The Mortal Immortal
by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Editor's Notes by Blake Linton Wilfong

      Published in 1833, this story predates even Edgar Allan Poe's SF works. And most of the tale takes place earlier still--in the 1500s, an unusual setting for sci-fi!
      Another noteworthy feature of "The Mortal Immortal" is that one of its characters is a genuine historical figure--though you may not find him in modern encyclopedias. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1536) was a German lawyer, diplomat, teacher, physician, writer, theologian, and alchemist. He helped form a secret society of theosophists, and his magnum opus On Occult Philosophy was filled with superstitious nonsense. But Agrippa also rightfully satirized the poor state of existing science and the pretensions of the learned. He advocated women's rights and equality, and tangled with the Inquisition--boldly and persistently defending a woman accused of witchcraft. He failed, and was forced to resign his positition as magistrate in Metz.
      "The Mortal Immortal" exaggerates the facts about Agrippa. Nonetheless, the story is clearly science fiction rather than fantasy because it portrays him not as a sorceror brewing magic potions but as a research scientist inventing new medicines. This representation is consistent with Mary Shelley's discussion of Agrippa in Frankenstein (1818), where she credits him as an important forerunner and inspiration to the true scientists of later centuries.

July 16, 1833.--today is my 323rd birthday!

The Wandering Jew?--certainly not. More than 18 centuries have passed over his head. Compared to him, I am a very young Immortal.

Am I, then, immortal? This I have asked myself day and night for 303 years; yet I cannot answer. I found a gray hair amid my brown locks this very day. Yet it may have remained concealed there for 300 years. Some 20-year-olds are whiteheaded.

You may judge for me. I will tell my story, and pass some few hours of a long and wearisome eternity. To live forever! Can it be? I have heard of enchantments that plunged the victims into deep sleep, to wake, after 100 years, fresh as ever; I have heard of the Seven Sleepers--thus to be immortal would not be so burdensome: but, oh! the weight of neverending time--the tedious passage of the still-succeeding hours! But to my task.

Everyone has heard of Cornelius Agrippa. His memory is as immortal as his arts have made me. Everyone has also heard of his scholar, who, unawares, raised the foul fiend during his master's absence, and was destroyed. The report, true or false, of this accident, caused the renowned philosopher many inconveniences. All his scholars and servants deserted him. He had no one to put coals on his ever-burning fires while he slept, or to attend to the changeful colors of his medicines while he studied. Experiment after experiment failed.

I was then very young, very poor, and very much in love. I had been for about a year the pupil of Cornelius, though I was absent when this accident occured. On my return, my friends told me the dire tale, imploring me not to return to the alchemist's abode. I required no second warning; when Cornelius came and offered me a purse of gold if I would remain under his roof, I felt as if Satan himself tempted me. My teeth chattered; my hair stood on end. I fled as fast as my trembling knees would permit.

My failing steps were directed whither for two years they had every evening been attracted: a bubbling spring of pure living waters, beside which lingered a dark-haired girl, whose beaming eyes were fixed on the path I was accustomed each night to tread. I cannot remember a time when I did not love Bertha; we had been neighbors and playmates from infancy. Her parents, like mine, were of humble life, yet respectable; our attachment had been a source of pleasure to them. But a malignant fever had carried off both her father and mother, making Bertha an orphan. She would have found a home with us, but, unfortunately, the old lady of the near castle, rich, childless, and solitary, adopted her. Henceforth Bertha was highly favored by fortune. But in her new situation among new associates, Bertha remained true to the friend of her humbler days; she often visited my father's cottage, and when forbidden to go thither, she would meet me beside that shady fountain in the neightboring wood.

She often declared that she owed no duty to her new protectress equal in sanctity to that which bound us. Yet I remained too poor to marry, and she grew weary of being tormented on my account. She had a haughty, impatient spirit, and grew angry at the obstacles preventing our union. We met now after an absence, and she had been sorely beset while I was away; she complained bitterly, and almost reproached me for being poor.

I replied hastily, "I am honest, if I am poor! Were I not, I might soon become rich!"

This exclamation produced a thousand questions. I feared to shock her, but she drew the story from me. Then, with disdain, she said, "You pretend to love, yet you fear to face the Devil for my sake!"

Thus goaded, and led on by love and hope, I returned to accept the alchemist's offer, and was instantly installed in my office.

A year passed. My savings grew even as my fears dwindled. Despite my vigilance, I never detected a trace of a cloven foot, nor was the studious silence of our abode ever disturbed by demonic howls. I continued my stolen interviews with Bertha, and Hope dawned on me--but not perfect joy, for Bertha, though true of heart, was somewhat a coquette, and I was jealous as a Turk. She slighted me in a thousand ways, yet would never admit she was in the wrong. She would drive me mad with anger, then force me to beg her pardon. Sometimes, fancying I was not sufficiently submissive, she told some story of a rival, favored by her protectress. She was surrounded by rich, cheerful, silk-clad youths; what chance had the sad-robed scholar of Cornelius?

