THE NEW METHUSELAH
Sarah Orne Jewett
If Asa Potterby, A.M., M.D., had lived two or three centuries earlier, there is no doubt that his great learning would have been an amazement to the world, while his instinct toward a recluse life would have housed him in some quiet and noble cloister. He was what one might call a left-over person from that earlier time, having come into existence far too late to find his proper surroundings. As one belated flower-seed sometimes comes straggling up in the border just as its fellows are bursting into bloom, so this learned sage peeped up through New England soil into the scorching light of its incredulous August sun, and found himself a surprising person to the enlightened folk of the nineteenth century. Great things were often said of him in the more remote halls of scholarship, and even many of his neighbors believed him to be not only learned but wise. His house was pointed out to strangers, even though droll anecdotes of his simplicity in worldly affairs were told by those altogether wanting in certain attributes of reverence. The master of arts that took no tangible shape; the doctor of unpractised medicine, Asa Potterby, looked elderly at forty and positively aged at sixty, but he contentedly delved in dark mines of literature, and blinked through his spectacles at the bustling world that surrounded him when he emerged into the light of day. Being possessed of a good colonial house and an inheritance of considerable money, he was not judged according to his folly as a poorer man might have been. It seemed as if he lived a hardly conscious life. He neither appeared to enjoy nor to dislike. He blinked and blinked, and rubbed his eyes, and sat himself down every day before his desk, to do some unneeded and unrewarding work. The men who put him highest in the scale of greatness were the venders of old and curious books. Nobody would give a more generous price for a rare volume than Dr. Potterby; he was most quickly allured by anything that concerned the subject of heredity, or theories relating to the vital forces.
In his slow way he had long been evolving a theory of his own, to which these industrious studies and researches had added continual proofs as years went by. He had learned to believe firmly in the possible indefinite prolongation of human life, having possessed himself, as he believed, of a simple secret - a rediscovery of something hinted at in many a legend which seemed to unenlightened minds but fabulous. The workings of this remedy against premature age and death itself could not be expected to have full power in our own century, when life has become so artificial, so far from its natural conditions; yet he saw, in spite of all this, no reason why the length of days in early Bible times could not have been, under those conditions, literally true. It was plain to him that all our modern habits of life tended directly to the brevity of human existence. The fret of constant conflict with improper air, clothing, and food, with gnawing anxieties of every sort caused by an endeavor to conform to the awful demands of social competition, had brought down the average duration of life to its present meagre span. After years of profound reflection our philosopher achieved an exposition of his theory; his heart fairly glowed, cold as it was sometimes called, with a knowledge of the added joy and well-being with which he was able to endow humanity. Now, when a man reached something like a proper equipment for his work, his work must fall from his feeble hands. What if a student like Darwin could go on with his researches and discoveries for a hundred years of working time instead of fifty! When a great man died it seemed only a sad accident and mistake to Dr. Potterby; it was a loss to the world which might have been prevented if his theory were known and acted upon. "Gone, and all his power with him!" Dr. Potterby would sadly groan, and that night his own study lamp would burn later than usual, and his early-rising housekeeper would find him next morning asleep in his chair, before a desk heaped high with books.
"Poor creatur," the good woman sometimes grumbled compassionately. "With all his notions o' keepin' folks alive, he'll step out his self, sure 's fate, if he keeps on this way." Then Mrs. Yard would shake the sleeping sage by one limp shoulder and entice him to the comfortable library sofa, where he might, and usually did, sleep until high noon.
The learned man had a great fear of propounding his ideas before he had made them entirely clear and practical. He spent many months in preparing a treatise, but when it was in perfect order, and he sat before it, ready to make it into a neat bundle for the publisher, his heart failed him, and he suddenly determined not to risk discussion, but to afford a carping world some indisputable proof. After all, why should he expect honor and praise? Why not go out of this world secure in the belief that future ages would recognize and reward his patient toil? If he had been nurtured in infancy and childhood according to the true plan, he might be sure of seeing the workings of his system; but, alas! it was too late now, and he would not goad his mind into despair by any vain regrets.
So the great, clean manuscript was put on a high shelf in the library closet, and the doctor bent his energies to the building of a perfect illustration of his plan of life. He would take a child whose parents were unknown; he would surround it with the proper conditions; he would invest a permanent fund and select a board of trustees to put in charge of his great scientific experiment. Science should foster the enterprise; he would select the best men of his own time, and bind them to careful choice of their own successors. Released from the common wear and tear of life, and invigorated by his simple secret, such a defended and perfectly nourished child might be expected to enter at least upon the latter half of its second century. Of course, inherited weakness and nervous disorders must be considered for a generation or two; then the world, accepting so great a boon, would reform itself, and a golden age begin. In the doctor's own lifetime the board of trustees would not be informed of their responsilbility or emoluments. But some weeks went by while he attempted to satisfy himself with the provisions of his will and its minute directions. These extended to the most careful prescriptions of physical exercise, food, and sleep; with explanatory notes, and recognition of all possible exceptions, and constant references to his more extended treatise.
