"One was so," replied Darcy, with a shudder. "It was a cowardly and treacherous deed, aggravated by the basest ingratitude. Listen, and you shall hear how it chanced. A Roman rabbi, named Ben Lucca, skilled in hermetic science, came to this city. His fame reached me, and I sought him out, offering myself as his disciple. For months, I remained with him in his laboratory – working at the furnace, and poring over mystic lore. One night he showed me that volume, and, pointing to a page within it, said: 'Those characters contain the secret of confecting the elixir of life. I will now explain them to you, and afterwards we will proceed to the operation.' With this, he unfolded the mystery; but he bade me observe, that the menstruum was defective on one point. Wherefore, he said, 'there will still be peril from some hidden cause.' Oh, with what greediness I drank in his words! How I gazed at the mystic characters, as he explained their import! What visions floated before me of perpetual youth and enjoyment. At that moment a demon whispered in my ear, 'This secret must be thine own. No one else must possess it.'"
"Ha!" exclaimed Auriol, starting.
"The evil thought was no sooner conceived than acted upon," pursued Darcy. "Instantly drawing my poniard, I plunged it to the rabbi's heart. But mark what followed. His blood fell upon the book, and obliterated the characters; nor could I by any effort of memory recall the composition of the elixir."
"When did you regain the secret?" asked Auriol curiously.
"To-night," replied Darcy – "within this hour. For nigh fifty years after that fatal night I have been making fruitless experiments. A film of blood has obscured my mental sight. I have proceeded by calcitration, solution, putrefaction – have produced the oils which will fix crude mercury, and convert all bodies into sol and luna; but I have ever failed in fermenting the stone into the true elixir. To-night, it came into my head to wash the blood-stained page containing the secret with a subtle liquid. I did so; and doubting the efficacy of the experiment, left it to work, while I went forth to breathe the air at my window. My eyes were cast upwards, and I was struck with the malignant aspect of my star. How to reconcile this with the good fortune which has just befallen me, I know not – but so it was. At this juncture, your rash but pious attempt occurred. Having discovered our relationship, and enjoined the gatekeeper to bring you hither, I returned to my old laboratory. On glancing towards the mystic volume, what was my surprise to see the page free from blood!"
Auriol uttered a slight exclamation, and gazed at the book with superstitious awe.
"The sight was so surprising that I dropped the sack I had brought with me," pursued Darcy. "Fearful of again losing the secret, I nerved myself to the task, and placing fuel on the fire, dismissed my attendant with brief injunctions relative to you. I then set to work. How I have succeeded, you perceive.
Auriol gazed earnestly at his aged relative, but he said nothing.
"In a few moments I shall be as full of vigour and activity as yourself," continued Darcy. "We shall be no longer the great-grandsire and his descendant, but friends – companions – equals, – equals in age, strength, activity, beauty, fortune – for youth is fortune – ha! ha! Methinks I am already young again!"
"You spoke of two crimes with which your conscience was burdened," remarked Auriol. "You have mentioned but one."
"The other was not so foul as that I have described," replied Darcy, in an altered tone, "inasmuch as it was unintentional, and occasioned by no base motive. My wife, your ancestress, was a most lovely woman, and so passionately was I enamoured of her, that I tried by every art to heighten and preserve her beauty. I fed her upon the flesh of capons, nourished with vipers; caused her to steep her lovely limbs in baths distilled from roses and violets; and had recourse to the most potent cosmetics. At last I prepared a draught from poisons – yes, poisons– the effect of which, I imagined, would be wondrous. She drank it, and expired horribly disfigured. Conceive my despair at beholding the fair image of my idolatry destroyed – defaced by my hand. In my frenzy I should have laid violent hands upon myself, if I had not been restrained. Love may again rule my heart – beauty may again dazzle my eyes, but I shall never more feel the passion I entertained for my lost Amice – never more behold charms equal to hers."
And he pressed his hand to his face.
"The mistake you then committed should serve as a warning," said Auriol. "What if it be poison you have now confected? Try a few drops of it on some animal."
"No – no; it is the true elixir," replied Darcy. "Not a drop must be wasted. You will witness its effect anon. Like the snake, I shall cast my slough, and come forth younger than I was at twenty."
"Meantime, I beseech you to render me some assistance," groaned Auriol, "or, while you are preparing for immortality, I shall expire before your eyes."
"Be not afraid," replied Darcy; "you shall take no harm. I will care for you presently; and I understand leechcraft so well, that I will answer for your speedy and perfect recovery."
"Drink, then, to it!" cried Auriol.
