The Elixir of Youth

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The Elixir of Youth  (1913) 
by Albert Bigelow Paine

From The Century Magazine, May 1913

Carringford stared a moment or two at the smooth, clean-cut features and slender, black figure of his visitor before replying. "I beg your pardon." he repeated, "you mentioned, I believe, that you heard me thinking as you were passing on the street below?" The slender man in black bowed. "Wishing that you might be young again, that you might have another try at the game of life. I believe that was the exact thought."


Author of "The Bread-Line," "Elizabeth," "Mark Twain: A Biography," etc.

THEN, it being no use to try. Carringford let the hand holding the book drop into his lap and from his lap to his side. His eyes stared grimly into the fire, which was dropping to embers.

"I suppose I 'm getting old," he said; "that s the reason. The books are as good as ever they were—the old ones, at any rate. Only they don't interest me any more. It 's because I don't believe in them as I did. I see through them all. I begin taking them to pieces as soon as I begin to read, and of course romance and glamour won't stand dissection. Yes, it 's because I 'm getting old; that 's it. Those things go with youth. Why, I remember when I would give up a dinner for a new book, when a fresh magazine gave me a positive thrill. I lost that somewhere, somehow; I wonder why. It is a ghastly loss. If I had to live my life over, I would at least try not to destroy my faith in books. It seems to me now just about the one thing worth keeping for old age."

The book slipped from the hand hanging at his side. The embers broke, and, falling together, sent up a tongue of renewed flame. Carringford's mind was slipping into by-paths.

"If one only might live his life over!" he muttered. "If one might be young again!"

He was not thinking of books now. A procession of ifs had come filing out of the past—a sequence of opportunities where, with the privilege of choice, he had chosen the wrong, the irrevocable thing.

"If one only might try again!" he whispered. "If one only might! Good God!" Something like a soft footfall on the rug caused him to turn suddenly. "I beg your pardon," he said, rising. "I did not hear you. I was dreaming, I suppose."

A man stood before him, apparently a stranger.

"I came quietly," he said. "I did not wish to break in upon your thought. It interested me, and I felt that I—might be of help."

Carringford was trying to recall the man's face—a studious, clean-shaven face,—to associate it and the black-garbed, slender figure with a name. So many frequented his apartment, congenial, idle fellows who came and went, and brought their friends if they liked, that Carringford was not surprised to be confronted by one he could not place. He was about to extend his hand, confessing a lack of memory, when his visitor spoke again.

"No," he said in a gentle, composed voice, "you would not know it if you heard it. I have never been here before. I should not have come now only that, as I was passing below, I heard you thinking you would like to be young again—to live your life over, as they say."

Carringford stared a moment or two at the smooth, clean-cut features and slender, black figure of his visitor before replying. He was used to many curious things, and not many things surprised him.

"I beg your pardon." he repeated, "you mentioned, I believe, that you heard me thinking as you were passing on the street below?"

The slender man in black bowed.

"Wishing that you might be young again, that you might have another try at the game of life. I believe that was the exact thought."

"And, may I ask, is it your habit to hear persons think?"

"When their thoughts interest me, yes, as one might overhear an interesting conversation."

Carringford had slipped back into his chair and motioned his guest to another. Wizard or unbalanced, he was likely to prove a diversion. When the cigars were pushed in his direction, he took one, lighted it, and smoked silently. Carringford smoked, too, and looked into the fire.

"You were saying," he began presently, "that you pick up interesting thought-currents as one might overhear bits of conversation. I suppose you find the process quite as simple as hearing in the ordinary way. Only it seems a little—well, unusual. Of course that is only my opinion."

The slender man in black assented with a slight nod.

"The faculty is not unusual; it is universal. It is only undeveloped, uncontrolled, as yet. It was the same with electricity a generation ago. Now it has become our most useful servant."

Carringford gave his visitor an intent look. This did not seem the inconsequential phrasing of an addled brain.

