Dr. Heidegger's Experiment
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
That very singular man, old Dr. Heidegger,
once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. There were
three white-bearded gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr.
Gascoigne, and a withered gentlewoman, whose name was the Widow Wycherly.
They were all melancholy old creatures, who had been unfortunate in life,
and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their
graves. Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant,
but had lost his all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better
than a mendicant. Colonel Killigrew had wasted his best years, and his
health and substance, in the pursuit of sinful pleasures, which had given
birth to a brood of pains, such as the gout, and divers other torments
of soul and body. Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician, a man of evil
fame, or at least had been so till time had buried him from the knowledge
of the present generation, and made him obscure instead of infamous. As
for the Widow Wycherly, tradition tells us that she was a great beauty
in her day; but, for a long while past, she had lived in deep seclusion,
on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry
of the town against her. It is a circumstance worth mentioning that each
of these three old gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr.
Gascoigne, were early lovers of the Widow Wycherly, and had once been on
the point of cutting each other's throats for her sake. And, before proceeding
further, I will merely hint that Dr. Heidegger and all his foul guests
were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves,--as is not unfrequently
the case with old people, when worried either by present troubles or woful
"My dear old friends," said Dr. Heidegger,
motioning them to be seated, "I am desirous of your assistance in one of
those little experiments with which I amuse myself here in my study."
If all stories were true, Dr. Heidegger's
study must have been a very curious place. It was a dim, old-fashioned
chamber, festooned with cobwebs, and besprinkled with antique dust. Around
the walls stood several oaken bookcases, the lower shelves of which were
filled with rows of gigantic folios and black-letter quartos, and the upper
with little parchment-covered duodecimos. Over the central bookcase was
a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities,
Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases
of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow
oaken closet, with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton.
Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high
and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame. Among many wonderful stories
related of this mirror, it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor's
deceased patients dwelt within its verge, and would stare him in the face
whenever he looked thitherward. The opposite side of the chamber was ornamented
with the full-length portrait of a young lady, arrayed in the faded magnificence
of silk, satin, and brocade, and with a visage as faded as her dress. Above
half a century ago, Dr. Heidegger had been on the point of marriage with
this young lady; but, being affected with some slight disorder, she had
swallowed one of her lover's prescriptions, and died on the bridal evening.
The greatest curiosity of the study remains to be mentioned; it was a ponderous
folio volume, bound in black leather, with massive silver clasps. There
were no letters on the back, and nobody could tell the title of the book.
But it was well known to be a book of magic; and once, when a chambermaid
had lifted it, merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled
in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon
the floor, and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror;
while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned, and said,--"Forbear!"
Such was Dr. Heidegger's study. On the summer
afternoon of our tale a small round table, as black as ebony, stood in
the centre of the room, sustaining a cut-glass vase of beautiful form and
elaborate workmanship. The sunshine came through the window, between the
heavy festoons of two faded damask curtains, and fell directly across this
vase; so that a mild splendor was reflected from it on the ashen visages
of the five old people who sat around. Four champagne glasses were also
on the table.
"My dear old friends," repeated Dr. Heidegger,
"may I reckon on your aid in performing an exceedingly curious experiment?"
Now Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman,
whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories.
Some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced
back to my own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale
should startle the reader's faith, I must be content to bear the stigma
of a fiction monger.
When the doctor's four guests heard him talk
of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than
the murder of a mouse in an air pump, or the examination of a cobweb by
the microscope, or some similar nonsense, with which he was constantly
in the habit of pestering his intimates. But without waiting for a reply,
Dr. Heidegger hobbled across the chamber, and returned with the same ponderous
folio, bound in black leather, which common report affirmed to be a book
of magic. Undoing the silver clasps, he opened the volume, and took from
among its black-letter pages a rose, or what was once a rose, though now
the green leaves and crimson petals had assumed one brownish hue, and the
ancient flower seemed ready to crumble to dust in the doctor's hands.