"I know not what stays my hand," said the old man, raising the phial; "but now that immortality is in my reach, I dare not grasp it."
"Give me the potion, then," cried Auriol.
"Not for worlds," rejoined Darcy, hugging the phial to his breast. "No; I will be young again – rich – happy. I will go forth into the world – I will bask in the smiles of beauty – I will feast, revel, sing – life shall be one perpetual round of enjoyment. Now for the trial – ha!" and, as he raised the potion towards his lips, a sudden pang shot across his heart. "What is this?" he cried, staggering. "Can death assail me when I am just about to enter upon perpetual life? Help me, good grandson! Place the phial to my lips. Pour its contents down my throat – quick! quick!"
"I am too weak to stir," groaned Auriol. "You have delayed it too long."
"Oh, heavens! we shall both perish," shrieked Darcy, vainly endeavouring to raise his palsied arm, – "perish with the blissful shore in view."
And he sank backwards, and would have fallen to the ground if he had not caught at the terrestrial sphere for support.
"Help me – help me!" he screamed, fixing a glance of unutterable anguish on his relative.
"It is worth the struggle," cried Auriol. And, by a great effort, he raised himself, and staggered towards the old man.
"Saved – saved!" shrieked Darcy. "Pour it down my throat. An instant, and all will be well."
"Think you I have done this for you?" cried Auriol, snatching the potion; "no – no."
And, supporting himself against the furnace, he placed the phial to his lips, and eagerly drained its contents.
The old man seemed paralysed by the action, but kept his eye fixed upon the youth till he had drained the elixir to the last drop. He then uttered a piercing cry, threw up his arms, and fell heavily backwards.
Dead – dead!
Flashes of light passed before Auriol's eyes, and strange noises smote his ears. For a moment he was bewildered as with wine, and laughed and sang discordantly like a madman. Every object reeled and danced around him. The glass vessels and jars clashed their brittle sides together, yet remained uninjured; the furnace breathed forth flames and mephitic vapours; the spiral worm of the alembic became red hot, and seemed filled with molten lead; the pipe of the bolt-head ran blood; the sphere of the earth rolled along the floor, and rebounded from the wall as if impelled by a giant hand; the skeletons grinned and gibbered; so did the death's-head on the table; so did the skulls against the chimney; the monstrous sea-fish belched forth fire and smoke; the bald, decapitated head opened its eyes, and fixed them, with a stony glare, on the young man; while the dead alchemist shook his hand menacingly at him.
Unable to bear these accumulated horrors, Auriol became, for a short space, insensible. On recovering, all was still. The lights within the lamp had expired; but the bright moonlight, streaming through the window, fell upon the rigid features of the unfortunate alchemist, and on the cabalistic characters of the open volume beside him.
Eager to test the effect of the elixir, Auriol put his hand to his side. All traces of the wound were gone; nor did he experience the slightest pain in any other part of his body. On the contrary, he seemed endowed with preternatural strength. His breast dilated with rapture, and he longed to expand his joy in active motion.
Striding over the body of his aged relative, he threw open the window. As he did so, joyous peals burst from surrounding churches, announcing the arrival of the new year.
While listening to this clamour, Auriol gazed at the populous and picturesque city stretched out before him, and bathed in the moonlight.
"A hundred years hence," he thought, "and scarcely one soul of the thousands within those houses will be living, save myself. A hundred years after that, and their children's children will be gone to the grave. But I shall live on – shall live through all changes – all customs – all time. What revelations I shall then have to make, if I should dare to disclose them!"
As he ruminated thus, the skeleton hanging near him was swayed by the wind, and its bony fingers came in contact with his cheek. A dread idea was suggested by the occurrence.
"There is one peril to be avoided," he thought; "ONE PERIL! – what is it? Pshaw! I will think no more of it. It may never arise. I will be gone. This place fevers me."
With this, he left the laboratory, and hastily descending the stairs, at the foot of which he found Flapdragon, passed out of the house.
Late one night, in the spring of 1830, two men issued from a low, obscurely situated public-house, near Millbank, and shaped their course apparently in the direction of Vauxhall Bridge. Avoiding the footpath near the river, they moved stealthily along the farther side of the road, where the open ground offered them an easy means of flight, in case such a course should be found expedient. So far as it could be discerned by the glimpses of the moon, which occasionally shone forth from a rack of heavy clouds, the appearance of these personages was not much in their favour. Haggard features, stamped deeply with the characters of crime and debauchery; fierce, restless eyes; beards of several days' growth; wild, unkempt heads of hair, formed their chief personal characteristics; while sordid and ragged clothes, shoes without soles, and old hats without crowns, constituted the sum of their apparel.