"You interest me," he said. "Of course I have heard a good deal of such things, and all of us have had manifestations; but I think I have never before met any one who was able to control—to demonstrate, if you will—this particular force. It is a sort of mental wireless, I suppose—wordless, if you will permit the term."

"Yes, the true wireless, the thing we are approaching—speech of mind to mind. Our minds are easily attuned to waves of mutual interest. When one vibrates, another in the same wave will answer to it. We are just musical instruments: a chord struck on the piano answers on the attuned harp. Any strong mutual interest forms the key-note of mental harmonic vibration. We need only develop the mental ear to hear, the mental eye to see."

The look of weariness returned to Carringford's face. These were trite, familiar phrases.

"I seem to have heard most of those things before," he said. Then, as his guest smoked silently, he added, "I am only wondering how it came that my thought of the past and its hopelessness should have struck a chord or key-note which would send you up my stair."

The slender, black figure rose and took a turn across the room, pausing in front of Carringford.

"You were saying as I passed your door that you would live your life over if you could. You were thinking: 'If one might be young again! If one only might try again! If only one might!' That was your thought, I believe."

Carringford nodded.

"That was my thought," he said, "through whatever magic you came by it."

"And may I ask if there was a genuine desire behind that thought? Did you mean that you would indeed live your life over if you could? That, if the opportunity were given to tread the backward way to a new beginning, you would accept it?"

There was an intensity of interest in the man's quiet voice, an eager gleam in his half-closed eyes, a hovering expectancy in the attitude of the slender, black figure. Carringford had the feeling of having been swept backward into a time of sorcery and incantation. He vaguely wondered if he had not fallen asleep. Well, he would follow the dream through.

"Yes, I would live my life over if I could," he said. "I have made a poor mess of it this time. I could play the game better, I know, if the Fates would but deal me a new hand. If I could start young again, with all the opportunities of youth, I would not so often choose the poorer thing."

The long, white fingers of Carringford's guest had slipped into his waistcoat pocket. They now drew forth a small, bright object and held it to the light. Carringford saw that it was a vial, filled with a clear, golden liquid that shimmered and quivered in the light and was never still. Its possessor regarded it for a moment through half-closed lashes, then placed it on a table under the lamp, where it continued to glint and tremble.

Carringford watched it, fascinated, half hypnotized by the marvel of its gleam. Surely there was magic in this. The man was an alchemist, a sort of reincarnation from some forgotten day.

Carringford's guest also watched the vial. The room seemed to have grown very still. Then after a time his thin lips parted.

"If you are really willing to admit failure," he began slowly, carefully selecting each word, "if behind your wish there lies a sincere desire to go back to youth and begin life over, if that desire is strong enough to grow into a purpose, if you are ready to make the experiment, there you will find the means. That vial contains the very essence of vitality, the true elixir of youth. It is not a magic philter, as I see by your thought you believe. There is no magic. Whatever is, belongs to science. I am not a necromancer, but a scientist. From boyhood my study has been to solve the subtler secrets of life. I have solved many such. I have solved at last the secret of life itself. It is contained in that golden vial, an elixir to renew the tissues, to repair the cells, of the wasting body. Taken as I direct, you will no longer grow old, but young. The gray in your hair will vanish, the lines will smooth out of your face, your step will become buoyant, your pulses quick, your heart will sing with youth." The speaker paused a moment, and his gray eyes rested on Carringford and seemed probing his very soul.

"It will take a little time," he went on; "for as the natural processes of decay are not rapid, the natural restoration may not be hurried. You can go back to where you will, even to early youth, and so begin over, if it is your wish. Are you willing to make the experiment? If you are, I will place the means in your hands."

While his visitor had been speaking, Carringford had been completely absorbed, filled with strange emotions, too amazed, too confused for utterance.

"I see a doubt in your mind as to the genuineness, the efficacy, of my discovery," the even voice continued. "I will relieve that." From an inner pocket he drew a card photograph and handed it to Carringford. "That was taken three years ago. I was then approaching eighty. I am now, I should say, about forty-five. I could be younger if I chose, but forty-five is the age of achievement—the ripe age. Mankind needs me at forty-five."

