Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The deadly affinity - Part 2

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I found Fred Holdsworth located in one of the many streets leading from the Strand towards the river. He had secured rooms for me in the same house; and although I did not like the place (it was noisy all day in front with heavy carts; and noisy all night behind with cats), still, as he approved of it, and as I wanted company, I stayed, and was soon reconciled. I rapidly became immersed in my studies, and Holdsworth seemed also immersed in pleasure and all the jollities of medical student life. We were very unlike in disposition, and probably for that very reason were the better friends. We never had the semblance of a quarrel, and consequently lived on very comfortably. He could not comprehend my wish to study chemistry only for the love of science. When in his sensible moments, however, I could see that he was very fond of his profession, and he was continually advising me to enter myself as a student of medicine and surgery. But I had no taste for therapeutics.

Many of his studies, however, led him in the same direction as myself, and at last he had to undergo the ordeal of some examination which he was desirous of passing creditably; and to do him justice, he worked very hard. He used to sit in the house at night (a very unusual thing for him), and pore over his books, while I, on the other side of the table, was arranging my notes, or jotting down memoranda of the experiments which I had completed during the day. He found me of some assistance to him in his chemical studies, and was in the habit of consulting me at times. I remember a conversation that we had one evening which led in the end to very strange and awful results, brought me misery and pain, and led me close to the gate of death.

We had been conversing on that mysterious and fascinating portion of chemistry which relates to attraction and repulsion, chemical combinations and decompositions and elective affinity. I recollect now that I startled myself by some of the strange fancies which I indulged in.

Holdsworth had confessed that he had been perplexed in trying to class together several substances which had been placed before him in a mixed solution. He could not arrange the acids and bases to his satisfaction, and complained bitterly that he believed it was all empiricism to say that one could tell accurately which substances were in conjunction. After trying to explain the subject to him, I remember saying that if he would listen to me for a short time, he might be able to gain some hints which might be useful to him.

“You must have observed,” I said, “that some chemical substances are of such a nature that when brought into contact, they immediately lay hold of one another, so to speak. They unite together ultimately, and form a substance entirely different from either of the original. The impulse by which these bodies join together is called chemical attraction, or affinity—names given, I presume, for want of a better. Now, it appears to me as if these inorganic, inanimate substances possessed a sort of spirit—an intelligence—a will of their own. Don’t shake your head so disbelievingly, but hear me out. Take the case of elective affinity, which, by its very title, gives to these so-called dead substances the property of a power of choosing. As an example of what I mean generally let me remind you of a very common mineral, chalk, or carbonate of lime; in it a solid substance, lime, is combined with a colourless gas called carbonic acid. Now, the instant that another acid, say sulphuric acid, is brought in contact with chalk, what is the result? The new acid and the lime spring to each other and combine together at once, while the colourless carbonic acid gas is thrown off into the air. What power is this, that the new acid possesses? What makes the lime throw up its alliance with the gas? I believe myself that it is intimately connected with a law that exists throughout creation both in the animate and inanimate world,—that opposite natures should be drawn together. Inorganic substances which have the strongest “attraction” for one another, are those which differ most entirely in their qualities. You may take acids and alkalies as an example. Look around, too, in the world of your acquaintances, and do you not everywhere see persons of opposite natures strongly attracted to one another, especially in the cases of friends, lovers, or husbands and wives? I do not mean to say that we do not see the contrary sometimes, and meet with cases of like joining to like. Even in chemistry we find that some acids when mixed form a more powerful acid than when separate. But still I hold that throughout the organic and inorganic worlds, opposite natures attract each other and combine the most strongly.”

“Oh, Charlie, Charlie,” said Holdsworth, “you are getting quite beyond the subject. I should make the Professor stare with astonishment if I were to come out with such fantastic notions. But I could not help thinking, while you were speaking, that Old Walstein would just suit you.”

“Old Walstein! Who is Old Walstein?”

