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Title: A Virtuoso's Collection (From "Mosses from an Old Manse")
Author: Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Virtuoso's Collection (From "Mosses from an Old Manse")" ***

                     MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE

                      By Nathaniel Hawthorne

                      A VIRTUOSO’S COLLECTION

The other day, having a leisure hour at my disposal, I stepped into
a new museum, to which my notice was casually drawn by a small and
unobtrusive sign: “TO BE SEEN HERE, A VIRTUOSO’S COLLECTION.”  Such
was the simple yet not altogether unpromising announcement that
turned my steps aside for a little while from the sunny sidewalk of
our principal thoroughfare.  Mounting a sombre staircase, I pushed
open a door at its summit, and found myself in the presence of a
person, who mentioned the moderate sum that would entitle me to

“Three shillings, Massachusetts tenor,” said he.  “No, I mean half a
dollar, as you reckon in these days.”

While searching my pocket for the coin I glanced at the doorkeeper,
the marked character and individuality of whose aspect encouraged me
to expect something not quite in the ordinary way.  He wore an
old-fashioned great-coat, much faded, within which his meagre person
was so completely enveloped that the rest of his attire was
undistinguishable.  But his visage was remarkably wind-flushed,
sunburnt, and weather-worn, and had a most, unquiet, nervous, and
apprehensive expression.  It seemed as if this man had some
all-important object in view, some point of deepest interest to be
decided, some momentous question to ask, might he but hope for a
reply.  As it was evident, however, that I could have nothing to do
with his private affairs, I passed through an open doorway, which
admitted me into the extensive hall of the museum.

Directly in front of the portal was the bronze statue of a youth
with winged feet.  He was represented in the act of flitting away
from earth, yet wore such a look of earnest invitation that it
impressed me like a summons to enter the hall.

“It is the original statue of Opportunity, by the ancient sculptor
Lysippus,” said a gentleman who now approached me.  “I place it at
the entrance of my museum, because it is not at all times that one
can gain admittance to such a collection.”

The speaker was a middle-aged person, of whom it was not easy to
determine whether he had spent his life as a scholar or as a man of
action; in truth, all outward and obvious peculiarities had been
worn away by an extensive and promiscuous intercourse with the
world.  There was no mark about him of profession, individual
habits, or scarcely of country; although his dark complexion and
high features made me conjecture that he was a native of some
southern clime of Europe. At all events, he was evidently the
virtuoso in person.

“With your permission,” said he, “as we have no descriptive
catalogue, I will accompany you through the museum and point out
whatever may be most worthy of attention.  In the first place, here
is a choice collection of stuffed animals.”

Nearest the door stood the outward semblance of a wolf, exquisitely
prepared, it is true, and showing a very wolfish fierceness in the
large glass eyes which were inserted into its wild and crafty head.
Still it was merely the skin of a wolf, with nothing to distinguish
it from other individuals of that unlovely breed.

“How does this animal deserve a place in your collection?” inquired

“It is the wolf that devoured Little Red Riding Hood,” answered the
virtuoso; “and by his side--with a milder and more matronly look, as
you perceive--stands the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus.”

“Ah, indeed!” exclaimed I.  “And what lovely lamb is this with the
snow-white fleece, which seems to be of as delicate a texture as
innocence itself?”

“Methinks you have but carelessly read Spenser,” replied my guide,
“or you would at once recognize the ‘milk-white lamb’ which Una led.
But I set no great value upon the lamb.  The next specimen is better
worth our notice.”

“What!” cried I, “this strange animal, with the black head of an ox
upon the body of a white horse?  Were it possible to suppose it, I
should say that this was Alexander’s steed Bucephalus.”

“The same,” said the virtuoso.  “And can you likewise give a name to
the famous charger that stands beside him?”

Next to the renowned Bucephalus stood the mere skeleton of a horse,
with the white bones peeping through his ill-conditioned hide; but,
if my heart had not warmed towards that pitiful anatomy, I might as
well have quitted the museum at once.  Its rarities had not been
collected with pain and toil from the four quarters of the earth,
and from the depths of the sea, and from the palaces and sepulchres
of ages, for those who could mistake this illustrious steed.

“It, is Rosinante!” exclaimed I, with enthusiasm.

