In the latter part of the last century there lived a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy, who not long before our story opens had made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one. He had left his laboratory to the care of an assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace smoke, washed the stain of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife. In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy. The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature. He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.
Such a union accordingly took place, and was attended with trulyremarkable consequences and a deeply impressive moral. One day, verysoon after their marriage, Aylmer sat gazing at his wife with a troublein his countenance that grew stronger until he spoke.
“Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark uponyour cheek might be removed?”
“No, indeed,” said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of hismanner, she blushed deeply. “To tell you the truth it has been so oftencalled a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.”
“Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,” replied her husband; “butnever on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect fromthe hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which wehesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being thevisible mark of earthly imperfection.”
“Shocks you, my husband!” cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at firstreddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. “Then whydid you take me from my mother’s side? You cannot love what shocks you!”
To explain this conversation it must be mentioned that in the centre of Georgiana’s left cheek there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face. In the usual state of her complexion — a healthy though delicate bloom — the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size. Georgiana’s lovers were wont to say that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts. Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand. It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders. Some fastidious persons — but they were exclusively of her own sex — affirmed that the bloody hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous. But it would be as reasonable to say that one of those small blue stains which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster. Masculine observers, if the birthmark did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw. After his marriage, — for he thought little or nothing of the matter before, — Aylmer discovered that this was the case with himself.
Had she been less beautiful, — if Envy’s self could have found aughtelse to sneer at, — he might have felt his affection heightened by theprettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, nowstealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse ofemotion that throbbed within her heart; but seeing her otherwise soperfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable withevery moment of their united lives. It was the fatal flaw of humanitywhich Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all herproductions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, orthat their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. The crimsonhand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches thehighest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred withthe lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visibleframes return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as the symbol ofhis wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombreimagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object,causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty,whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.
At all the seasons which should have been their happiest, he invariablyand without intending it, nay, in spite of a purpose to the contrary,reverted to this one disastrous topic. Trifling as it at firstappeared, it so connected itself with innumerable trains of thought andmodes of feeling that it became the central point of all. With themorning twilight Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face andrecognized the symbol of imperfection; and when they sat together atthe evening hearth his eyes wandered stealthily to her cheek, andbeheld, flickering with the blaze of the wood fire, the spectral handthat wrote mortality where he would fain have worshipped. Georgianasoon learned to shudder at his gaze. It needed but a glance with thepeculiar expression that his face often wore to change the roses of hercheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand wasbrought strongly out, like a bass-relief of ruby on the whitest marble.
Late one night when the lights were growing dim, so as hardly to betraythe stain on the poor wife’s cheek, she herself, for the first time,voluntarily took up the subject.
“Do you remember, my dear Aylmer,” said she, with a feeble attempt at asmile, “have you any recollection of a dream last night about thisodious hand?”
“None! none whatever!” replied Aylmer, starting; but then he added, ina dry, cold tone, affected for the sake of concealing the real depth ofhis emotion, “I might well dream of it; for before I fell asleep it hadtaken a pretty firm hold of my fancy.”
“And you did dream of it?” continued Georgiana, hastily; for shedreaded lest a gush of tears should interrupt what she had to say. “Aterrible dream! I wonder that you can forget it. Is it possible toforget this one expression? — ‘It is in her heart now; we must have itout!’ Reflect, my husband; for by all means I would have you recallthat dream.”
The mind is in a sad state when Sleep, the all-involving, cannotconfine her spectres within the dim region of her sway, but suffersthem to break forth, affrighting this actual life with secrets thatperchance belong to a deeper one. Aylmer now remembered his dream. Hehad fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operationfor the removal of the birthmark; but the deeper went the knife, thedeeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to havecaught hold of Georgiana’s heart; whence, however, her husband wasinexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.