“Nobody seems to know, but he is a very clever old fellow,—Doctor Walstein I believe he calls himself. He has taken out a card for practical chemistry at our place, and works all day in our laboratory. He is deep in organic chemistry, and has prepared, while he has been with us, a splendid collection of rare crystals, both from animal and vegetable substances. He is very talkative, and has taken a great fancy to me, but there is something about the look of his eyes that I don’t like. In fact, there is no ‘elective affinity,’ as you call it, between us, as far as I am concerned. He was speaking to me only the other day, in the same strain as you have been talking to me. Would you like to know him? I’ll introduce you.”

“I should like to know him very much,—what is he? where does he live?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea what his occupation is; I have, however, a notion that, like you, he is studying chemistry merely for the love of it. As to where he lives, I believe it is somewhere in Wales, but at present he is staying in Piccadilly—Albemarle Street, number—”

“You seem to know his address pretty well.”

“Well, I saw his daughter—that is—I mean, I saw his carriage stop there one day.”

“Oh, he has a daughter, has he? Well, you need not blush so, Fred.”

“I’m not blushing. I have only seen her once or twice. The doctor’s carriage used to come for him in the afternoon, and I have seen a young lady in it, who I fancy is his daughter. She is very pretty—fair with blue eyes, but she seems dreadfully delicate, for she is always wrapped up in furs, even in this warm weather. I’ve not seen her for the last month, either in the carriage or at the window of the house—”

“Oh, you have been looking out for her, have you? Come—come, don’t begin to blush again,—if you will allow me to go with you to the laboratory to-morrow, I should like to meet this doctor friend of yours.”

“I shall be happy to introduce you, and I think you will get on well together,” said Fred, and we dropped the subject.

The next afternoon I called at the laboratory according to appointment. It was a large dingily-lighted apartment, looking out on the Thames under arches. There were wooden benches fitted up with shelves filled with bottles and phials, retorts, lamps, crucibles, and all the paraphernalia required in the study of chemistry. The room was full of young students, from the midst of whom Holdsworth emerged and led me forward to introduce me to Doctor Walstein.

The old man seemed quite out of place among the crowd of youthful students around him. His appearance struck me as being very peculiar. He was dressed in a coarse dark blouse, made with tight fitting sleeves, and fastened round the waist with a leathern strap. He wore a black velvet skull-cap, from under which his snow white hair appeared. But his face impressed me the most strongly. I was both attracted and repulsed by it—attracted by the evident fire of genius which glowed in its every feature, and repulsed by the expression of his eyes, which produced an indescribable feeling of fear and submission. His skin was bronzed; evidently by much exposure whilst travelling, and his small keen grey eyes scintillated with a strange light under his overhanging white eyebrows. His nose was long, thin, and aquiline, and his massive forehead was deeply furrowed between the eyebrows, as we often see in men who have suffered deeply or studied much and painfully. The lower part of his face was concealed by a thick white moustache and beard; but he smiled as Holdsworth introduced me, and took my hand with seeming cordiality.

Even at this lapse of time I can remember that smile and that pressure of the hand, vividly. Every feature in his face smiled, but his eyes did not change their fixed, piercing look, and, as he continued to talk upon various subjects, they seemed to hold me under a fascination, for which afterwards I vainly endeavoured to account. He showed me several exquisite crystalline substances and chemical preparations, each inclosed in a curiously carved wooden case. These, he informed me, he had produced while he had been in the laboratory, and that he had come to London in order to prepare them, as they were intended to assist him in a series of experiments, on which he was engaged in the country. He said, also, that his stay in town would not be long, and giving me his address, told me that he would be happy to see me in the evening, whenever I could call upon him.

I left the place without even speaking to Holdsworth. I was lost in thought, and my mind seemed overcome with an unaccountable presentiment of evil. I tried to shake off this feeling, but found that it was impossible to do so,—the glittering eyes of the old man seemed to haunt me. When I got to my rooms I began to consider what there was about the Doctor that had produced so singular and disagreeable an effect upon me. One thing I thought that I detected, namely, that Fred Holdsworth had evidently been speaking to him about some of my fanciful ideas with regard to the connection between organic and inorganic nature. This I presumed, not from any direct remark from the Doctor, but rather from observations that he had made to me, seemingly by chance, while showing to me his chemical preparations. I also remembered, with a shudder, that nearly all the substances which he displayed were virulent poisons. When I pondered on this fact, again the shadow of impending evil fell upon me, and once more I seemed to hear the sweet, low voice of Mary Maurice whispering at my side, “Beware of poisons! beware of poisons!” I started from my reverie, almost expecting to find her in the room, but I found it was all the work of imagination. Still the remembrance of my loved cousin was enough to dissipate my gloom. I endeavoured to cast off the evil foreboding which overshadowed me, and I succeeded. What was Doctor Walstein to me, or I to Doctor Walstein, that I should care for him? I declared to myself that I would have nothing more to do with him or his poisonous experiments, and when Holdsworth arrived in the evening, he found me in better spirits than usual.