Mrs. Yard, Dr. Potterby's housekeeper, was sitting alone in the back hall doorway looking out into the pleasant old-fashioned garden. She was mending a pair of the doctor's stockings, and thinking affectionately of their wearer.
"More books!" muttered the good soul, jerking her darning cotton and snapping it. "He'll bu'st the walls o' the house apart afore he dies. I see a heap o' them tarnal auction catalogues on his table; pity I didn't burn 'em when they come from the post-office."
Mrs. Yard had taken her early tea, the house was quiet, two golden robins were singing in the nearest apple-trees. If Dr. Potterby himself took little thought of the antique elegance and comfort of his home-life, Mrs. Yard stood well in her place, and more than made up for his lack of care by extra intelligence and conscientiousness in all home matters. She had a great admiration and affection for her employer - in fact she had been trained by his mother, and had spent nearly all her life under the Potterby roof. She was a most sensible ruler and autocrat of the quiet household, but had great indulgence for a scholar's vagaries.
As she often insisted, Generosity was no name for the doctor, and the more he inclined to trustfulness, the fiercer she grew in protecting his interests. In her youth she had been the reverse of talkative, and in the busy household of old Madam Potterby had figured always as a grave, speechless young woman, intent upon her work and more or less disapproving of the world in general. As years went on, however, and she came to deserved headship of the household with younger women under her, Mrs. Yard suddenly developed a love for garrulous speech which startled and confused the pondering doctor. One night, when he was suffering from a bad cold and asked to have his tea served in the library, Mrs. Yard brought in the tray herself instead of giving it to her colleague, who usually performed such duties in the household.
Dr. Potterby looked up from his desk, gravely: "Ah, yes, the tea!" he said, with polite recognition of the service and her presence. Then he expected Mrs. Yard, after her well-known fashion, to go speechless away.
"I'm going to pour a cup and have you drink it hot," said the housekeeper; "otherwise you'll let the water set here till I send for it. Cold tea's worse than none fer one that's hoast up as you be, Dr. Potterby."
Mrs. Yard had never before been so lavish with her advice and opinions; he looked up at her again with mild curiosity. This was clearly not a matter of scientific principle; he accepted the hot tea with a grave bow.
"Perhaps there is some matter upon which you wish to confer with me at this time?" He had tried to summon some requisition or suggestion from the recesses of his own brain, but could think of nothing.
"No, sir," said Mrs. Yard, "the place's going all right as far as I can judge."
It was a stormy night, and the doctor, who was a man of warm though unused heart, suddenly became conscious that the good woman was perhaps lonely and had instinctively sought his presence, out of her own thoughts of those old days when the house was fuller and more homelike. He was mindful, too, that she had been married for a short time, and lost her husband by a melancholy accident. Perhaps he had not been compassionate of good Mrs. Yard. But he could not express any such thoughts as these, and took refuge from difficult speech in the simple action of swallowing his hot tea and eating his bread and butter. He believed in a hearty supper and late work, but this evening was to be made an exception.
Mrs. Yard picked up some scattered newspaper wrappers and put them into the waste paper basket. Then she darted at a snarl of knotted twine that had fallen from a bundle of books, and quickly wound it into a smooth twist and put it into the drawer.
"How be you getting along, sir?" she asked, blandly; "I mean with your literary labors?"
The doctor felt as if a new and voluble Mrs. Yard had been evolved out of the old, indifferent, and taciturn one. "I am progressing slowly, I thank you," he answered, after a moment's pause for reflection. He remembered that the housekeeper's mother had been a great talker, and that her father was said to be an almost speechless man. Very likely one inheritance having been outworn the other was now beginning to prevail; it would be an interesting subject to pursue. This was surely wonderful, the sensible creature's instant development of a social aptitude and desire of colloquial pleasure. She had not said much yet, but nobody could fail to see that she was brimful of desire to gossip and discuss, like other women.
"Don't say that your tea is to your mind, if it ain't," she urged Dr. Potterby, still looking about her for something to pick up or put away. "I just slid in the least pinch o' green out o' that old silver canister o' your mother's, sir; I thought it might 'liven up your head; it sometimes will with me."
"Very considerate," murmured the doctor.
"But then," said Mrs. Yard, "there's no telling what another person desires from one's own feelings. Many's the time I've said to myself, 'there, I don't believe but he'd like a pinch o' green tea, now he's working his brain so steady, but I never before this night have slid it in.'"