One of them was tall and gaunt, with large hands and feet; but despite his meagreness, he evidently possessed great strength: the other was considerably shorter, but broad-shouldered, bow-legged, long-armed, and altogether a most formidable ruffian. This fellow had high cheek-bones, a long aquiline nose, and a coarse mouth and chin, in which the animal greatly predominated. He had a stubby red beard, with sandy hair, white brows and eyelashes. The countenance of the other was dark and repulsive, and covered with blotches, the result of habitual intemperance. His eyes had a leering and malignant look. A handkerchief spotted with blood, and tied across his brow, contrasted strongly with his matted black hair, and increased his natural appearance of ferocity. The shorter ruffian carried a mallet upon his shoulder, and his companion concealed something beneath the breast of his coat, which afterwards proved to be a dark lantern.
Not a word passed between them; but keeping a vigilant look-out, they trudged on with quick, shambling steps. A few sounds arose from the banks of the river, and there was now and then a plash in the water, or a distant cry, betokening some passing craft; but generally all was profoundly still. The quaint, Dutch-looking structures on the opposite bank, the line of coal-barges and lighters moored to the strand, the great timber-yards and coal-yards, the brewhouses, gasworks, and waterworks, could only be imperfectly discerned; but the moonlight fell clear upon the ancient towers of Lambeth Palace, and on the neighbouring church. The same glimmer also ran like a silver belt across the stream, and revealed the great, stern, fortress-like pile of the Penitentiary – perhaps the most dismal-looking structure in the whole metropolis. The world of habitations beyond this melancholy prison was buried in darkness. The two men, however, thought nothing of these things, and saw nothing of them; but, on arriving within a couple of hundred yards of the bridge, suddenly, as if by previous concert, quitted the road, and, leaping a rail, ran across a field, and plunged into a hollow formed by a dried pit, where they came to a momentary halt.
"You ain't a-been a-gammonin' me in this matter, Tinker?" observed the shorter individual. "The cove's sure to come?"
"Why, you can't expect me to answer for another as I can for myself, Sandman," replied the other; "but if his own word's to be taken for it, he's sartin to be there. I heerd him say, as plainly as I'm a speakin' to you – 'I'll be here to-morrow night – at the same hour – '"
"And that wos one o'clock?" said the Sandman.
"Thereabouts," replied the other.
"And who did he say that to?" demanded the Sandman.
"To hisself, I s'pose," answered the Tinker; "for, as I told you afore, I could see no one vith him."
"Do you think he's one of our perfession?" inquired the Sandman.
"Bless you! no – that he ain't," returned the Tinker. "He's a reg'lar slap-up svell."
"That's no reason at all," said the Sandman. "Many a first-rate svell practises in our line. But he can't be in his right mind to come to such a ken as that, and go on as you mentions."
"As to that I can't say," replied the Tinker; "and it don't much matter, as far as ve're consarned."
"Devil a bit," rejoined the Sandman, "except – you're sure it worn't a sperrit, Tinker. I've heerd say that this crib is haanted, and though I don't fear no livin' man, a ghost's a different sort of customer."
"Vell, you'll find our svell raal flesh and blood, you may depend upon it," replied the Tinker. "So come along, and don't let's be frightenin' ourselves vith ould vimen's tales."
With this they emerged from the pit, crossed the lower part of the field, and entered a narrow thoroughfare, skirted by a few detached houses, which brought them into the Vauxhall Bridge Road.
Here they kept on the side of the street most in shadow, and crossed over whenever they came to a lamp. By-and-by, two watchmen were seen advancing from Belvoir Terrace, and, as the guardians of the night drew near, the ruffians crept into an alley to let them pass. As soon as the coast was clear, they ventured forth, and quickening their pace, came to a row of deserted and dilapidated houses. This was their destination.
The range of habitations in question, more than a dozen in number, were, in all probability, what is vulgarly called "in Chancery," and shared the fate of most property similarly circumstanced. They were in a sad ruinous state – unroofed, without windows and floors. The bare walls were alone left standing, and these were in a very tumble-down condition. These neglected dwellings served as receptacles for old iron, blocks of stone and wood, and other ponderous matters. The aspect of the whole place was so dismal and suspicious, that it was generally avoided by passengers after nightfall.
Skulking along the blank and dreary walls, the Tinker, who was now a little in advance, stopped before a door, and pushing it open, entered the dwelling. His companion followed him.