“Well, Charlie,” said he, “what do you think of our Doctor? I can assure you that he has taken a strong liking to you; indeed, he told me to tell you that you must not forget to call upon him.”

“To tell you the truth, Fred, I have no great partiality for your old friend, and have no desire to meet him again.”

“I think, however, that you ought to call, if it was only to see his daughter. She is really a most beautiful girl,—and you see—knowing that we live together,—you might get an invitation for me on another occasion.”

“Oh! that’s how the land lies, is it, Fred? I thought there was a little bit of self in it; but you must excuse me. I cannot explain my reasons to you, but my wish is, to avoid Doctor Walstein if possible; besides, you cannot care very much for a girl whom you have never spoken to.”

Holdsworth was a handsome, strong young fellow, but he had one weakness, which was, that he could not conceal a blush. He turned very red at my last remark, and was silent.

After a week had elapsed, I received a note from the Doctor, inviting me to his lodgings on the following evening, and as I had really no valid excuse for declining, I went, to the great envy of my companion. But I saw that his envy was tempered with the hope that my visit would result advantageously for himself.

An evil-faced servant in black opened the door for me, and told me to walk upstairs, where I found Doctor Walstein, who received me cordially, almost affectionately. He was alone, and we immediately began to converse about ordinary topics. He had evidently seen much, and studied much, and on every subject he spoke shrewdly, and with a touch of satire that suited my youthful taste exactly. I did not perceive it at first, but I found out afterwards, that notwithstanding his light and fluent mode of guiding the conversation, he was drawing me out, and making me speak of subjects that I would not have ventured upon with anyone else. He had even got me to speak in somewhat glowing terms about my Yorkshire home and my Uncle Mark. In doing this, however, I felt that I was saying too much before a complete stranger, and I became silent.

The shades of evening filled the room, and the old man was sitting with his back to the window, so I could not see the expression on his face, but I felt that those piercing grey eyes of his were bent upon me, with their strange, fascinating glance. I was roused by the Doctor informing me that coffee was awaiting us in the adjoining room. He put his arm through mine, and opened the folding-doors leading into the inner apartment. A lamp in the middle of the table lighted the room brightly, and I saw a young girl of the most dazzling beauty, who stood looking at us with a startled expression. It was only for an instant or two, for the Doctor said sternly:

“How is this, Minna? You informed me that you were so unwell, that you would remain in your own room!”

She murmured some words in reply which I could not distinguish, and the doctor turned to me, asking me to excuse him for an instant, and then passed through the folding-doors, closing them behind him, and leaving me alone in the outer room.

Even in the darkened apartment, rendered more dark by the glimpse of light afforded by the opening of the doors, the beautiful figure of that young girl seemed still before me,—a mental picture that appeared indelible. I do not know what length of time elapsed,—it seemed an age,—when the Doctor returned, and invited me into the inner room. He was profuse in his apologies. His daughter was seriously unwell, and he had cautioned her to take care of herself. She was unaware that a stranger was present. He hoped, however, that on my next visit, his daughter would be able to join us. I noticed, as he spoke, that the old man seemed agitated, but he proceeded to say, more calmly, as we sat down to our coffee, that his daughter had lived till within the last year in Southern Europe, and that he feared the treacherous climate of England had made inroads on her health. I said that from the slight glance I had had, his daughter did not appear delicate.

“Ah,” said he, “that is one of the deceptions practised by that fiend Consumption in this country, when he has made sure of his victim.”