Carringford stared at the photograph, then at the face before him, then again at the photograph. Yes, they were the same, certainly they were the same, but for the difference of years. The peculiar eyes, the clean, unusual outlines were unmistakable. Even a curious cast in the eye was there.

"An inheritance," explained his visitor. "Is the identification enough?"

Carringford nodded in a dazed way and handed back the picture. Any lingering doubt of the genuineness of this strange being or his science had vanished. His one thought now was that growing old need be no more than a fiction, after all; that one might grow young instead, might lay aside the wrinkles and the gray hairs, and walk once more the way of purposes and dreams. His pulses leaped, his blood surged up and smothered him.

The acceptance of such a boon seemed too wonderful a thing to be put into words. His eyes grew wide and deep with the very bigness of it, but he could not for the moment find speech.

"You are willing to make the experiment?" the man asked. "I see many emotions in your mind. Think—think clearly, and make your decision."

Words of acceptance rushed to Carringford's lips. They were upon the verge of utterance when suddenly he was gripped by an old and dearly acquired habit—the habit of forethought.

"But I should want to keep my knowledge of the world," he said, "to profit by my experience, my wisdom, such as it is. I should want to live my life over, knowing what I know now."

The look of weariness which Carringford's face had worn earlier had found its way to the face of the visitor.

"I seem to have heard most of those things before," he said, with a faint smile. "But shall I not remember the life I have lived, with its shortcomings, its blunders?"

"Yes, you will remember as well as you do now—better, perhaps, for your faculties will be renewed; but whether you will profit by it—that is another matter."

"You mean that I shall make the same mistakes, commit the same sins?"

"Let us consider for a moment. You will go back to youth. You will be young again. Perhaps you have forgotten what it is to be young. Let me remind you." The man's lashes met; his voice seemed to come from a great distance. "It is to be filled with the very ecstasy of living," he breathed—"its impulses, its fevers, the things that have always belonged to youth, that have always made youth beautiful. Your experience? Yes, you will have that, too; but it will not be the experience of that same youth, but of another—the youth that you were." The gray eyes gleamed, the voice hardened a little. "Did you ever profit by the experience of another in that earlier time?"

Carringford shook his head.

"No," he whispered.

His guest pointed to the book-shelves.

"Did you ever, in a later time, profit by the wisdom set down in those?"

Carringford shook his head.

"No," he whispered.

"Yet the story is all there, and you knew the record to be true. Have you always profited even by your own experience? Have you always avoided the same blunder a second, even a third, time? Do you always profit by your own experience even now?"

Carringford shook his head.

"No," he whispered.

"And yet you think that if you could only live your life over, you would avoid the pitfalls and the temptations, remembering what they had cost you before. No, oh, no; I am not here to promise you that. I am not a magician; I am only a scientist, and I have not yet discovered the elixir of wisdom or of morals. I am not super-human; I am only human, like yourself. I am not a god, and I cannot make you one. Going back to youth means that you will be young again—young! Don't you see? It does not mean that you will drag back with you the strength and the wisdom and the sobered impulses of middle age. That would not be youth. Youth cares nothing for such things, and profits by no experience, not even its own."

Carringford's eyes had wandered to the yellow vial under the lamp—to the quivering, shimmering fascination of its dancing gold. His gaze rested there a moment, then again sought the face of his guest—that inscrutable face where seemed mingled the look of middle age with the wisdom of the centuries.

"You do not care to go back further?" Carringford said.

The man's eyes closed for a moment, and something that was akin to fierce human emotion swept his features.

