DR. HEIDEGGER'S EXPERIMENT
That very singular man, old Doctor 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
Wycherley. 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 no 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 Wycherley, 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
Wycherley, 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 Doctor Heidegger and all his four 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 friends," said Doctor 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, Doctor 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,
Doctor 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 Doctor 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 Doctor 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 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
"My dear old friends," repeated Doctor Heidegger, "may I reckon on
your aid in performing an exceedingly curious experiment?"
Now Doctor 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 mine 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 similiar nonsense, with which he was constantly in
the habit of pestering his intimates. But without waiting for a reply,
Doctor 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 Doctor 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 Wycherley, with a peevish toss of her head.
"You might as well ask whether an old woman's wrinkled face could ever
"See!" answered Doctor 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 death-like 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
"That is certainly a very pretty deception," said the doctor's
friends; careless, however, for they had witnessed greater miracles at
a conjurer's show; "pray how was it effected?"
"Did you ever hear of the 'Fountain of Youth,'" asked Doctor
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 Wycherley.
"No," answered Doctor 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 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
"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
"You shall judge for yourself, my dear Colonel," replied Doctor
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, Doctor 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 now 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
Doctor 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 Doctor 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 corpselike. 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 Wycherley 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 more!"
"Patience! patience!" quoth Doctor 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 round 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 rights; 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 well-turned
periods. Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a
jolly battle-song, and ringing his glass toward the buxom figure of
the Widow Wycherley. 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 polar icebergs.
As for the Widow Wycherley, 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 moon-like 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 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 Doctor Heidegger. Then all shouted mirthfully, and leaped about
the room. The Widow Wycherley—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.
"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 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
grand-sires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a
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 Doctor Heidegger.
"Come, come, gentlemen!—come, Madame Wycherley!" 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 Doctor 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 rioters resumed their seats, the more readily
because their violent exertions had wearied them, youthful though they
"My poor Sylvia's rose!" ejaculated Doctor Heidegger, holding it in
the light of the sunset clouds; "it appears to be fading again."
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
His guests shivered again. A strange dullness, 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, Doctor Heidegger?
"Are we grown old again so soon?" cried they, dolefully.
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 over
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 Doctor 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 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 Youth.