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The Salem Alchemist


Source: Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land

In 1720 there lived in a turreted house at North and Essex Streets, in
Salem, a silent, dark-visaged man,--a reputed chemist. He gathered
simples in the fields, and parcels and bottles came and went between him
and learned doctors in Boston; but report went around that it was not
drugs alone that he worked with, nor medicines for passing ailments that
he distilled. The watchman, drowsily pacing the streets in the small
hours, saw his shadow move athwart the furnace glare in his tower, and
other shadows seemed at the moment to flit about it--shadows that could
be thrown by no tangible form, yet that had a grotesque likeness to the
human kind. A clink of hammers and a hiss of steam were sometimes heard,
and his neighbors devoutly hoped that if he secured the secret of the
philosopher's stone or the universal solvent, it would be honestly come

But it was neither gold nor the perilous strong water that he wanted. It
was life: the elixir that would dispel the chill and decrepitude of age,
that would bring back the youthful sparkle to the eye and set the pulses
bounding. He explored the surrounding wilderness day after day; the
juices of its trees and plants he compounded, night after night, long
without avail. Not until after a thousand failures did he conceive that
he had secured the ingredients but they were many, they were perishable,
they must be distilled within five days, for fermentation and decay would
set in if he delayed longer. Gathering the herbs and piling his floor
with fuel, he began his work, alone; the furnace glowed, the retorts
bubbled, and through their long throats trickled drops--golden, ruddy,
brown, and crystal--that would be combined into that precious draught.

And none too soon, for under the strain of anxiety he seemed to be aging
fast. He took no sleep, except while sitting upright in his chair, for,
should he yield entirely to nature's appeal, his fire would die and his
work be spoiled. With heavy eyes and aching head he watched his furnace
and listened to the constant drip, drip of the precious liquor. It was
the fourth day. He had knelt to stir his fire to more active burning. Its
brightness made him blink, its warmth was grateful, and he reclined
before it, with elbow on the floor and head resting on his hand. How
cheerily the logs hummed and crackled, yet how drowsily--how slow the
hours were--how dull the watch! Lower, lower sank the head, and heavier
grew the eyes. At last he lay full length on the floor, and the long
sleep of exhaustion had begun.

He was awakened by the sound of a bell. The church bell! he cried,
starting up. And people going through the streets to meeting. How is
this? The sun is in the east! My God! I have been asleep! The furnace is
cold. The elixir! He hastily blended the essences that he had made,
though one or two ingredients were still lacking, and drank them off.
Faugh! he exclaimed. Still unfinished-perhaps spoiled. I must begin
again. Taking his hat and coat he uttered a weary sigh and was about to
open the door when his cheek blenched with pain, sight seemed to leave
him, the cry for help that rose to his lips was stifled in a groan of
anguish, a groping gesture brought a shelf of retorts and bottles to the
floor, and he fell writhing among their fragments. The elixir of life,
unfinished, was an elixir of death.

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