"This rose," said Dr. Heidegger, with a sigh,
"this same withered and crumbling flower, blossomed five and fifty years
ago. It was given me by Sylvia Ward, whose portrait hangs yonder; and I
meant to wear it in my bosom at our wedding. Five and fifty years it has
been treasured between the leaves of this old volume. Now, would you deem
it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?"
"Nonsense!" said the Widow Wycherly, with
a peevish toss of her head. "You might as well ask whether an old woman's
wrinkled face could ever bloom again."
"See!" answered Dr. Heidegger.
He uncovered the vase, and threw the faded
rose into the water which it contained. At first, it lay lightly on the
surface of the fluid, appearing to imbibe none of its moisture. Soon, however,
a singular change began to be visible. The crushed and dried petals stirred,
and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson, as if the flower were reviving
from a deathlike slumber; the slender stalk and twigs of foliage became
green; and there was the rose of half a century, looking as fresh as when
Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover. It was scarcely full blown;
for some of its delicate red leaves curled modestly around its moist bosom,
within which two or three dewdrops were sparkling.
"That is certainly a very pretty deception,"
said the doctor's friends; carelessly, however, for they had witnessed
greater miracles at a conjurer's show; "pray how was it effected?"
"Did you never hear of the 'Fountain of Youth?'
" asked Dr. Heidegger, "which Ponce De Leon, the Spanish adventurer, went
in search of two or three centuries ago?"
"But did Ponce De Leon ever find it?" said
the Widow Wycherly.
"No," answered Dr. Heidegger, "for he never
sought it in the right place. The famous Fountain of Youth, if I am rightly
informed, is situated in the southern part of the Floridian peninsula,
not far from Lake Macaco. Its source is overshadowed by several gigantic
magnolias, which, though numberless centuries old, have been kept as fresh
as violets by the virtues of this wonderful water. An acquaintance of mine,
knowing my curiosity in such matters, has sent me what you see in the vase."
"Ahem!" said Colonel Killigrew, who believed
not a word of the doctor's story; "and what may be the effect of this fluid
on the human frame?"
"You shall judge for yourself, my dear colonel,"
replied Dr. Heidegger; "and all of you, my respected friends, are welcome
to so much of this admirable fluid as may restore to you the bloom of youth.
For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry
to grow young again. With your permission, therefore, I will merely watch
the progress of the experiment."
While he spoke, Dr. Heidegger had been filling
the four champagne glasses with the water of the Fountain of Youth. It
was apparently impregnated with an effervescent gas, for little bubbles
were continually ascending from the depths of the glasses, and bursting
in silvery spray at the surface. As the liquor diffused a pleasant perfume,
the old people doubted not that it possessed cordial and comfortable properties;
and though utter sceptics as to its rejuvenescent power, they were inclined
to swallow it at once. But Dr. Heidegger besought them to stay a moment.
"Before you drink, my respectable old friends,"
said he, "it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct
you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing
a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it
would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns
of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!"
The doctor's four venerable friends made him
no answer, except by a feeble and tremulous laugh; so very ridiculous was
the idea that, knowing how closely repentance treads behind the steps of
error, they should ever go astray again.
"Drink, then," said the doctor, bowing: "I
rejoice that I have so well selected the subjects of my experiment."
With palsied hands, they raised the glasses
to their lips. The liquor, if it really possessed such virtues as Dr. Heidegger
imputed to it, could not have been bestowed on four human beings who needed
it more wofully. They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure
was, but had been the offspring of Nature's dotage, and always the gray,
decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures, who now sat stooping round the
doctor's table, without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated
even by the prospect of growing young again. They drank off the water,
and replaced their glasses on the table.
Assuredly there was an almost immediate improvement
in the aspect of the party, not unlike what might have been produced by
a glass of generous wine, together with a sudden glow of cheerful sunshine
brightening over all their visages at once. There was a healthful suffusion
on their cheeks, instead of the ashen hue that had made them look so corpse-like.
They gazed at one another, and fancied that some magic power had really
begun to smooth away the deep and sad inscriptions which Father Time had
been so long engraving on their brows. The Widow Wycherly adjusted her
cap, for she felt almost like a woman again.
