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 recollections.
"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,
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
"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
"Give us more of this wondrous water!" cried they, eagerly. "We are
younger—but we are still too old! Quick—give us more!"
"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 buxom prime.
"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 the table.
"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 new-created universe.
"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 rosy face.
"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 partner."
"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 grandam.
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. Heidegger.
"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
"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
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, Dr. Heidegger?
"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 me!"
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.