"Yes, oh, yes, I care," he said quickly. "It is the temptation I fight always. Oh, you do not know what it means to feel that you are growing young! To feel your body renew, your heart beat stronger, to feel your blood take on a swifter flow, like the sap of a tree in spring! You have known the false stimulus of wine. Ah, it is a feeble thing compared with this! For this is not false, but true. This is the substance of renewal, not the fire of waste. To wake in the morning feeling that you are not older than yesterday, but younger, better able to cope and to enjoy; to travel back from fourscore to forty-five—I have done that. Do you realize what that means? It means treading the flowery way, lighted by eternal radiance, cheered by the songs of birds. And then to stop—you cannot know what it means to stop! Oh, yes, it was hard to stop; but I must stop now, or not at all this side of youth. Only at forty-five would one have the strength to stop—the age of reason and will, the age of achievement. And I need to achieve, for I still have much to do. So I stopped when I had the strength and had reached the fullness of my power. While I have work to do I shall not go further back. I shall remain as I am, and as you are, at middle age—the age of work."

He had been pacing up and down in front of Carringford as he spoke. He now halted, facing him, gazing down.

"I must not linger," he said. "These are my hours for labor, and I have so much to do, so much, it will keep me busy for a thousand years. I have only begun. Perhaps some day I may discover the elixir of wisdom. Perhaps I may yet solve the secret of genius. Perhaps"—His voice lowered—"I shall one day unveil the secret of the soul. The vial I leave with you, for I see in your mind that you cannot reach a conclusion now. On the attached label you will find instructions for its use. Think, ponder, and be sure before you set out on that flowery backward way. Be sure that you want youth again, with all that youth means, before you start back to find it." He laid his hand in Carrlngford's for an instant, and was gone.

For a while Carringford did not move, but sat as one in a dream, staring at the dancing fluid gold in the bottle beneath the lamp.

Youth—youth, how he had longed for that vanished gold, which he had so prodigally wasted when it was in his grasp! How often he had said, as he had said to-night, "Oh, to have one more chance, to be able to begin the game anew!" He reached out and grasped the vial, and held it up to the light. The glinting radiance in it began a wild, new dance at his touch.

Youth, life renewed, yes, that is what it was, its very essence; to taste of that elixir, and start back along the flowery, sunlit way of which his guest had spoken; to feel the blood start more quickly in his veins, a new spring in his muscles; to know that a new bloom had come into his cheek, a new light into his eye.

But, then, the other things, they would come, too. Along that fair backward way lurked all the temptations, the dangers, the heartbreaks—all the efforts and the failures he had once left behind. Did he want to face them again? Did he want to endure again all those years of the struggle of human wisdom with human weakness? He knew it would mean that, and that the same old fights and failures would be his share. He had never thought of it before, but he knew now that it must be so.

Yet, to tread that flowery way, to begin to-night!

He wheeled around to the dying fire, and sat staring into the deep coals and flickering blaze, balancing the golden vial in his hand, as one weighing a decision.

To tread that flowery way, with its blue skies and its singing birds, to feel one's heart bursting with a new ecstasy, to reach again the land of hope and love, and to linger there with some one—some one with a heart full of love and life! He had always been so lonely!

The age of work, his own age, his guest had chosen to linger there; had resisted all other temptations for that. With the wisdom of fourscore years and all his subtle gift for detecting and avoiding dangers, he had chosen the middle age of life for his abiding-place. The age of work, yes, it was that, if one only made it his vantage-ground.

But, oh, the glory of the flowery way, with all its dangers and all its heartbreaks! His decision was swinging to and fro, like a pendulum: the age of work, the flowery way, the age of work?

And he had been so idle. Perhaps that had been the trouble all along.

"The age of work," he whispered, "the age of achievement!"

He balanced the precious vial more quickly. It caught the flicker of a waning blaze and became a great, throbbing ruby in his hand.

"To live life over! To go back and begin the game anew! Good God!"

Then—he did not know how it happened—the little bottle toppled, fell, and struck the stone hearth, splashing its contents into the dying embers. There was a leap of yellow flame, which an instant later had become vivid scarlet, changing as quickly to crimson, deep purple, then to a flare of blinding white, and was gone.

Carringford, startled for a moment, sat gazing dumbly at the ashes of his dying fire.

"The question has decided itself," he said.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.