Dr. Potterby smiled benevolently, and so passed the noble occasion of Mrs. Yard's sociable visit, and she retired much gratified, advising him to ring the library bell if he felt like a little warm toast or a bit of cold meat before bedtime. The doctor long remembered this evening of Mrs. Yard's first self-assertion; from that time she had behaved as if they managed affairs in an amicable partnership of which she was the active member. He was completely in her power as to all affairs except those of his studies and personal pursuits, and, save with one or two friends, he became more taciturn as the years went by, while Mrs. Yard developed an increasing loquacity. He soon became able to carry on intricate processes of thought during her longest and most self-interesting harangues. For her own part, she was deeply aware of the great philosopher's helplessness without her, she knew that it fell upon herself to settle all really important questions for him in spite of his own unequalled powers of mind.
After this long digression, necessary to a full understanding of the domestic situation, we return to Mrs. Yard as she sat in the hall doorway, with her mind puzzled by greater questions than usual. She looked placid enough as she sat on the doorstep with her mending-basket and the short, wide stocking drawn over her extended fingers. She was not a person whose inward struggles betrayed themselves in her countenance, but she talked to herself a good deal, never having forsaken her habit formed in the years before she suddenly became more expressive to the doctor and her other associates.
"What could he ha' meant?" grumbled the good creature, "askin' me if I was any accustomed to the care o' child'n. He knows well enough I've made no habit of it."
For all his stern onwardness of character, and philosophical scorn of that consideration of petty circumstances which Voltaire calls the tomb of great things, Dr. Potterby had a gift for enjoyment, for nestling into his few friendships. It was a gift which would completely surprise those who knew him but little. Most of his friendships, however, were conducted by letter, with devoted outlay of at least as much time as that spent by the Reverend Gilbert White and the Honorable Daines Barrington, or any other scientific gentlemen who, apparently, lived to correspond. There was one old acquaintance, however, who was a near neighbor, and the two gentlemen counted much upon their walks and talks. Mr. Masters was what it is proper to call in England a decayed gentleman, and owed much to Dr. Potterby's kindness, though, not being a person who liked to place himself under obligations, this fact was never directly acknowledged. Dr. Potterby disliked outward expressions of gratitude, and so their intercourse was on that high level described by Amiel, with exquisite comprehension of a social elegance of speech which ignores the plain things of every day, the common pains, or disturbances of mankind. If in the morning Mrs. Yard had despatched a winter overcoat good as new, but narrow for the doctor's girth, it was worn that very night, but without a word of either apology or compliment. Mr. Masters had been produced by nature for an alchemist, though the profession had become apparently extinct; and though his family had designed him for the New England pulpit, he had relapsed by instinct into a futile dabbling with the physical sciences. Dr. Potterby compassionated him, being to himself a man of practical value, and it must be confessed that Mr. Masters returned the same opinion in his secret and somewhat ungrateful heart. The home of Mr. Masters was in two bleak upper rooms bestrewn with electrical and chemical odds and ends, over one of the small village shops. His landlady and attendant was a considerate person, who had once been a servant of his family. The poor soul did the best she could for him, but it was fortunate for herself that she lacked the two useful senses of smelling and hearing, and was unconscious of explosions and their unwholesome effects. Nobody knew exactly how the two lived, unless it might be Mrs. Yard, who, with the doctor's assent and connivance, set a comforting basket in the hall every Sunday and Wednesday night. It was simply mentioned, when this proffered attention to Nancy Bland was first ventured, that Mrs. Yard had heard the good soul was not well, and, once begun, the custom was continued. "They have that quantity twice a week, and him filled up twice beside with a good warm supper, and I'll risk 'em starving," said Mrs. Yard, with generous satisfaction. It would have pleased her to have Mr. Masters and his receptive Nancy show some gratitude, but Dr. Potterby was content with silence, and even rebuked from time to time Mrs. Yard's expressions of impatience.
On a certain Sunday evening which followed the Saturday of the mended stockings, Mrs. Yard was conscious of an unholy desire to listen at the half-open library door. The wind had gone into the east, and there was a little fire in the fireplace, before which the two gentlemen basked, being replete with their supper, and ready for the steady flow of conversation. Mrs. Yard passed the door a little resentfully, for her prayer-meeting bell was already beginning to toll, and she put down Nancy Bland's basket with a decision that clinked the dishes inside. She meant that they should be heard in the library, and it was. Dr. Potterby winced, but Mr. Masters kindly behaved as if he were unconscious. It was the benefactor who was deferential in their interviews, and to-night, though brimful of desire to review his own plans, he hastened to show an interest in the exploits of his guest.
"Have you arrived at anything new in your recent experiments?'' he inquired, with charming sympathy and politeness.
"I may say that I have," replied little Mr. Masters, straightening himself into new stiffness and dignity in the high leather-backed chair. "If I were a younger man I would go at once to a school of technology, to avail myself of the new practical knowledge of electrical engineering. I never remember to have deplored the flight of time as in these last few days. As it is, I must yield my great ideas to younger men."