And so it proved.  My admiration for the noble and gallant horse
caused me to glance with less interest at the other animals,
although many of them might have deserved the notice of Cuvier
himself.  There was the donkey which Peter Bell cudgelled so
soundly, and a brother of the same species who had suffered a
similar infliction from the ancient prophet Balaam.  Some doubts
were entertained, however, as to the authenticity of the latter
beast.  My guide pointed out the venerable Argus, that faithful dog
of Ulysses, and also another dog (for so the skin bespoke it),
which, though imperfectly preserved, seemed once to have had three
heads.  It was Cerberus.  I was considerably amused at detecting in
an obscure corner the fox that became so famous by the loss of his
tail.  There were several stuffed cats, which, as a dear lover of
that comfortable beast, attracted my affectionate regards.  One was
Dr. Johnson’s cat Hodge; and in the same row stood the favorite cats
of Mahomet, Gray, and Walter Scott, together with Puss in Boots, and
a cat of very noble aspect--who had once been a deity of ancient
Egypt.  Byron’s tame bear came next.  I must not forget to mention
the Eryruanthean boar, the skin of St. George’s dragon, and that of
the serpent Python; and another skin with beautifully variegated
hues, supposed to have been the garment of the “spirited sly snake,”
 which tempted Eve. Against the walls were suspended the horns of the
stag that Shakespeare shot; and on the floor lay the ponderous shell
of the tortoise which fell upon the head of Aeschylus.  In one row,
as natural as life, stood the sacred bull Apis, the “cow with the
crumpled horn,” and a very wild-looking young heifer, which I guessed
to be the cow that jumped over the moon.  She was probably killed by
the rapidity of her descent.  As I turned away, my eyes fell upon an
indescribable monster, which proved to be a griffin.

“I look in vain,” observed I, “for the skin of an animal which might
well deserve the closest study of a naturalist,--the winged horse,

“He is not yet dead,” replied the virtuoso; “but he is so hard
ridden by many young gentlemen of the day that I hope soon to add
his skin and skeleton to my collection.”

We now passed to the next alcove of the hall, in which was a
multitude of stuffed birds.  They were very prettily arranged, some
upon the branches of trees, others brooding upon nests, and others
suspended by wires so artificially that they seemed in the very act
of flight.  Among them was a white dove, with a withered branch of
olive-leaves in her mouth.

“Can this be the very dove,” inquired I, “that brought the message
of peace and hope to the tempest-beaten passengers of the ark?”

“Even so,” said my companion.

“And this raven, I suppose,” continued I, “is the same that fed
Elijah in the wilderness.”

“The raven?  No,” said the virtuoso; “it is a bird of modern date.
He belonged to one Barnaby Rudge, and many people fancied that the
Devil himself was disguised under his sable plumage. But poor Grip
has drawn his last cork, and has been forced to ‘say die’ at last.
This other raven, hardly less curious, is that in which the soul of
King George I.  revisited his lady-love, the Duchess of Kendall.”

My guide next pointed out Minerva’s owl and the vulture that preyed
upon the liver of Prometheus.  There was likewise the sacred ibis of
Egypt, and one of the Stymphalides which Hercules shot in his sixth
labor.  Shelley’s skylark, Bryant’s water-fowl, and a pigeon from
the belfry of the Old South Church, preserved by N. P. Willis, were
placed on the same perch.  I could not but shudder on beholding
Coleridge’s albatross, transfixed with the Ancient Mariner’s
crossbow shaft.  Beside this bird of awful poesy stood a gray goose
of very ordinary aspect.

“Stuffed goose is no such rarity,” observed I.  “Why do you preserve
such a specimen in your museum?”

“It is one of the flock whose cackling saved the Roman Capitol,”
 answered the virtuoso.  “Many geese have cackled and hissed both
before and since; but none, like those, have clamored themselves
into immortality.”

There seemed to be little else that demanded notice in this
department of the museum, unless we except Robinson Crusoe’s parrot,
a live phoenix, a footless bird of paradise, and a splendid peacock,
supposed to be the same that once contained the soul of Pythagoras.
I therefore passed to the next alcove, the shelves of which were
covered with a miscellaneous collection of curiosities such as are
usually found in similar establishments. One of the first things
that took my eye was a strange-looking cap, woven of some substance
that appeared to be neither woollen, cotton, nor linen.

