, in that bright vision of the Christian Apocalypse, that new Jerusalem, of which all Christian men hope to partake, sets forth typically the discovery of the Grand Secret, whereby the most precious and perfect of nature’s works are elicited out of her basest and most crude productions; just as the light and gaudy butterfly, the most beautiful child of the summer’s breeze, breaks forth from the dungeon of a sordid chrysalis.”
“Master Holdforth said nought of this exposition,” said Foster doubtfully; “and moreover, Doctor Alasco, the Holy Writ says that the gold and precious stones of the Holy City are in no sort for those who work abomination, or who frame lies.”
“Well, my son,” said the Doctor, “and what is your inference from thence?”
“That those,” said Foster, “who distil poisons, and administer them in secrecy, can have no portion in those unspeakable riches.”
“You are to distinguish, my son,” replied the alchemist, “betwixt that which is necessarily evil in its progress and in its end also, and that which, being evil, is, nevertheless, capable of working forth good. If, by the death of one person, the happy period shall be brought nearer to us, in which all that is good shall be attained, by wishing its presence — all that is evil escaped, by desiring its absence — in which sickness, and pain, and sorrow shall be the obedient servants of human wisdom, and made to fly at the slightest signal of a sage — in which that which is now richest and rarest shall be within the compass of every one who shall be obedient to the voice of wisdom — when the art of healing shall be lost and absorbed in the one universal medicine when sages shall become monarchs of the earth, and death itself retreat before their frown — if this blessed consummation of all things can be hastened by the slight circumstance that a frail, earthly body, which must needs partake corruption, shall be consigned to the grave a short space earlier than in the course of nature, what is such a sacrifice to the advancement of the holy Millennium?”
“Millennium is the reign of the Saints,” said Foster, somewhat doubtfully.
“Say it is the reign of the Sages, my son,” answered Alasco; “or rather the reign of Wisdom itself.”
“I touched on the question with Master Holdforth last exercising night,” said Foster; “but he says your doctrine is heterodox, and a damnable and false exposition.”
“He is in the bonds of ignorance, my son,” answered Alasco, “and as yet burning bricks in Egypt; or, at best, wandering in the dry desert of Sinai. Thou didst ill to speak to such a man of such matters. I will, however, give thee proof, and that shortly, which I will defy that peevish divine to confute, though he should strive with me as the magicians strove with Moses before King Pharaoh. I will do projection in thy presence, my son — in thy very presence — and thine eyes shall witness the truth.”
“Stick to that, learned sage,” said Varney, who at this moment entered the apartment; “if he refuse the testimony of thy tongue, yet how shall he deny that of his own eyes?”
“Varney!” said the adept —“Varney already returned! Hast thou —” he stopped short.
“Have I done mine errand, thou wouldst say?” replied Varney. “I have! And thou,” he added, showing more symptoms of interest than he had hitherto exhibited, “art thou sure thou hast poured forth neither more nor less than the just measure?”
“Ay,” replied the alchemist, “as sure as men can be in these nice proportions, for there is diversity of constitutions.”
“Nay, then,” said Varney, “I fear nothing. I know thou wilt not go a step farther to the devil than thou art justly considered for — thou wert paid to create illness, and wouldst esteem it thriftless prodigality to do murder at the same price. Come, let us each to our chamber we shall see the event tomorrow.”
“What didst thou do to make her swallow it?” said Foster, shuddering.
“Nothing,” answered Varney, “but looked on her with that aspect which governs madmen, women, and children. They told me in St. Luke’s Hospital that I have the right look for overpowering a refractory patient. The keepers made me their compliments on’t; so I know how to win my bread when my court-favour fails me.”
“And art thou not afraid,” said Foster, “lest the dose be disproportioned?”
“If so,” replied Varney, “she will but sleep the sounder, and the fear of that shall not break my rest. Good night, my masters.”
Anthony Foster groaned heavily, and lifted up his hands and eyes. The alchemist intimated his purpose to continue some experiment of high import during the greater part of the night, and the others separated to their places of repose.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00