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The Birthmark, Page 1

Nathaniel Hawthorne




  1843

  TWICE-TOLD TALES

  THE BIRTHMARK

  by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  IN THE LATTER PART of the last century, there lived a man of

  science- an eminent proficient in every branch of natural

  philosophy- who, not long before our story opens, had made

  experience of a spiritual affinity, more attractive than any

  chemical one. He had left his laboratory to the care of an

  assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace-smoke, washed

  the stain of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman

  to become his wife. In those days, when the comparatively recent

  discovery of electricity, and other kindred mysteries of nature,

  seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual

  for the love of science to rival the love of woman, in its depth and

  absorbing energy. The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit,

  and even the heart, might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits

  which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from

  one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher

  should lay his hand on the secret of creative force, and perhaps

  make new worlds for himself. We know not whether Aylmer possessed this

  degree of faith in man's ultimate control over nature. He had

  devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies, ever

  to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young

  wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by

  intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength

  of the latter to its own.

  Such an union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly

  remarkable consequences, and a deeply impressive moral. One day,

  very soon after their marriage, Aylmer sat gazing at his wife, with

  a trouble in his countenance that grew stronger, until he spoke.

  "Georgiana," said he, "has it never occurred to you that the mark

  upon your cheek might be removed?"

  "No, indeed, said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of

  his manner, she blushed deeply. "To tell you the truth, it has been so

  often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might

  be so."

  "Ah, upon another face, perhaps it might," replied her husband.

  "But never on yours! No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect

  from the hand of Nature, that this slightest possible defect- which we

  hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty- shocks me, as being the

  visible mark of earthly imperfection."

  "Shocks you, my husband!" cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first

  reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. "Then

  why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks

  you!"

  To explain this conversation, it must be mentioned, that, in the

  centre of Georgiana's left cheek, there was a singular mark, deeply

  interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face. In

  the usual state of her complexion- a healthy, though delicate bloom-

  the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined

  its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed, it

  gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the

  triumphant rush of blood, that bathed the whole cheek with its

  brilliant glow. But, if any shifting emotion caused her to turn

  pale, there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what

  Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. Its shape bore

  not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest

  pigmy size. Georgiana's lovers were wont to say, that some fairy, at

  her birth-hour, had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek, and

  left this impress there, in token of the magic endowments that were to

  give her such sway over all hearts. Many a desperate swain would

  have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the

  mysterious hand. It must not be concealed, however, that the

  impression wrought by this fairy sign-manual varied exceedingly,

  according to the difference of temperament in the beholders. Some

  fastidious persons- but they were exclusively of her own sex- affirmed

  that the Bloody Hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the

  effect of Georgiana's beauty, and rendered her countenance even

  hideous. But it would be as reasonable to say, that one of those small

  blue stains, which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble,

  would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster. Masculine observers,

  if the birthmark did not heighten their admiration, contented

  themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one

  living specimen of ideal loveliness, without the semblance of a

  flaw. After his marriage- for he thought little or nothing of the

  matter before- Aylmer discovered that this was the case with himself.

  Had she been less beautiful- if Envy's self could have found

  aught else to sneer at- he might have felt his affection heightened by

  the prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost,

  now stealing forth again, and glimmering to and fro with every pulse

  of emotion that throbbed within her heart. But, seeing her otherwise

  so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable,

  with every moment of their united lives. It was the fatal flaw of

  humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably

  on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and

  finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. The

  Crimson Hand expressed the ineludible gripe, in which mortality

  clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them

  into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom

  their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as

  the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death,

  Aylmer's sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark

  a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever

  Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.

  At all the seasons which should have been their happiest, he

  invariably, and without intending it- nay, in spite of a purpose to

  the contrary- reverted to this one disastrous topic. Trifling as it at

  first appeared, it so connected itself with innumerable trains of

  thought, and modes of feeling, that it became the central point of

  all. With the morning twilight, Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife's

  face, and recognized the symbol of imperfection; and when they sat

  together at the evening hearth, his eyes wandered stealthily to her

  cheek, and beheld, flickering with the blaze of the wood fire, the

  spectral Hand that wrote mortality where he woul
d fain have

  worshipped. Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze. It needed

  but a glance, with the peculiar expression that his face often wore,

  to change the roses of her cheek into a death-like paleness, amid

  which the Crimson Hand was brought strongly out, like a bas-relief

  of ruby on the whitest marble.