“Is this a magician’s cap?” I asked.

“No,” replied the virtuoso; “it is merely Dr. Franklin’s cap of
asbestos.  But here is one which, perhaps, may suit you better. It
is the wishing-cap of Fortunatus.  Will you try it on?”

“By no means,” answered I, putting it aside with my hand.  “The day
of wild wishes is past with me.  I desire nothing that may not come
in the ordinary course of Providence.”

“Then probably,” returned the virtuoso, “you will not be tempted to
rub this lamp?”

While speaking, he took from the shelf an antique brass lamp,
curiously wrought with embossed figures, but so covered with
verdigris that the sculpture was almost eaten away.

“It is a thousand years,” said he, “since the genius of this lamp
constructed Aladdin’s palace in a single night.  But he still
retains his power; and the man who rubs Aladdin’s lamp has but to
desire either a palace or a cottage.”

“I might desire a cottage,” replied I; “but I would have it founded
on sure and stable truth, not on dreams and fantasies.  I have
learned to look for the real and the true.”

My guide next showed me Prospero’s magic wand, broken into three
fragments by the hand of its mighty master.  On the same shelf lay
the gold ring of ancient Gyges, which enabled the wearer to walk
invisible.  On the other side of the alcove was a tall looking-glass
in a frame of ebony, but veiled with a curtain of purple silk,
through the rents of which the gleam of the mirror was perceptible.

“This is Cornelius Agrippa’s magic glass,” observed the virtuoso.
“Draw aside the curtain, and picture any human form within your
mind, and it will be reflected in the mirror.”

“It is enough if I can picture it within my mind,” answered I. “Why
should I wish it to be repeated in the mirror?  But, indeed, these
works of magic have grown wearisome to me.  There are so many
greater wonders in the world, to those who keep their eyes open and
their sight undimmed by custom, that all the delusions of the old
sorcerers seem flat and stale.  Unless you can show me something
really curious, I care not to look further into your museum.”

“Ah, well, then,” said the virtuoso, composedly, “perhaps you may
deem some of my antiquarian rarities deserving of a glance.”

He pointed out the iron mask, now corroded with rust; and my heart
grew sick at the sight of this dreadful relic, which had shut out a
human being from sympathy with his race.  There was nothing half so
terrible in the axe that beheaded King Charles, nor in the dagger
that slew Henry of Navarre, nor in the arrow that pierced the heart
of William Rufus,--all of which were shown to me.  Many of the
articles derived their interest, such as it was, from having been
formerly in the possession of royalty.  For instance, here was
Charlemagne’s sheepskin cloak, the flowing wig of Louis Quatorze,
the spinning-wheel of Sardanapalus, and King Stephen’s famous
breeches which cost him but a crown.  The heart of the Bloody Mary,
with the word “Calais” worn into its diseased substance, was
preserved in a bottle of spirits; and near it lay the golden case in
which the queen of Gustavus Adolphus treasured up that hero’s heart.
Among these relics and heirlooms of kings I must not forget the
long, hairy ears of Midas, and a piece of bread which had been
changed to gold by the touch of that unlucky monarch.  And as
Grecian Helen was a queen, it may here be mentioned that I was
permitted to take into my hand a lock of her golden hair and the
bowl which a sculptor modelled from the curve of her perfect breast.
Here, likewise, was the robe that smothered Agamemnon, Nero’s
fiddle, the Czar Peter’s brandy-bottle, the crown of Semiramis, and
Canute’s sceptre which he extended over the sea.  That my own land
may not deem itself neglected, let me add that I was favored with a
sight of the skull of King Philip, the famous Indian chief, whose
head the Puritans smote off and exhibited upon a pole.

“Show me something else,” said I to the virtuoso.  “Kings are in
such an artificial position that people in the ordinary walks of
life cannot feel an interest in their relics.  If you could show me
the straw hat of sweet little Nell, I would far rather see it than a
king’s golden crown.”

“There it is,” said my guide, pointing carelessly with his staff to
the straw hat in question.  “But, indeed, you are hard to please.
Here are the seven-league boots.  Will you try them on?”

“Our modern railroads have superseded their use,” answered I; “and
as to these cowhide boots, I could show you quite as curious a pair
at the Transcendental community in Roxbury.”