Once, the philosopher became engaged in some mighty work, and I was forced to remain, day and night, feeding his furnaces and watching his chemical preparations. Bertha waited for me in vain at the fountain. Her haughty spirit fired at this neglect; and when at last I stole out during the few short minutes alloted me for slumber, hoping to be consoled by her, she received me with disdain, dismissed me in scorn, and vowed that any man should possess her hand rather than he who could not be in two places at once for her sake. She would be revenged!--And truly she was. In my dingy retreat I heard she had been hunting, attended by Albert Hoffer. Hoffer was favored by her protectress, and the three passed in cavalcade before my smoky window. Methought I heard my name--followed by a derisive laugh, as her dark eyes glanced contemptuously toward my abode.

All the venom and misery of jealousy entered my breast. Now, I shed a torrent of tears, to think that I should never call her mine; anon, I cursed her inconstancy. Yet, still I must stir the fires of the alchemist, still attend the changes of his unintelligible medicines.

Cornelius had watched for three days and nights, nor closed his eyes. The progress of his alembics was slow. Despite his anxiety, sleep weighed on his eyelids. Again and again he threw off drowsiness with superhuman energy; again and again it stole away his senses. He eyed his crucibles wistfully. "Not ready yet," he murmured; "will another night pass before the work is accomplished? Winzy, my boy, you are vigilant and faithful--you slept last night. Look at that glass vessel. The liquid it contains has a soft rose-color; the moment it begins to change, awaken me--till then I may close my eyes. First, it will turn white, then emit golden flashes; but wait not till then; when the rose-color fades, rouse me." I scarcely heard the last words, muttered, as they were, in sleep. Even then he did not quite yield to nature. "Winzy, my boy," he again said, "touch not the vessel--do not put it to your lips; it is a philter to--to cure love; lest you cease loving your Bertha--beware to drink!"

And he slept. His venerable head sunk on his breast, and I scarce heard his regular breathing--for he had reminded me of Bertha. Serpents and adders filled my heart. False, cruel girl! Nevermore would she smile on me as that evening she smiled on Albert. Oh, how I wished them both dead! I despised her--and loved her. Yes, it was love that held me in hopeless, abject thrall to Bertha. Could I but regard her with indifference--forget her and love instead someone fairer and truer--that would be victory!

A bright flash darted before my eyes. I had forgotten the adept's medicine! I gazed on it with wonder: flashes of admirable beauty, brighter than the gleams of a sunlit diamond, glanced from the surface of the liquid; the most fragrant and graceful odor stole over my sense; the vessel seemed one globe of living radiance, lovely to the eye, and irresistible to the taste. My first instinctive thought: I must drink! I raised the vessel to my lips. "It will cure me of love--of torture!" I had quaffed half of the most delicious liquor ever tasted by the palate of man, when the philosopher stirred. I started--dropped the glass--and the fluid flamed and spread along the floor, while Cornelius gripped my throat, shrieking, "Wretch! You have destroyed my lifework!"

The philosopher was unaware I had drunk any portion of his drug. He assumed I had raised the vessel from curiosity, and, frighted at its intense flashes, let it fall. I never undeceived him. The medicine's fire was quenched; its fragrance dissipated; he grew calm, as a philosopher should under the heaviest trials, and dismissed me to rest.

I cannot describe the sleep of glory and bliss which bathed my soul in paradise that memorable night. Words would be faint echoes of the gladness that possessed my bosom when I woke. I trod air; Earth appeared heaven, and my inheritance on it was to be one trance of delight. "This it is to be cured of love," I thought; "I will see Bertha today, and she will find her lover cold and regardless; too happy to be disdainful, yet utterly indifferent to her!"

The hours danced away. The philosopher, encouraged by his near-success, began concocting the same medicine once more. He was shut up with his books and drugs, and I had a holiday. I dressed carefully; looking in a mirror, I thought my good looks had wonderfully improved. I hurried beyond the precincts of the town, my soul joyous, the beauty of heaven and earth around me. I turned toward the castle; I could look on its lofty turrets with lightness of heart, for I was cured of love. My Bertha saw me afar off, as I strode up the avenue. I know not what sudden impulse animated her bosom, but at the sight, she sprang with a light fawnlike bound down the marble steps, and hastened toward me. But the old highborn hag, her protectress--nay, her tyrant!--had seen me also; she hobbled, panting, up the terrace; a page, as ugly as herself, held up her train, and fanned her as she hurried along, and stopped my fair girl with a "How, now, my bold mistress? Whither so fast? Back to your cage--hawks are abroad!"

Bertha clasped her hands, eyes still bent on my approaching figure. I saw the contest, and abhorred the old crone who checked the kind impulses of my Bertha's softening heart. Hitherto, respect for her rank had caused me to avoid the lady of the castle; now I disdained such trivial considerations. Cured of love, lifted above human fears, I hastened forward, and reached the terrace. How lovely Bertha looked--eyes flashing fire, cheeks glowing with impatience and anger. She was a thousand times more graceful and charming than ever. I no longer loved--Oh! no, I adored--worshipped--idolized her!