"I suppose you have ascertained much that is new in regard to your registering attachment to the typewriter?" suggested Dr. Potterby, a little timidly. In his work on longevity, he had availed himself of the new discovery and hired a young man to do copying, but Mr. Masters had conceived an idea that the machine should be made to count its own words, and had gone off with it one night under his elbow. The owner had neither liked to ask for it back nor to buy a new one. Mrs. Yard insisted that the borrower had taken it to pieces, and could not set it running again.
"That matter is still under consideration," replied Mr. Masters, with offended dignity. "I have been giving great thought to a plan of much more importance - an electrical marine railway."
"Ah, indeed!" said Dr. Potterby, who wished that he could have the floor first. He was eager to see how his own project would sound. In speaking to another, one often saw the fallacies of one's own argument, but Mr. Masters was likely to take this evening to himself.
"An electrical marine railway," repeated the pompous little guest. "I am not aware that the idea has ever been broached. It is a very great concern of the public, a matter of prime importance to commerce. I have not said anything about it, even to you" (this was meant for a handsome tribute, and Dr. Potterby so regarded it). "I am prepared, however, to speak of my scheme now, of course, in secrecy."
Dr. Potterby bowed solemnly and settled himself comfortably in his chair. He was glad, at any rate, that he was to listen to something new. There was a delightful sense of comfort in the library, the flicker of the firelight brought out touches of red and gold on the bindings of the old books. There was a sound of gentle early summer rain outside. Mrs. Yard's old tortoise-shell cat stole in, settled herself with tucked-in paws before the fender, and began to purr, as if in comfortable retrospection. The faces of the two men were thoughtful and interesting. They showed themselves to be students, and unaffected by the minor ambitions and sordid cares of the world. Perhaps this look was clearest on the brow of Mr. Masters.
"An electrical marine railway," he repeated, with emphasis. "I mean, of course, a system for the propulsion of vessels or other conveyances from shore to shore. Something after the manner of the street railways in common use."
"You will have to explain a little more definitely, my dear sir," confessed the listener.
"I propose merely to make my announcement on this occasion," answered the man of science. "The detail is comparatively unimportant, and to one whose thoughts are not directed --
"The trolley system?" ventured Dr. Potterby, humbly, catching at the first phrase which entered his mind.
"Exactly, sir!" exclaimed Mr. Masters, with unexpected gratification in his tone. "You forestall me. I admire your general intelligence, and especially in a man so devoted to special study. The trolley system is, I may say, the main element."
"I should call the sea the main element." Dr. Potterby rarely joked, but this great occasion deserved such tribute from him.
"The trolley system; that is a continuous wire, and a corresponding apparatus on the masts or decks of vessels which underrun the wire, and so derive their motive power. Such a wire can be laid as well as a wire for telegraphic purposes; it is exposed of course to greater dangers, being nearer the surface, but I foresee all these, and I am ready to meet them. If I were a man of fortune or, still better, a man of practical scientific training, I should now accomplish great results. Sir, I look upon my years of ecclesiastical study as a great, a never-to-be-regretted blunder."
This point had been often discussed, and the new plan appeared more interesting than was expected to Dr. Potterby's imagination. "In order to make your system wholly clear to me, I will propose my, perhaps, very ignorant objections," he said; "for instance, ships going northward or southward of the cable would damage it."
"There would be stations at intervals corresponding to draws, and at these intervals station-men would be placed to manage the passage of vessels. You do not understand, however, that the business of navigation would in time be completely revolutionized, and that there would be trunk and side lines of electrical cables, and shipping would be less and less at the mercy of the winds and waves. I have not suggested one point to you, that besides the great speed, the lines would be lighted by night from the same power as that from whence comes the force."
"Sir, it is an idea worthy of you!" exclaimed the doctor. "My own resources count as nothing in the face of such a magnificent enterprise, but in case of preliminary arrangements I beg you to command me. I beg that you will take - a few days, at any rate, in which to confer with those who are working in this same line." The sentence was ended in deference to Mr. Masters's feelings, but Dr. Potterby inwardly resolved to give his poor friend a handsome check at the first opportunity. "I wish to ask one more question. In case of the draw, or its substitute, being open, would not there be complete cessation on the whole length of the cable, the circuit being broken?"
Mr. Masters shrugged his shoulders pettishly, but was for the moment appalled. "Immense speed could be obtained, the present system of ship building, so cumbersome and expensive, gradually disused," he faltered, trying to appear as if he had not heard the question. Then he faced the question bravely in all its horror. "I have not worked out these insignificant details" - and for an uncomfortable minute there was complete silence. Dr. Potterby was filled with regret.