We next examined a collection of swords and other weapons, belonging
to different epochs, but thrown together without much attempt at
arrangement.  Here Was Arthur’s sword Excalibar, and that of the Cid
Campeader, and the sword of Brutus rusted with Caesar’s blood and
his own, and the sword of Joan of Arc, and that of Horatius, and
that with which Virginius slew his daughter, and the one which
Dionysius suspended over the head of Damocles. Here also was Arria’s
sword, which she plunged into her own breast, in order to taste of
death before her husband.  The crooked blade of Saladin’s cimeter
next attracted my notice.  I know not by what chance, but so it
happened, that the sword of one of our own militia generals was
suspended between Don Quixote’s lance and the brown blade of
Hudibras.  My heart throbbed high at the sight of the helmet of
Miltiades and the spear that was broken in the breast of
Epaminondas.  I recognized the shield of Achilles by its resemblance
to the admirable cast in the possession of Professor Felton.
Nothing in this apartment interested me more than Major Pitcairn’s
pistol, the discharge of which, at Lexington, began the war of the
Revolution, and was reverberated in thunder around the land for
seven long years. The bow of Ulysses, though unstrung for ages, was
placed against the wall, together with a sheaf of Robin Hood’s
arrows and the rifle of Daniel Boone.

“Enough of weapons,” said I, at length; “although I would gladly
have seen the sacred shield which fell from heaven in the time of
Numa.  And surely you should obtain the sword which Washington
unsheathed at Cambridge.  But the collection does you much credit.
Let us pass on.”

In the next alcove we saw the golden thigh of Pythagoras, which had
so divine a meaning; and, by one of the queer analogies to which the
virtuoso seemed to be addicted, this ancient emblem lay on the same
shelf with Peter Stuyvesant’s wooden leg, that was fabled to be of
silver.  Here was a remnant of the Golden Fleece, and a sprig of
yellow leaves that resembled the foliage of a frost-bitten elm, but
was duly authenticated as a portion of the golden branch by which
AEneas gained admittance to the realm of Pluto.  Atalanta’s golden
apple and one of the apples of discord were wrapped in the napkin of
gold which Rampsinitus brought from Hades; and the whole were
deposited in the golden vase of Bias, with its inscription: “TO THE

“And how did you obtain this vase?” said I to the virtuoso.

“It was given me long ago,” replied he, with a scornful expression
in his eye, “because I had learned to despise all things.”

It had not escaped me that, though the virtuoso was evidently a man
of high cultivation, yet he seemed to lack sympathy with the
spiritual, the sublime, and the tender.  Apart from the whim that
had led him to devote so much time, pains, and expense to the
collection of this museum, he impressed me as one of the hardest and
coldest men of the world whom I had ever met.

“To despise all things!” repeated I.  “This, at best, is the wisdom
of the understanding.  It is the creed of a man whose soul, whose
better and diviner part, has never been awakened, or has died out of

“I did not think that you were still so young,” said the virtuoso.
“Should you live to my years, you will acknowledge that the vase of
Bias was not ill bestowed.”

Without further discussion of the point, he directed my attention to
other curiosities.  I examined Cinderella’s little glass slipper,
and compared it with one of Diana’s sandals, and with Fanny
Elssler’s shoe, which bore testimony to the muscular character of
her illustrious foot.  On the same shelf were Thomas the Rhymer’s
green velvet shoes, and the brazen shoe of Empedocles which was
thrown out of Mount AEtna.  Anacreon’s drinking-cup was placed in
apt juxtaposition with one of Tom Moore’s wine-glasses and Circe’s
magic bowl.  These were symbols of luxury and riot; but near them
stood the cup whence Socrates drank his hemlock, and that which Sir
Philip Sidney put from his death-parched lips to bestow the draught
upon a dying soldier. Next appeared a cluster of tobacco-pipes,
consisting of Sir Walter Raleigh’s, the earliest on record, Dr.
Parr’s, Charles Lamb’s, and the first calumet of peace which was
ever smoked between a European and an Indian.  Among other musical
instruments, I noticed the lyre of Orpheus and those of Homer and
Sappho, Dr. Franklin’s famous whistle, the trumpet of Anthony Van
Corlear, and the flute which Goldsmith played upon in his rambles
through the French provinces.  The staff of Peter the Hermit stood
in a corner with that of good old Bishop Jewel, and one of ivory,
which had belonged to Papirius, the Roman senator.  The ponderous
club of Hercules was close at hand.  The virtuoso showed me the
chisel of Phidias, Claude’s palette, and the brush of Apelles,
observing that he intended to bestow the former either on Greenough,
Crawford, or Powers, and the two latter upon Washington Allston.
There was a small vase of oracular gas from Delphos, which I trust
will be submitted to the scientific analysis of Professor Silliman.
I was deeply moved on beholding a vial of the tears into which Niobe
was dissolved; nor less so on learning that a shapeless fragment of
salt was a relic of that victim of despondency and sinful
regrets,--Lot’s wife.  My companion appeared to set great value upon
some Egyptian darkness in a blacking-jug.  Several of the shelves were
covered by a collection of coins, among which, however, I remember
none but the Splendid Shilling, celebrated by Phillips, and a
dollar’s worth of the iron money of Lycurgus, weighing about fifty