Was it reality, or was it fancy on my part, that made me think there was a grim smile on the old man’s face as he said these words? His eyes belied it, and his beard concealed it—but most assuredly I thought that he smiled. I know, however, that I felt rather faint at the time, for there was a strange perfume in the air, like the faint scent of geranium leaves. I glanced round the room, but could not see any flowers. Gradually the perfume died away.

“You may think it unfeminine,” the Doctor continued, “but my daughter is well versed in our favourite science—if you will allow me to call it so; from her earliest years she has been my companion, and as she showed a taste for the study of chemistry, I encouraged it, and in many of my researches and discoveries she has been my copartner, and often, indeed, my guide and director.

I was astonished at what he said, but I remarked that the influence of a loving daughter and a kind voice must go far to cheer the dark and intricate paths of science which he was following.

“You are right, my young friend—you are right,” he said, with a seemingly broken voice. But again I saw, or fancied I saw, a grim smile playing about his features.

The evening passed away pleasantly enough for me. The Doctor’s great experience, the number of countries he had visited, and the varied universities in which he had studied, together with the unusual direction in which his studies had tended, held me entranced while listening to him. I may divide the topics of our conversation, or rather of his instruction, into three parts. First, the subject which seemed to afford him the greatest pleasure and interest—namely, the mysterious principle of life—the vis vitæ. Secondly, he touched lightly but lucidly upon a subject which he knew interested me—the mutual and reciprocal laws which govern the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. Lastly, he astounded but charmed me by almost confessing that he was no unsubstantial believer in the theories of the alchemists, both in regard to the elixir of life and the transmutation of metals.

It was late when I left Doctor Walstein, but I did not do so without promising to visit him on the following evening. Holdsworth was disappointed that I could give him so little information about Miss Walstein, and looked very sceptical when I told him that she was conversant with the science of chemistry, declaring that it was utterly unnatural and impossible.

I went to the Doctor’s house the next evening—in fact, I was there every night for a week, and became more and more attracted by my new acquaintance on every visit. Let me be understood: I neither liked nor respected the old man. He treated every subject of morality or virtue that I had been in the habit of reverencing with the utmost levity. But I fancied that I saw my danger, and thought myself secure. The desire for his acquaintance was intellectual, not moral—it was a friendship of the head, and not of the heart.

About a week had passed away, and I went as usual to Albemarle Street. I had received through the post that morning from Cousin Polly a rose-bud which had bloomed out freshly after being placed in water. This rose-bud I had placed in the breast of my coat before my visit. The servant at the door told me that Doctor Walstein had not yet returned, but that he had requested me to wait for him. I had noticed one peculiarity about the Doctor’s household, which was that there seemed to be only one servant, and that was the evil-faced man in black who opened the door. I never saw any female domestic about the establishment, and the evil-faced man only admitted me, he never entered the apartments.

I went up-stairs alone, and passed into the drawing-room. Miss Walstein was sitting on a sofa near the window. I knew her in an instant, although I had only seen her hurriedly on the night of my first visit. Lovely as she had then appeared in that momentary glance, she appeared even more so now in the softened twilight. Her light golden hair, which was very luxuriant, was drawn back from her forehead, and clustered gracefully round her beautifully formed head. Her features were small and regular, and her complexion was absolutely brilliant. Her large blue eyes, which were fixed upon me, seemed however to be lighted up with the same strange fire that rendered her father’s so remarkable. She wore a rich silk dress trimmed with white fur round the throat and also round the sleeves, out of which her small perfectly shaped hands peeped, rivalling the down itself in their whiteness. She rose slightly, pointing to a chair at some distance from where she was, and begged me to be seated.

“My father purposes to leave London in a few days, and has many arrangements to make before leaving. You will therefore have to put up with my company this evening, Mr. Haughton, until he returns.”

Of course I expressed the pleasure I had in meeting her, and congratulated her on her recovery. She said that her father was always imagining that she was unwell, but that she considered that it was only the effect of the confined London air. As soon as she got into Wales again she would be certain to recover. After that, we spoke upon many subjects. I found that she had read considerably, was well acquainted with the topics of the day, and could sustain a conversation with spirit. But another circumstance at this time began to attract my attention.