"I dare say that there might be a deep sunken wire used to keep the circuit unbroken," he dared to say, but was immediately conscious that it was not his place to have spoken first. Mr. Masters, however, breathed freely again, and showed himself unresentful. He had not considered such an important point before, and he had to own to himself that poor Potterby had shown acute powers of reasoning.
"My own scheme will play in well with yours," Dr. Potterby suggested, taking advantage of the silence. "Whenever these great discoveries are made I more and more regret the brevity of human life. I can only say that I have now determined to carry out my plan of practical illustration of my theories, and am going to select a subject this present week. I have approached the question as far as regards my good housekeeper's willingness to take certain duties upon herself, but I am not sure that she comprehended me. In the first years of an infant's life, a woman must naturally be the best caretaker, but women are inexact and unscientific. I am not sure how far I can depend upon Mrs. Yard for reports. On the other hand, it might be difficult to secure a man of scientific training who would be willing, even for a proper salary, to devote his time exclusively to the rearing of a very young child. You no doubt can understand that you would have felt a certain reluctance?"
"Perhaps for an adequate remuneration, and with the assistance -- " Mr. Masters unexpectedly remarked; but Mr. Masters was nipped in the bud. Dr. Potterby's solemn face twitched with amusement. No, no, that would never do; the poor old fellow would never think of such nonsense if it were not for his ardent hopes about the railway. When it came to a choice between stupid old Nancy Bland and his own sensible Mrs. Yard, there was no question. "I should not think of employing your valuable time," he said hastily, and with great decision, " especially now that you are so occupied."
The two men rarely asserted their individuality in so open and bold a way as this evening. Each was conscious of his own high emprize, and neither could stop to dally with the inferior interests of the other. Their conversation fell to a lower level, and Mr. Masters only waited for the library clock to strike the half-hour after nine before he made his punctual departure. As he shut the great hall door behind him, Mrs. Yard opened another and emerged from seclusion in the dark dining-room into the doctor's bed-room, candle in her hand, unlighted. She came into the library and put the candlestick on the side-table where it was always left. Then she gave a contemptuous sniff; the doctor was carefully mending his small fire, as if he were just beginning the evening anew.
"He's took his basket, ain't he?" observed Mrs. Yard. "I didn't know but he'd disdain it after the message that was sent yesterday."
Dr. Potterby looked up bewildered; it was not possible that poor Masters's head was turned by his dreams of fortune.
"They never take it upon 'em to say thank ye, nor to send the basket back," explained Mrs. Yard. "Jonas went to mill yesterday afternoon, and as I was out on my errands I called in myself, feelin' more friendly than usual to old Nancy Bland, and I thought I'd have a word with her; the old gentleman might be out o' shirts again, an' there is two of yourn that's a little past. She was dreadful toppin', an' I saw 'twould be best to send them without a word, for fear of a squabble. She give me the basket, but she didn't like my comin'; there, sir, if 'twas me an' you in their two places, I suppose I shouldn't, but she did speak up so pert, and says she, 'I don't want no more o' that salt beef.' I tell you, Dr. Potterby, I like to have bu'st before her eyes, I was so mad."
"Well, well, we mustn't mind these little things," murmured the doctor.
"Little things?" said Mrs. Yard. "When I'd boiled an extry piece o' the best fer 'em, an' there's nothin' more nourishing or keeps better, and Mr. Masters eats a sight of it here whenever 'tis put on the table! I don't care whether Nance Bland likes it or not. 'Taint my business to consult her taste. She knows well we've kept her from starving, but 'tis such a favor to take from us."
"She's an ignorant creature, but very devoted to my old friend," said the doctor, affectionately. "Won't you sit down, Mrs. Yard? I should like to have a word with you."
Mrs. Yard was put into a girlish flutter by this invitation. It was very rare with the doctor, who usually tried to discover some pretext for suggesting that he liked to be left to himself. "There, there! I mustn't let my feelings run away with me," said the kind soul, smoothing out her Sunday dress. "I always believe in speaking out about likes an' dislikes. I recollect once in the spring, when I'd come back here the second time, after losing Mr. Yard. Old Ma'am Powers, the old nurse, was makin' your respected mother a little visit. She was always friendly to the old lady, you know, Doctor Potterby, and says she one morning, 'Ann,' says she, 'I seem to want some good, smart greens - let's go down in the far end of the gardin an' pick us a mess.' Madam Potterby always told us all to indulge Ma'am Powers wherever we could, an' I clapped my sun-bonnet right on. I observed that she picked all mustard that I hate like p'ison, but I found a sight of good pa'sley that to me's the best greens there is, and I set out to p'int it out to her; but I thought maybe she was stiff about stoopin' so low, or her eyesight was poor; an' when we come in I cooked 'em separate in the kittle, not stirrin', an' then I denied myself and helped her to most all the pa'sley when it come dinner-time and took the mustard myself; but I saw she didn't eat no great of the pa'sley, no more 'n I did o' mine. I mistrusted she'd got tired an' heated out in the sun, but we was so polite helping each other to them greens. Along in the afternoon the truth come out that each of us preferred the other sort, and out o' politeness neither got which she liked. It's often so in life, sir; them greens has been a lesson to me many's the time."