Walking carelessly onward, I had nearly fallen over a huge bundle,
like a peddler’s pack, done up in sackcloth, and very securely
strapped and corded.

“It is Christian’s burden of sin,” said the virtuoso.

“O, pray let us open it!” cried I.  “For many a year I have longed
to know its contents.”

“Look into your own consciousness and memory,” replied the virtuoso.
“You will there find a list of whatever it contains.”

As this was all undeniable truth, I threw a melancholy look at the
burden and passed on.  A collection of old garments, banging on
pegs, was worthy of some attention, especially the shirt of Nessus,
Caesar’s mantle, Joseph’s coat of many colors, the Vicar of Bray’s
cassock, Goldsmith’s peach-bloom suit, a pair of President
Jefferson’s scarlet breeches, John Randolph’s red baize
hunting-shirt, the drab small-clothes of the Stout Gentleman, and the
rags of the “man all tattered and torn.”  George Fox’s hat impressed
me with deep reverence as a relic of perhaps the truest apostle that
has appeared on earth for these eighteen hundred years.  My eye was
next attracted by an old pair of shears, which I should have taken
for a memorial of some famous tailor, only that the virtuoso pledged
his veracity that they were the identical scissors of Atropos.  He
also showed me a broken hourglass which had been thrown aside by
Father Time, together with the old gentleman’s gray forelock,
tastefully braided into a brooch.  In the hour-glass was the handful
of sand, the grains of which had numbered the years of the Cumeean
sibyl.  I think it was in this alcove that I saw the inkstand which
Luther threw at the Devil, and the ring which Essex, while under
sentence of death, sent to Queen Elizabeth.  And here was the
blood-incrusted pen of steel with which Faust signed away his

The virtuoso now opened the door of a closet and showed me a lamp
burning, while three others stood unlighted by its side.  One of the
three was the lamp of Diogenes, another that of Guy Fawkes, and the
third that which Hero set forth to the midnight breeze in the high
tower of Ahydos.

“See!” said the virtuoso, blowing with all his force at the lighted

The flame quivered and shrank away from his breath, but clung to the
wick, and resumed its brilliancy as soon as the blast was exhausted.

“It is an undying lamp from the tomb of Charlemagne,” observed my
guide.  “That flame was kindled a thousand years ago.”

“How ridiculous to kindle an unnatural light in tombs!” exclaimed I.
“We should seek to behold the dead in the light of heaven. But what
is the meaning of this chafing-dish of glowing coals?”

“That,” answered the virtuoso, “is the original fire which
Prometheus stole from heaven.  Look steadfastly into it, and you
will discern another curiosity.”

I gazed into that fire,--which, symbolically, was the origin of all
that was bright and glorious in the soul of man,--and in the midst
of it, behold a little reptile, sporting with evident enjoyment of
the fervid heat!  It was a salamander.

“What a sacrilege!” cried I, with inexpressible disgust.  “Can you
find no better use for this ethereal fire than to cherish a
loathsome reptile in it?  Yet there are men who abuse the sacred fire
of their own souls to as foul and guilty a purpose.”