"Give us more of this wondrous water!" cried
they, eagerly. "We are younger--but we are still too old! Quick--give us
"Patience, patience!" quoth Dr. Heidegger,
who sat watching the experiment with philosophic coolness. "You have been
a long time growing old. Surely, you might be content to grow young in
half an hour! But the water is at your service."
Again he filled their glasses with the liquor
of youth, enough of which still remained in the vase to turn half the old
people in the city to the age of their own grandchildren. While the bubbles
were yet sparkling on the brim, the doctor's four guests snatched their
glasses from the table, and swallowed the contents at a single gulp. Was
it delusion? even while the draught was passing down their throats, it
seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. Their eyes grew
clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks, they
sat around the table, three gentlemen of middle age, and a woman, hardly
beyond her buxom prime.
"My dear widow, you are charming!" cried Colonel
Killigrew, whose eyes had been fixed upon her face, while the shadows of
age were flitting from it like darkness from the crimson daybreak.
The fair widow knew, of old, that Colonel
Killigrew's compliments were not always measured by sober truth; so she
started up and ran to the mirror, still dreading that the ugly visage of
an old woman would meet her gaze. Meanwhile, the three gentlemen behaved
in such a manner as proved that the water of the Fountain of Youth possessed
some intoxicating qualities; unless, indeed, their exhilaration of spirits
were merely a lightsome dizziness caused by the sudden removal of the weight
of years. Mr. Gascoigne's mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether
relating to the past, present, or future, could not easily be determined,
since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years.
Now he rattled forth full-throated sentences about patriotism, national
glory, and the people's right; now he muttered some perilous stuff or other,
in a sly and doubtful whisper, so cautiously that even his own conscience
could scarcely catch the secret; and now, again, he spoke in measured accents,
and a deeply deferential tone, as if a royal ear were listening to his
wellturned periods. Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth
a jolly bottle song, and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus,
while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the Widow Wycherly.
On the other side of the table, Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation
of dollars and cents, with which was strangely intermingled a project for
supplying the East Indies with ice, by harnessing a team of whales to the
As for the Widow Wycherly, she stood before
the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image, and greeting it
as the friend whom she loved better than all the world beside. She thrust
her face close to the glass, to see whether some long-remembered wrinkle
or crow's foot had indeed vanished. She examined whether the snow had so
entirely melted from her hair that the venerable cap could be safely thrown
aside. At last, turning briskly away, she came with a sort of dancing step
to the table.
"My dear old doctor," cried she, "pray favor
me with another glass!"
"Certainly, my dear madam, certainly!" replied
the complaisant doctor; "see! I have already filled the glasses."
There, in fact, stood the four glasses, brimful
of this wonderful water, the delicate spray of which, as it effervesced
from the surface, resembled the tremulous glitter of diamonds. It was now
so nearly sunset that the chamber had grown duskier than ever; but a mild
and moonlike splendor gleamed from within the vase, and rested alike on
the four guests and on the doctor's venerable figure. He sat in a high-backed,
elaborately-carved, oaken arm-chair, with a gray dignity of aspect that
might have well befitted that very Father Time, whose power had never been
disputed, save by this fortunate company. Even while quaffing the third
draught of the Fountain of Youth, they were almost awed by the expression
of his mysterious visage.
But, the next moment, the exhilarating gush
of young life shot through their veins. They were now in the happy prime
of youth. Age, with its miserable train of cares and sorrows and diseases,
was remembered only as the trouble of a dream, from which they had joyously
awoke. The fresh gloss of the soul, so early lost, and without which the
world's successive scenes had been but a gallery of faded pictures, again
threw its enchantment over all their prospects. They felt like new-created
beings in a new-created universe.
"We are young! We are young!" they cried exultingly.