Dr. Potterby's mind reverted to his choice of a guardian for the experimental babe. Yes, he must frankly confide in Mrs. Yard; besides it never would do to make another woman her superior.
"I asked you last evening whether you were skilled in the care of children, my good friend?" inquired the doctor, gently.
"You know my past, sir," replied Mrs. Yard. "I've not had experience since I was young; there was a houseful of us at home." She could not help making a mental reservation in respect to her employer's tender helplessness. "I think I should have as much sense about it as many others; 'twould naturally be a great deal of care to one of my years. You ain't thinking of adopting a child, I trust, sir?"
"Not exactly," said the doctor, a little confused. "I am about to make an experiment in the interest of science, of great value to the human race. I have been for years making researches and compiling statistics, and it is probable that under right conditions men might live to much greater age than is now possible. I may have spoken to you of these theories. You will understand that there are important rules to be followed in regard to diet, and altogether I must require much of your time. Perhaps you had better engage another coadjutor for your minor household cares, and I am ready to double your present salary. I know of no one upon whom I could so thoroughly rely."
"'Twould be kind of cheerful to have a baby running about the old place," said Mrs. Yard, unmindful of scientific experiments "and now that they're going to fix over our meeting-house, I should like to be able to do extra in my subscription. I will undertake the charge - unless you think Nancy Bland would suit you better."
"Oh, no, indeed," answered the doctor, absently.
"I must make one stippleation," urged the housekeeper as she turned to leave the room. "I trust you ain't goin' to put the little creatur' to no sort of torture with your experiments same 's they use rabbits and frogs - there was a piece about it in my Watchman an' Reflector, how them students ain't got no compassion, and ought to be put a stop to."
"I assure you that vivisection has not entered into my plans as yet," replied Dr. Potterby, honorably. "There is, however, much foolish prejudice - " but Mrs. Yard was stepping quickly away, quite reassured, to her own dominions.
Mrs. Yard entered into the experiment of induced longevity with sincere zest, and when the doctor, accompanied by an Infant Asylum attendant and a small and very sleepy child, arrived at the old Potterby mansion, a few nights afterward, she housed and cheered them with real hospitality and compassion.
It is perhaps needless to say that the two women disdained the doctor's preliminary directions, and made the tired baby comfortable in a good old-fashioned way.
Interesting as it would be to follow the details of these first days, time and space forbid. Little Thomas became at once the really important member of the household, upon whose well-being all other things revolved. Dr. Potterby having at first selected him on account of his perfectly serene and healthy aspect, took pains to acquire an absolute possession; the child being a friendless foundling, no one was likely to interfere with his future. His benefactor alone knew the secret of sure continuance in this scene of things, but he kept a careful oversight besides upon the proper proportion of blood and brain nutriments, and all the healthful arrangement of this treasured child's surroundings.
In the meantime little Thomas toddled about and made the whole house merry. Mrs. Yard commonly spoke of him as young Methuselah, though nobody but herself and Dr. Potterby understood the strange pet name. It was far from displeasing to the doctor, who really seemed to be growing young again himself. So did Mrs. Yard; she repeated several times a day that a babe in a house was a well-spring of joy; she found herself forming many plans for the new Methuselah's long future.
The doctor at times felt oppressed by the certainty that he should see so small a part of this presumably extended lifetime. He wished that it could somehow be contracted, as if into one of those insect existences which last but for a day and can be investigated from birth to old age between dawn and dark. But, as a philosopher should, he possessed his soul in patience and went over and over his charts of directions for the future development of this scientific charge. The strain upon his resources would soon be here, when the natural inclination of the boy would clash with the mandates of science, and in facing these probable extremities Dr. Potterby sometimes felt weak and powerless. The child seemed gentle enough now, but if he were unruly, then, for a time, until he could be made to understand all that was at stake, it would be necessary to retire to some secluded spot and institute a mild captivity. Sometimes it crossed the good doctor's mind that all this early part of the process would have been easier to carry forward with a child who was deficient in intellect, yet ever his larger sense prevailed; it was better to prolong a valuable life than a useless one, and all his own energies should be bent to making the life of the New Methuselah delightful and successful.
One balmy summer evening, the library windows were wide open and the garden flowers filled the dim old room with fragrance. It was Sunday, and Mr. Masters had come to tea, arriving at precisely six o'clock as usual. Dr. Potterby rose to welcome him with unwonted show of pleasure, for the guest had been absent all the week, and his Wednesday evening visit was for once omitted. But there was no cheer in Mr. Master's expression of face, he was in one of his dismal, surly moods, and gave but a limp hand into the doctor's stronger grasp.