The virtuoso made no answer except by a dry laugh and an assurance
that the salamander was the very same which Benvenuto Cellini had
seen in his father’s household fire.  He then proceeded to show me
other rarities; for this closet appeared to be the receptacle of
what he considered most valuable in his collection.

“There,” said he, “is the Great Carbuncle of the White Mountains.”

I gazed with no little interest at this mighty gem, which it had
been one of the wild projects of my youth to discover.  Possibly it
might have looked brighter to me in those days than now; at all
events, it had not such brilliancy as to detain me long from the
other articles of the museum.  The virtuoso pointed out to me a
crystalline stone which hung by a gold chain against the wall.

“That is the philosopher’s stone,” said he.

“And have you the elixir vita which generally accompanies it?”
 inquired I.

“Even so; this urn is filled with it,” he replied.  “A draught would
refresh you.  Here is Hebe’s cup; will you quaff a health from it?”

My heart thrilled within me at the idea of such a reviving draught;
for methought I had great need of it after travelling so far on the
dusty road of life.  But I know not whether it were a peculiar
glance in the virtuoso’s eye, or the circumstance that this most
precious liquid was contained in an antique sepulchral urn, that
made me pause.  Then came many a thought with which, in the calmer
and better hours of life, I had strengthened myself to feel that
Death is the very friend whom, in his due season, even the happiest
mortal should be willing to embrace.

“No; I desire not an earthly immortality,” said I.

“Were man to live longer on the earth, the spiritual would die out of
him.  The spark of ethereal fire would be choked by the material,
the sensual.  There is a celestial something within us that
requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of heaven to preserve
it from decay and ruin.  I will have none of this liquid.  You do
well to keep it in a sepulchral urn; for it would produce death
while bestowing the shadow of life.”

“All this is unintelligible to me,” responded my guide, with
indifference.  “Life--earthly life--is the only good.  But you
refuse the draught?  Well, it is not likely to be offered twice
within one man’s experience.  Probably you have griefs which you
seek to forget in death.  I can enable you to forget them in life.
Will you take a draught of Lethe?”

As he spoke, the virtuoso took from the shelf a crystal vase
containing a sable liquor, which caught no reflected image from the
objects around.

“Not for the world!” exclaimed I, shrinking back.  “I can spare none
of my recollections, not even those of error or sorrow. They are all
alike the food of my spirit.  As well never to have lived as to lose
them now.”

Without further parley we passed to the next alcove, the shelves of
which were burdened with ancient volumes and with those rolls of
papyrus in which was treasured up the eldest wisdom of the earth.
Perhaps the most valuable work in the collection, to a bibliomaniac,
was the Book of Hermes.  For my part, however, I would have given a
higher price for those six of the Sibyl’s books which Tarquin
refused to purchase, and which the virtuoso informed me he had
himself found in the cave of Trophonius. Doubtless these old volumes
contain prophecies of the fate of Rome, both as respects the decline
and fall of her temporal empire and the rise of her spiritual one.
Not without value, likewise, was the work of Anaxagoras on Nature,
hitherto supposed to be irrecoverably lost, and the missing
treatises of Longinus, by which modern criticism might profit, and
those books of Livy for which the classic student has so long
sorrowed without hope. Among these precious tomes I observed the
original manuscript of the Koran, and also that of the Mormon Bible
in Joe Smith’s authentic autograph.  Alexander’s copy of the Iliad
was also there, enclosed in the jewelled casket of Darius, still
fragrant of the perfumes which the Persian kept in it.

Opening an iron-clasped volume, bound in black leather, I discovered
it to be Cornelius Agrippa’s book of magic; and it was rendered
still more interesting by the fact that many flowers, ancient and
modern, were pressed between its leaves.  Here was a rose from Eve’s
bridal bower, and all those red and white roses which were plucked
in the garden of the Temple by the partisans of York and Lancaster.
Here was Halleck’s Wild Rose of Alloway. Cowper had contributed a
Sensitive Plant, and Wordsworth an Eglantine, and Burns a Mountain
Daisy, and Kirke White a Star of Bethlehem, and Longfellow a Sprig
of Fennel, with its yellow flowers.  James Russell Lowell had given
a Pressed Flower, but fragrant still, which had been shadowed in the
Rhine.  There was also a sprig from Southey’s Holly Tree.  One of
the most beautiful specimens was a Fringed Gentian, which had been
plucked and preserved for immortality by Bryant.  From Jones Very, a
poet whose voice is scarcely heard among us by reason of its depth,
there was a Wind Flower and a Columbine.

