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
"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
"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 polar icebergs.
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
"My dear old doctor," cried she, "pray favor me with another
"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
"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
"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
"Dance with me, Clara!" cried Colonel Killigrew.
"No, no, I will be her partner!" shouted Mr. Gascoigne.
"She promised me her hand, fifty years ago!" exclaimed Mr.
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
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.
"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 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 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,
"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 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
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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~