Youth, like the extremity of age, had effaced
the strongly-marked characteristics of middle life, and mutually assimilated
them all. They were a group of merry youngsters, almost maddened with the
exuberant frolicsomeness of their years. The most singular effect of their
gayety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they
had so lately been the victims. They laughed loudly at their old-fashioned
attire, the wide-skirted coats and flapped waistcoats of the young men,
and the ancient cap and gown of the blooming girl. One limped across the
floor like a gouty grandfather; one set a pair of spectacles astride of
his nose, and pretended to pore over the black-letter pages of the book
of magic; a third seated himself in an arm-chair, and strove to imitate
the venerable dignity of Dr. Heidegger. Then all shouted mirthfully, and
leaped about the room. The Widow Wycherly--if so fresh a damsel could be
called a widow--tripped up to the doctor's chair, with a mischievous merriment
in her rosy face.
"Doctor, you dear old soul," cried she, "get
up and dance with me!" And then the four young people laughed louder than
ever, to think what a queer figure the poor old doctor would cut.
"Pray excuse me," answered the doctor quietly.
"I am old and rheumatic, and my dancing days were over long ago. But either
of these gay young gentlemen will be glad of so pretty a partner."
"Dance with me, Clara!" cried Colonel Killigrew
"No, no, I will be her partner!" shouted Mr.
"She promised me her hand, fifty years ago!"
exclaimed Mr. Medbourne.
They all gathered round her. One caught both
her hands in his passionate grasp another threw his arm about her waist--the
third buried his hand among the glossy curls that clustered beneath the
widow's cap. Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm
breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself,
yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier
picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. Yet,
by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the
antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have
reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously
contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.
But they were young: their burning passions
proved them so. Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow,
who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began
to interchange threatening glances. Still keeping hold of the fair prize,
they grappled fiercely at one another's throats. As they struggled to and
fro, the table was overturned, and the vase dashed into a thousand fragments.
The precious Water of Youth flowed in a bright stream across the floor,
moistening the wings of a butterfly, which, grown old in the decline of
summer, had alighted there to die. The insect fluttered lightly through
the chamber, and settled on the snowy head of Dr. Heidegger.
"Come, come, gentlemen!--come, Madam Wycherly,"
exclaimed the doctor, "I really must protest against this riot."
They stood still and shivered; for it seemed
as if gray Time were calling them back from their sunny youth, far down
into the chill and darksome vale of years. They looked at old Dr. Heidegger,
who sat in his carved arm-chair, holding the rose of half a century, which
he had rescued from among the fragments of the shattered vase. At the motion
of his hand, the four rioters resumed their seats; the more readily, because
their violent exertions had wearied them, youthful though they were.
"My poor Sylvia's rose!" ejaculated Dr. Heidegger,
holding it in the light of the sunset clouds; "it appears to be fading
And so it was. Even while the party were looking
at it, the flower continued to shrivel up, till it became as dry and fragile
as when the doctor had first thrown it into the vase. He shook off the
few drops of moisture which clung to its petals.
"I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,"
observed he, pressing the withered rose to his withered lips. While he
spoke, the butterfly fluttered down from the doctor's snowy head, and fell
upon the floor.
His guests shivered again. A strange chillness,
whether of the body or spirit they could not tell, was creeping gradually
over them all. They gazed at one another, and fancied that each fleeting
moment snatched away a charm, and left a deepening furrow where none had
been before. Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded
into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people, sitting with
their old friend, Dr. Heidegger?
"Are we grown old again, so soon?" cried they,
In truth they had. The Water of Youth possessed
merely a virtue more transient than that of wine. The delirium which it
created had effervesced away. Yes! they were old again. With a shuddering
impulse, that showed her a woman still, the widow clasped her skinny hands
before her face, and wished that the coffin lid were over it, since it
could be no longer beautiful.
"Yes, friends, ye are old again," said Dr.
Heidegger, "and lo! the Water of Youth is all lavished on the ground. Well--I
bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would
not stoop to bathe my lips in it--no, though its delirium were for years
instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me!"
But the doctor's four friends had taught no
such lesson to themselves. They resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage
to Florida, and quaff at morning, noon, and night, from the Fountain of