  Late, one night, when the lights were growing dim, so as hardly

  to betray the stain on the poor wife's cheek, she herself, for the

  first time, voluntarily took up the subject.

  "Do you remember, my dear Aylmer," said she, with a feeble

  attempt at a smile- "have you any recollection of a dream, last night,

  about this odious Hand?"

  "None! none whatever!" replied Aylmer, starting; but then he

  added in a dry, cold tone, affected for the sake of concealing the

  real depth of his emotion: "I might well dream of it; for, before I

  fell asleep, it had taken a pretty firm hold of my fancy."

  "And you did dream of it," continued Georgiana, hastily; for she

  dreaded lest a gush of tears should interrupt what she had to say-

  "A terrible dream! I wonder that you can forget it. Is it possible

  to forget this one expression? 'It is in her heart now- we must have

  it out!' Reflect, my husband; for by all means I would have you recall

  that dream."

  The mind is in a sad state, when Sleep, the all-involving, cannot

  confine her spectres within the dim region of her sway, but suffers

  them to break forth, affrighting this actual life with secrets that

  perchance belong to a deeper one. Aylmer now remembered his dream.

  He had fancied himself, with his servant Aminadab, attempting an

  operation for the removal of the birthmark. But the deeper went the

  knife, the deeper sank the Hand, until at length its tiny grasp

  appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart; whence, however,

  her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.

  When the dream had shaped itself perfectly in his memory, Aylmer

  sat in his wife's presence with a guilty feeling. Truth often finds

  its way to the mind close-muffled in robes of sleep, and then speaks

  with uncompromising directness of matters in regard to which we

  practise an unconscious self-deception, during our waking moments.

  Until now, he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired

  by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in

  his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace.

  "Aylmer," resumed Georgiana, solemnly, "I know not what may be

  the cost to both of us, to rid me of this fatal birthmark. Perhaps its

  removal may cause cureless deformity. Or, it may be, the stain goes as

  deep as life itself. Again, do we know that there is a possibility, on

  any terms, of unclasping the firm gripe of this little Hand, which was

  laid upon me before I came into the world?"

  "Dearest Georgiana, I have spent much thought upon the subject,"

  hastily interrupted Aylmer- "I am convinced of the perfect

  practicability of its removal."

  "If there be the remotest possibility of it," continued

  Georgiana, "let the attempt be made, at whatever risk. Danger is

  nothing to me; for life- while this hateful mark makes me the object

  of your horror and disgust- life is a burthen which I would fling down

  with joy. Either remove this dreadful Hand, or take my wretched

  life! You have deep science! All the world bears witness of it. You

  have achieved great wonders! Cannot you remove this little, little

  mark, which I cover with the tips of two small fingers! Is this beyond

  your power, for the sake of your own peace, and to save your poor wife

  from madness?"

  "Noblest- dearest- tenderest wife!" cried Aylmer, rapturously.

  "Doubt not my power. I have already given this matter the deepest

  thought- thought which might almost have enlightened me to create a

  being less perfect than yourself. Georgiana, you have led me deeper

  than ever into the heart of science. I feel myself fully competent

  to render this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and then, most

  beloved, what will be my triumph, when I shall have corrected what

  Nature left imperfect, in her fairest work! Even Pygmalion, when his

  sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will

  be."

  "It is resolved, then," said Georgiana, faintly smiling- "And,

  Aylmer, spare me not, though you should find the birthmark take refuge

  in my heart at last."

  Her husband tenderly kissed her cheek- her right cheek- not that

  which bore the impress of the Crimson Hand.

  The next day, Aylmer apprised his wife of a plan that he had

  formed, whereby he might have opportunity for the intense thought

  and constant watchfulness which the proposed operation would

  require; while Georgiana, likewise, would enjoy the perfect repose

  essential to its success. They were to seclude themselves in the

  extensive apartments occupied by Aylmer as a laboratory, and where,

  during his toilsome youth, he had made discoveries in the elemental

  powers of Nature, that had roused the admiration of all the learned

  societies in Europe. Seated calmly in this laboratory, the pale

  philosopher had investigated the secrets of the highest

  cloud-region, and of the profoundest mines; he had satisfied himself

  of the causes that kindled and kept alive the fires of the volcano;

  and had explained the mystery of fountains, and how it is that they

  gush forth, some so bright and pure, and others with such rich

  medicinal virtues, from the dark bosom of the earth. Here, too, at

  an earlier period, he had studied the wonders of the human frame,

  and attempted to fathom the very process by which Nature assimilates

  all her precious influences from earth and air, and from the spiritual

  world, to create and foster Man, her masterpiece. The latter

  pursuit, however, Aylmer had long laid aside, in unwilling recognition

  of the truth, against which all seekers sooner or later stumble,

  that our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently

  working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep

  her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us

  nothing but results. She permits us indeed to mar, but seldom to mend,

  and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make. Now, however,

  Aylmer resumed these half-forgotten investigations; not, of course,

  with such hopes or wishes as first suggested them; but because they

  involved much physiological truth, and lay in the path of his proposed

  scheme for the treatment of Georgiana.