When I first entered the room I perceived that the air was faintly perfumed with a scent like that of geranium leaves. I recognised it as being the same perfume which had pervaded the inner room on my first visit, and, as before, I looked round vainly for any trace of flowers, except the rose-bud in my breast. While I remained in the room the strength of the aroma did not seem to increase, but at times it made me feel faint and giddy.

My fair companion noticed that I raised my hand once or twice to my forehead, and said in a slightly faltering tone that her father was in the habit of burning perfumes in the room—that she was accustomed to them—and that she trusted their traces did not annoy me.

I met her eyes as she spoke, for there was something in her tone that startled me. She looked steadfastly at me, but I did not like her expression. A feeling of distrust shot through me: but at this moment the Doctor entered the room.

He was cheerful and even gay and brilliant in his discourse, and his presence seemed to communicate a life and energy to our conversation. Once more he turned the discussion to his favourite subject of abstruse, mystical science. The very tones of his voice seemed to fascinate me, and I observed the countenance of his daughter brighten up as he spoke. She seemed the most interested of all, and kept her eyes fixed upon his face as if enthralled by his words. But when she spoke herself, she perfectly astounded me by her weird and fanciful ideas. I scarcely spoke, but was deeply interested in what they said. The air of the room still remained perfumed, and doubtless acted upon my brain, so that I listened to their wild flights of fancy into the region of conjecture with comparative calmness. I feel now that I could not have done so under ordinary circumstances.

An occurrence took place, however, which was sufficient to call me back to rationality. The room had become rather dark, and Doctor Walstein, after lighting the lamp, drew from his breast-pocket one of the small, carved, wooden cases which I had observed him using when he was working in the laboratory. He opened it and held it out for my inspection. There was an inner glass lid, and through this I could see that the case was filled with pink cotton-wool, in the midst of which was a tuft of delicate crystalline needles of a bright green colour.

“What is this, Doctor?” I inquired.

“You have no doubt observed, Mr. Haughton, that I am unusually elated this evening. I have cause to be so, for I have to-day not only completed the whole of the chemical preparations which were necessary for a great secret discovery that I am resolved to make, but I have also succeeded in producing a substance which I have been vainly attempting to arrive at for years. You see it in that case which you hold. It is the pure, essential principle of the poison of one of the most fatal snakes—the Cobra di Capello!”

“Good heavens! Doctor Walstein!” I exclaimed, putting the case far from me on the table, “all your practical chemistry seems to tend in the direction of poisons.”

“Young man, my aim—my object—my ambition is to fathom the deep secret of Life; to trace its origin, and to analyse its nature. I see in the future that I am destined to discover the wondrous Elixir of Life. I have already arrived at great results, but before I can go further I must penetrate far into the dark and mysterious secrets of Death. These deadly poisons which you seem to look upon with such loathing, are the stepping-stones by which I intend to arrive at the nature of Life itself.”

As he spoke these words his daughter smiled, and taking up the case in her hands, gazed fixedly on the bright green poison. As she continued to look at it, I observed that her eyes lost their strange light, and appeared even soft and gentle. She seemed absolutely to look upon the deadly crystals with love and tenderness, whilst I could not suppress a shudder of horror. My brain, too, was overburdened with the delicate, but subtle and oppressive odour which pervaded the chamber, and I rose to go. They both pressed me to stay, but seeing that I was most anxious to go, Miss Walstein bowed her farewell to me from the sofa, from which she had never risen, and the Doctor descended with me to the front door.

When I got into the open air I was almost unconscious for a second or two, but the cool air soon revived me, and I proceeded homewards. But whenever I allowed my recollection to dwell on the scene that I had left, I was seized with an uncontrollable feeling of terror. Notwithstanding the old man’s extraordinary knowledge and ability, and his daughter’s beauty and intelligence, my mind was filled with suspicion and distrust. Once more I made the resolution that my path and Doctor Walstein’s should be separate. I felt that our intercourse could tend to no good result, and again the unheeded warnings of my betrothed recalled themselves to my thoughts.

Ah! why had I ever ceased to remember them? As this self-reproach struck me I looked at the rose-bud in my breast, that had bloomed so freshly a few hours before. It was withered and dead!