As I closed Cornelius Agrippa’s magic volume, an old, mildewed
letter fell upon the floor.  It proved to be an autograph from the
Flying Dutchman to his wife.  I could linger no longer among books;
for the afternoon was waning, and there was yet much to see.  The
bare mention of a few more curiosities must suffice. The immense
skull of Polyphemus was recognizable by the cavernous hollow in the
centre of the forehead where once had blazed the giant’s single eye.
The tub of Diogenes, Medea’s caldron, and Psyche’s vase of beauty
were placed one within another. Pandora’s box, without the lid,
stood next, containing nothing but the girdle of Venus, which had
been carelessly flung into it.  A bundle of birch-rods which had
been used by Shenstone’s schoolmistress were tied up with the
Countess of Salisbury’s garter.  I know not which to value most, a
roc’s egg as big as an ordinary hogshead, or the shell of the egg
which Columbus set upon its end.  Perhaps the most delicate article
in the whole museum was Queen Mab’s chariot, which, to guard it from
the touch of meddlesome fingers, was placed under a glass tumbler.

Several of the shelves were occupied by specimens of entomology.
Feeling but little interest in the science, I noticed only
Anacreon’s grasshopper, and a bumblebee which had been presented to
the virtuoso by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In the part of the hall which we had now reached I observed a
curtain, that descended from the ceiling to the floor in voluminous
folds, of a depth, richness, and magnificence which I had never seen
equalled.  It was not to be doubted that this splendid though dark
and solemn veil concealed a portion of the museum even richer in
wonders than that through which I had already passed; but, on my
attempting to grasp the edge of the curtain and draw it aside, it
proved to be an illusive picture.

“You need not blush,” remarked the virtuoso; “for that same curtain
deceived Zeuxis.  It is the celebrated painting of Parrhasius.”

In a range with the curtain there were a number of other choice
pictures by artists of ancient days.  Here was the famous cluster of
grapes by Zeuxis, so admirably depicted that it seemed as if the
ripe juice were bursting forth.  As to the picture of the old woman
by the same illustrious painter, and which was so ludicrous that he
himself died with laughing at it, I cannot say that it particularly
moved my risibility.  Ancient humor seems to have little power over
modern muscles.  Here, also, was the horse painted by Apelles which
living horses neighed at; his first portrait of Alexander the Great,
and his last unfinished picture of Venus asleep.  Each of these
works of art, together with others by Parrhasius, Timanthes,
Polygnotus, Apollodorus, Pausias, and Pamplulus, required more time
and study than I could bestow for the adequate perception of their
merits.  I shall therefore leave them undescribed and uncriticised,
nor attempt to settle the question of superiority between ancient
and modern art.

For the same reason I shall pass lightly over the specimens of
antique sculpture which this indefatigable and fortunate virtuoso
had dug out of the dust of fallen empires.  Here was AEtion’s cedar
statue of AEsculapius, much decayed, and Alcon’s iron statue of
Hercules, lamentably rusted.  Here was the statue of Victory, six
feet high, which the Jupiter Olympus of Phidias had held in his
hand.  Here was a forefinger of the Colossus of Rhodes, seven feet
in length.  Here was the Venus Urania of Phidias, and other images
of male and female beauty or grandeur, wrought by sculptors who
appeared never to have debased their souls by the sight of any
meaner forms than those of gods or godlike mortals.  But the deep
simplicity of these great works was not to be comprehended by a mind
excited and disturbed, as mine was, by the various objects that had
recently been presented to it.  I therefore turned away with merely
a passing glance, resolving on some future occasion to brood over
each individual statue and picture until my inmost spirit should
feel their excellence.  In this department, again, I noticed the
tendency to whimsical combinations and ludicrous analogies which
seemed to influence many of the arrangements of the museum.  The
wooden statue so well known as the Palladium of Troy was placed in
close apposition with the wooden head of General Jackson, which was
stolen a few years since from the bows of the frigate Constitution.