The extraordinary and incongruous assemblage of objects which met the gaze of the Sandman, coupled with the deserted appearance of the place, produced an effect upon his hardy but superstitious nature.
Looking round, he beheld huge mill-stones, enormous water-wheels, boilers of steam-engines, iron vats, cylinders, cranes, iron pumps of the strangest fashion, a gigantic pair of wooden scales, old iron safes, old boilers, old gas-pipes, old water-pipes, cracked old bells, old bird-cages, old plates of iron, old pulleys, ropes, and rusty chains, huddled and heaped together in the most fantastic disorder. In the midst of the chaotic mass frowned the bearded and colossal head of Neptune, which had once decorated the forepart of a man-of-war. Above it, on a sort of framework, lay the prostrate statue of a nymph, together with a bust of Fox, the nose of the latter being partly demolished, and the eyes knocked in. Above these, three garden divinities laid their heads amicably together. On the left stood a tall Grecian warrior, minus the head and right hand. The whole was surmounted by an immense ventilator, stuck on the end of an iron rod, ascending, like a lightning-conductor, from the steam-engine pump.
Seen by the transient light of the moon, the various objects above enumerated produced a strange effect upon the beholder's imagination. There was a mixture of the grotesque and terrible about them. Nor was the building itself devoid of a certain influence upon his mind. The ragged brickwork, overgrown with weeds, took with him the semblance of a human face, and seemed to keep a wary eye on what was going forward below.
A means of crossing from one side of the building to the other, without descending into the vault beneath, was afforded by a couple of planks; though as the wall on the farther side was some feet higher than that near at hand, and the planks were considerably bent, the passage appeared hazardous.
Glancing round for a moment, the Tinker leaped into the cellar, and, unmasking his lantern, showed a sort of hiding-place, between a bulk of timber and a boiler, to which he invited his companion.
The Sandman jumped down.
"The ale I drank at the 'Two Fighting Cocks' has made me feel drowsy, Tinker," he remarked, stretching himself on the bulk; "I'll just take a snooze. Vake me up if I snore – or ven our sperrit appears."
The Tinker replied in the affirmative; and the other had just become lost to consciousness, when he received a nudge in the side, and his companion whispered – "He's here!"
"Vhere – vhere?" demanded the Sandman, in some trepidation.
"Look up, and you'll see him," replied the other.
Slightly altering his position, the Sandman caught sight of a figure standing upon the planks above them. It was that of a young man. His hat was off, and his features, exposed to the full radiance of the moon, looked deathly pale, and though handsome, had a strange sinister expression. He was tall, slight, and well-proportioned; and the general cut of his attire, the tightly-buttoned, single-breasted coat, together with the moustache upon his lip, gave him a military air.
"He seems a-valkin' in his sleep," muttered the Sandman. "He's a-speakin' to some von unwisible."
"Hush – hush!" whispered the other. "Let's hear wot he's a-sayin'."
"Why have you brought me here?" cried the young man, in a voice so hollow that it thrilled his auditors. "What is to be done?"
"It makes my blood run cold to hear him," whispered the Sandman. "Vot d'ye think he sees?"
"Why do you not speak to me?" cried the young man – "why do you beckon me forward? Well, I obey. I will follow you."
And he moved slowly across the plank.
"See, he's a-goin' through that door," cried the Tinker. "Let's foller him."
"I don't half like it," replied the Sandman, his teeth chattering with apprehension. "We shall see summat as'll take avay our senses."
"Tut!" cried the Tinker; "it's only a sleepy-valker. Wot are you afeerd on?"
With this he vaulted upon the planks, and peeping cautiously out of the open door to which they led, saw the object of his scrutiny enter the adjoining house through a broken window.
Making a sign to the Sandman, who was close at his heels, the Tinker crept forward on all fours, and, on reaching the window, raised himself just sufficiently to command the interior of the dwelling. Unfortunately for him, the moon was at this moment obscured, and he could distinguish nothing except the dusky outline of the various objects with which the place was filled, and which were nearly of the same kind as those of the neighbouring habitation. He listened intently, but not the slightest sound reached his ears.
After some time spent in this way, he began to fear the young man must have departed, when all at once a piercing scream resounded through the dwelling. Some heavy matter was dislodged, with a thundering crash, and footsteps were heard approaching the window.
Hastily retreating to their former hiding-place, the Tinker and his companion had scarcely regained it, when the young man again appeared on the plank. His demeanour had undergone a fearful change. He staggered rather than walked, and his countenance was even paler than before. Having crossed the plank, he took his way along the top of the broken wall towards the door.