"What news, sir?" asked the doctor, cheerily, trying to ignore the feeling of damp fog that pervaded his old friend's personal atmosphere.
"I am again defeated by the malice and envy of younger men; the omniscient young man, sir, is the bane of modern life. They live in a blind worship of petty details," and further than this the subject of a transatlantic electrical marine railway was not discussed. It was indeed a great subject, though defeated for the time being; yet this present disappointment was evidently harder to bear than any in that long succession which had saddened the heart of Mr. Masters. He made a futile attempt to revive his own and Dr. Potterby's interest in a famous scheme for engineering through Congress a bill for the reimbursement of slaveholders. It had been proposed that he should awaken public opinion through the pulpit, in which he never forgot his right of speech, and by means of circulars he was to awaken the Southern mind and propose to right their wrongs at a nominal commission or percentage, which would at once make him a rich man. "Sir," said Mr. Masters, "if the government permitted and legalized slaveholding, it made those slaves legal property; it had no right to free those slaves without reimbursement. The principles of humanity set aside, it was robbery, sir." Dr. Potterby gave the usual, somewhat doubtful shake of the head which once would have started a vigorous evening debate but Mr. Masters had lost his spirits and sat pondering the injustice of the age, but speechless, in his chair. Statesman as well as scientist, the unkind world turned a deaf ear to all his propositions.
"I must confess," said Dr. Potterby, "that I am completely amazed with the success of my experiments so far. The child grows steadily, and develops most wonderful aptitude and agility. I have never observed a more interesting young creature. A fair start in everything. Mrs. Yard says that I may rest assured that all is well, and I expect her momently now to make her daily report. One week is of course a short time, but certain points were already decided in my mind last night, at the week's end. Oh, here is Mrs. Yard now," as that worthy woman came beaming into the library, casting, it must be confessed, a mildly scornful glance at the back of Mr. Master's head.
"He's doin' beautiful as can be, sir," said Mrs. Yard, without being asked. "I've just got him into his little crib. He's got a master head-piece, that child; when he wants to go upstairs he'll p'int, and when he wants to go downstairs he'll p'int. You're goin' to rear a little ornament to society, if I do say it, sir; an' so laughin' an' frolickin' the day through, an' wantin' to play hide an' seek with me an' the girls, like a child o' six."
"All very pleasing," murmured the sage. "Now we will make our careful record."
Mr. Masters gave a furtive glance over his shoulder at the great leatherbound blankbook, in which these voluminous records were kept, and then turned away again with contempt. Such things were too trivial. For his part the prolongation of life was not so desirable a thing to wish for. Asa Potterby and Mrs. Yard were two old women together. Their minds were enfeebled with luxury; he would go back to his plain scholar's work-room and be thankful for his undegraded wits. To the astonishment of his entertainers, he now broke away from them an hour and a half earlier than usual, but he found his basket in the hall and did not disdain to take it with him. Mrs. Yard was invited to sit down, and she and the doctor talked about little Thomas for an hour. They were proud to assist in the advancement of science, and the good woman's mind seemed at times almost inspired, so ready was she with suggestion, and with such patience she listened to her master's theories. There was a new impulse of life in the old Potterby mansion. One day Mrs. Yard missed the child, and found it in the library, where the doctor had left some sheets of important manuscript on the great desk, to build erections of his sacred books for little Thomas to overthrow.
The summer went swiftly by, a long piece of the young child's life, but a brief space of pleasure to its guardians. The doctor began to add a larger proportion of animal food to the diet list, and there were grumblings heard among the butchers and purveyors because the once indifferent doctor was often so impossible to suit. He furbished up his rusty knowledge of chemistry and tested various tissues and edible substances; not being content with the results of text-book experiment, until the decent library had certain unpleasant qualities in common with Mr. Masters's study itself. There was great solemnity of theory, and Mrs. Yard kept manfully to the rendering of formal reports, and weighed the daily allowances of food on those expensive and accurate scales provided by the doctor; but he was sometimes puzzled to account for an almost improper gain of flesh on little Thomas's part, not suspecting, good man! the secret supplies of thick gingerbread and lavish slices of bread and butter with which he was indulged. Life was rendered somewhat precarious in this way during the dangerous second summer, but Mrs. Yard carefully concealed any days of drooping, being but antiquated in her own ideas of the care of children, and much more inclined to consult certain rural acquaintances, mothers and grandmothers, and to apply simple household remedies by them dictated, than to confer with the doctor and attempt to revise his own scientific scheme.