We had now completed the circuit of the spacious hall, and found
ourselves again near the door.  Feeling somewhat wearied with the
survey of so many novelties and antiquities, I sat down upon
Cowper’s sofa, while the virtuoso threw himself carelessly into
Rabelais’s easychair.  Casting my eyes upon the opposite wall, I was
surprised to perceive the shadow of a man flickering unsteadily
across the wainscot, and looking as if it were stirred by some
breath of air that found its way through the door or windows.  No
substantial figure was visible from which this shadow might be
thrown; nor, had there been such, was there any sunshine that would
have caused it to darken upon the wall.

“It is Peter Schlemihl’s shadow,” observed the virtuoso, “and one of
the most valuable articles in my collection.”

“Methinks a shadow would have made a fitting doorkeeper to such a
museum,” said I; “although, indeed, yonder figure has something
strange and fantastic about him, which suits well enough with many
of the impressions which I have received here.  Pray, who is he?”

While speaking, I gazed more scrutinizingly than before at the
antiquated presence of the person who had admitted me, and who still
sat on his bench with the same restless aspect, and dim, confused,
questioning anxiety that I had noticed on my first entrance.  At
this moment he looked eagerly towards us, and, half starting from
his seat, addressed me.

“I beseech you, kind sir,” said he, in a cracked, melancholy tone,
“have pity on the most unfortunate man in the world.  For Heaven’s
sake, answer me a single question!  Is this the town of Boston?”

“You have recognized him now,” said the virtuoso.  “It is Peter
Rugg, the missing man.  I chanced to meet him the other day still in
search of Boston, and conducted him hither; and, as he could not
succeed in finding his friends, I have taken him into my service as
doorkeeper.  He is somewhat too apt to ramble, but otherwise a man
of trust and integrity.”

“And might I venture to ask,” continued I, “to whom am I indebted
for this afternoon’s gratification?”

The virtuoso, before replying, laid his hand upon an antique dart,
or javelin, the rusty steel head of winch seemed to have been
blunted, as if it had encountered the resistance of a tempered
shield, or breastplate.

“My name has not been without its distinction in the world for a
longer period than that of any other man alive,” answered he. “Yet
many doubt of my existence; perhaps you will do so to-morrow.  This
dart which I hold in my hand was once grim Death’s own weapon.  It
served him well for the space of four thousand years; but it fell
blunted, as you see, when he directed it against my breast.”

These words were spoken with the calm and cold courtesy of manner
that had characterized this singular personage throughout our
interview.  I fancied, it is true, that there was a bitterness
indefinably mingled with his tone, as of one cut off from natural
sympathies and blasted with a doom that had been inflicted on no
other human being, and by the results of which he had ceased to be
human.  Yet, withal, it seemed one of the most terrible consequences
of that doom that the victim no longer regarded it as a calamity,
but had finally accepted it as the greatest good that could have
befallen him.

“You are the Wandering Jew!”  exclaimed I.

The virtuoso bowed without emotion of any kind; for, by centuries of
custom, he had almost lost the sense of strangeness in his fate, and
was but imperfectly conscious of the astonishment and awe with which
it affected such as are capable of death.

“Your doom is indeed a fearful one!”  said I, with irrepressible
feeling and a frankness that afterwards startled me; “yet perhaps
the ethereal spirit is not entirely extinct under all this
corrupted or frozen mass of earthly life.  Perhaps the immortal
spark may yet be rekindled by a breath of heaven.  Perhaps you may
yet be permitted to die before it is too late to live eternally.
You have my prayers for such a consummation. Farewell.”

“Your prayers will be in vain,” replied he, with a smile of cold
triumph.  “My destiny is linked with the realities of earth.  You
are welcome to your visions and shadows of a future state; but give
me what I can see, and touch, and understand, and I ask no more.”

“It is indeed too late,” thought I.  “The soul is dead within him.”

Struggling between pity and horror, I extended my hand, to which the
virtuoso gave his own, still with the habitual courtesy of a man of
the world, but without a single heart-throb of human brotherhood.
The touch seemed like ice, yet I know not whether morally or
physically.  As I departed, he bade me observe that the inner door
of the hall was constructed with the ivory leaves of the gateway
through which Aeneas and the Sibyl had been dismissed from Hades.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Virtuoso's Collection (From "Mosses from an Old Manse")" ***

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