  As he led her over the threshold of the laboratory, Georgiana was

  cold and tremulous. Aylmer looked cheerfully into her face, with

  intent to reassure her, but was so startled with the intense glow of

  the birthmark upon the whiteness of her cheek, that he could not

  restrain a strong convulsive shudder. His wife fainted.

  "Aminadab! Aminadab!" shouted Aylmer, stamping violently on the

  floor.

  Forthwith, there issued from an inner apartment a man of low

  statu
re, but bulky frame, with shaggy hair hanging about his visage,

  which was grimed with the vapors of the furnace. This personage had

  been Aylmer's under-worker during his whole scientific career, and was

  admirably fitted for that office by his great mechanical readiness,

  and the skill with which, while incapable of comprehending a single

  principle, he executed all the practical details of his master's

  experiments. With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky

  aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that encrusted him, he seemed

  to represent man's physical nature; while Aylmer's slender figure, and

  pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual

  element.

  "Throw open the door of the boudoir, Aminadab," said Aylmer, "and

  burn a pastille."

  "Yes, master," answered Aminadab, looking intently at the

  lifeless form of Georgiana; and then he muttered to himself: "If she

  were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark."

  When Georgiana recovered consciousness, she found herself breathing

  an atmosphere of penetrating fragrance, the gentle potency of which

  had recalled her from her death-like faintness. The scene around her

  looked like enchantment. Aylmer had converted those smoky, dingy,

  sombre rooms, where he had spent his brightest years in recondite

  pursuits, into a series of beautiful apartments, not unfit to be the

  secluded abode of a lovely woman. The walls were hung with gorgeous

  curtains, which imparted the combination of grandeur and grace, that

  no other species of adornment can achieve; and as they fell from the

  ceiling to the floor, their rich and ponderous folds, concealing all

  angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite

  space. For aught Georgiana knew, it might be a pavilion among the

  clouds. And Aylmer, excluding the sunshine, which would have

  interfered with his chemical processes, had supplied its place with

  perfumed lamps, emitting flames of various hue, but all uniting in a

  soft, empurpled radiance. He now knelt by his wife's side, watching

  her earnestly, but without alarm; for he was confident in his science,

  and felt that he could draw a magic circle round her, within which

  no evil might intrude.

  "Where am I? Ah, I remember!" said Georgiana, faintly; and she

  placed her hand over her cheek, to hide the terrible mark from her

  husband's eyes.

  "Fear not, dearest!" exclaimed he. "Do not shrink from me!

  Believe me, Georgiana, I even rejoice in this single imperfection,

  since it will be such a rapture to remove it."

  "Oh, spare me!" sadly replied his wife. "Pray do not look at it

  again. I never can forget that convulsive shudder."

  In order to soothe Georgiana, and, as it were, to release her

  mind from the burthen of actual things, Aylmer now put in practice

  some of the light and playful secrets which science had taught him

  among its profounder lore. Airy figures, absolutely bodiless ideas,

  and forms of unsubstantial beauty, came and danced before her,

  imprinting their momentary footsteps on beams of light. Though she had

  some indistinct idea of the method of these optical phenomena, still

  the illusion was almost perfect enough to warrant the belief that

  her husband possessed sway over the spiritual world. Then again,

  when she felt a wish to look forth from her seclusion, immediately, as

  if her thoughts were answered, the procession of external existence

  flitted across a screen. The scenery and the figures of actual life

  were perfectly represented, but with that bewitching, yet

  indescribable difference, which always makes a picture, an image, or a

  shadow, so much more attractive than the original. When wearied of

  this, Aylmer bade her cast her eyes upon a vessel, containing a

  quantity of earth. She did so, with little interest at first, but

  was soon startled, to perceive the germ of a plant, shooting upward

  from the soil. Then came the slender stalk- the leaves gradually