For his part he was all confiding, and dreamed much in those days of that old age of vigor of which his own ignorantly shortened existence must fall short. This intelligently nurtured child, within whose grasp all good and necessary things were to be placed, was at the threshold of a surprising career. A century from now he would be still in full vigor and serenity of life; "a century from now," Dr. Potterby often repeated to himself, "my name as a far-seeing man of science and devotion to the interests of humanity, will be better known than to-day; they will speak of my labors with wonder, as having been pursued in the midst of this dull and ignorant age."
The August weather was peculiarly unwholesome that year, and such moist heat was always depressing to Mr. Masters's spirits. On a certain Wednesday evening he came to tea very ill-humored and dictatorial, but Dr. Potterby was mild-mannered and conciliatory, and tried to please his guest more than usual. He had ready an expensive new German work upon Electrical Engineering for which Mr. Masters's soul longed, but it was listlessly turned over, and even criticized with a show of severity, though a fierce gleam of satisfaction in his eyes as he received it had been thanks enough to the giver. Dr. Potterby did not resent the up-hill work of the conversation; he only deplored it and grew weary; at last he began to speak of his continued happiness in watching the development of little Thomas. "Yesterday," he said, solemnly, "yesterday I finally gave my revised will into the hands of my lawyer. With the exception of some temporary legacies which will in time revert, I have devoted my property to the forwarding of an experiment, so fraught with blessing to the human race. At the child's fifth year I put him under the charge of carefully chosen scientists - "
"Oh, mercy me!" there came a piercing shriek from the stairway, "he's in a fit, doctor, he's - " and Mrs. Yard's retreating voice became inaudible as she fled back to that perfectly lighted, perfectly aired, and perfectly warmed room which contained the crib of the illustration of prolonged longevity. The two elderly men came breathless to Mrs. Yard's assistance. She looked the picture of despair, though she said there still was hope. But the sad confession had to be made that little Tommy had strayed out into the garden that afternoon and was found there devouring a hard green apple.
Three days later a short funeral procession left the door of the Potterby mansion. Mr. Masters did not disdain to accompany his old friend, or to show real sympathy in the sad event. Mrs. Yard and her associates followed, weeping. It was not for little Thomas to serve as the great illustration of Dr. Potterby's theories. The New Methuselah was no more at the age of nineteen months and a few unreckoned days.
"You are a man of many ideas," said Dr. Potterby gravely to his companion. "I now see the practical failure of the one great scheme of my mature life."
"The New Methuselah" first appeared in Scribner's Magazine (7:514-524), April 1890 and was Collected in Richard Cary, Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1971, on which this text is based.
Methuselah: According to Genesis 5:25-26, Methuselah lived more than nine hundred years.
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Darwin: Charles Darwin (1809-1882), author of On the Origin of Species (1859).
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golden robins: The golden robin is a Baltimore oriole.
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hoast up: This would seem to derive from Scots usage, and implies having a serious cough. Research: Gabe Heller.
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consideration of petty circumstances which Voltaire calls the tomb of great things: This statement has not been located, though Robert Lowell (1819-1891) also quotes it in his essay "Abraham Lincoln": "Undoubtedly the highest function of statesmanship is by degrees to accommodate the conduct of communities to ethical laws, and to subordinate the conflicting self-interests of the day to higher and more permanent concerns. But it is on the understanding, and not on the sentiment, of a nation that all safe legislation must be based. Voltaire's saying, that 'a consideration of petty circumstances is the tomb of great things,' may be true of individual men, but it certainly is not true of governments. It is by a multitude of such considerations, each in itself trifling, but all together weighty, that the framers of policy can alone divine what is practicable and therefore wise." (Research: Gabe Heller).
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Reverend Gilbert White and the Honorable Daines Barrington: Gilbert White (1720-1793), though a fellow at Oriel College, Oxford, lived most of his life at Selbourne, in England, as a curate, where he could follow his avocations of naturalist and writer. His correspondence with Daines Barrington grew into the Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1788). Daines Barrington (1727-1800) was a naturalist and historian interested in the exploration of the North Pole. His publications include Miscellanies (c. 1900), essays on various subjects, and several books on North Pole exploration.
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Amiel: Probably Henri Frederic Amiel(1821-81), a Swiss critic who praised simplicity and elegance in all aspects of life. He is best known for his Journal Intime, published posthumously in 1883. (Research: Gabe Heller).
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creatur': this text is not consistent in this spelling, the other instance lacking the final apostrophe: creatur.
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Watchman an' Reflector: The Christian Watchman and Reflector was a weekly Baptist journal published in Boston during the 19th Century. (Research: Gabe Heller).
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no right to free those slaves without reimbursement: Reimbursement of southern slave-holders was part of Abraham Lincoln's plan in the Emancipation Proclamation, and part of his policy for ending slavery in the United States even before the American Civil War (1861-1865) began in earnest. This was largely misinterpreted by the South, and served rather to fuel the war. It was dropped as a policy once the war began. (Research: Gabe Heller).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
If you find errors or items needing annotation, pleae contact the site manager.