She had that morning been given an ultimatum: should she refuse immediate marriage with my rival, she would be cast out in disgrace and shame. Her proud spirit rose in arms at the threat; but when she remembered the scorn she had heaped upon me, and how, perhaps, she had thus lost her only true friend, she wept with remorse and rage. At that moment I appeared. "O, Winzy!" she exclaimed, "take me to your mother's cottage, away from the detested luxuries and wretchedness of this noble dwelling--take me to poverty and happiness."

I clasped her in my arms with transport. The old lady was speechless, and broke forth into furious invective only when we were far on the road. My mother received the fair fugitive, escaped from a gilt cage to nature and liberty; it was a day of rejoicing, which did not need the alchemist's celestial potion to steep me in delight.

I soon became Bertha's husband. I ceased to be the scholar of Cornelius, but continued his friend. I always felt grateful to him for that delicious draught of divine elixir, which, instead of curing me of love (sad cure! solitary and joyless remedy for evils which seem blessings now), had inspired me with the courage and resolution to win an inestimable treasure: my Bertha.

The invigorating, blissful effects of Cornelius' drink faded by degrees, yet lingered long--and painted life in hues of splendor. Bertha often wondered at my lightness of heart and unaccustomed gaiety; for, before, my disposition had been serious--even sad. She loved me the better for my cheerfulness, and our days were winged with joy.

Five years afterward I was unexpectedly summoned to the bedside of the dying Cornelius. I found him stretched enfeebled on his pallet; all of life that yet remained animated his piercing eyes, and they were fixed on a glass vessel full of roseate liquid.

"Behold," he said, in a broken, inward voice, "the vanity of human wishes! a second time my hopes are about to be crowned--and destroyed. Look at that liquor--five years ago I prepared the same, with the same success. Then, as now, my thirsting lips expected to taste the immortal elixir. You dashed it from me! and at present it is too late."

He spoke with difficulty, and fell back on his pillow. I could not help saying,--

"How, revered master, can a cure for love restore you to life?"

A faint smile gleamed across his face as I listened earnestly to his scarcely audible answer.

"A cure for love and for all things--the Elixir of Immortality. Ah! if now I might drink, I should live forever!"

As he spoke, a golden flash gleamed from the fluid; a well-remembered fragrance stole over the air; he raised himself, weak as he was--strength seemed miraculously to reenter his frame--he stretched forth his hand--a loud explosion startled me--a ray of fire shot up from the elixir, and the glass vessel containing it shivered to atoms! The philosopher fell back, eyes glassy, features rigid. He was dead!

But I lived and would live forever! So said the unfortunate alchemist, and for a few days I believed. I remembered the glorious drunkenness following my stolen draught, that bounding elasticity of frame and bouyant lightness of soul. I surveyed myself in a mirror, and could perceive no change in my features during the five years which had elapsed. I remembered the radiant hues and grateful scent of that delicious beverage--worthy of the gift it could bestow----I was, then, IMMORTAL!

I soon laughed at my credulity, however. The adage, "A prophet is least regarded in his own country," was true of me and my defunct master. I loved him as a man and respected him as a sage, but derided the notion that he could command the powers of darkness, and laughed at the superstitious fears with which vulgar folk regarded him. His science was simply human; and human science, I persuaded myself, could never conquer nature's laws so far as to imprison the soul forever within its carnal habitation. Cornelius had brewed a soul-refreshing drink--more inebriating than wine--sweeter and more fragrant than any fruit; it probably possessed strong medicinal powers, imparting gladness to the heart and vigor to the limbs; but its effects would wear off; already were they diminished. I was lucky to have quaffed health and joyous spirits, and perhaps long life, at my master's hands, but my good fortune ended there: longevity was far different from immortality.

Thus, for many years, I believed I would meet the fate of all the children of Adam at my appointed time--a little late, but still at a natural age. Yet I certainly retained a wonderfully youthful look. I was laughed at for my vanity in consulting the mirror so often, but I consulted it in vain--my brow was untrenched--my cheeks--my eyes--my whole person continued as untarnished as in my 20th year.

I grew troubled. I looked at Bertha's faded beauty--I seemed more like her son. And Bertha herself grew uneasy. She became jealous and peevish, and at length began to question me. We had no children; we were in all to each other; and though, as she grew older, her vivacious spirit became a little ill-tempered, and her beauty sadly diminished, I cherished her in my heart as the mistress I had idolized, the wife I had sought and won with perfect love.

But some obstacles love cannot overcome. Our neighbors became suspicious, calling me the "Scholar Bewitched" and spreading rumors that I had kept up an iniquitous acquaintance with some of my former master's supposed friends. I was regarded with horror and detestation, while poor Bertha was pitied, but deserted. I was forced to journey 20 miles, to some place where I was unknown, just to sell my farm's produce.

Finally we sat by our lonely fireside--the old-hearted youth and his antiquated wife. Again Bertha insisted on knowing the truth; she recapitulated all she had ever heard about me, and added her own observations. She entreated me to cast off the spell; she described how much more comely gray hairs were than my chestnut locks; she descanted on the reverence and respect due age. And could the despicable gifts of youth and good looks outweigh disgrace, hatred, and scorn? Nay, in the end I should be burnt as a dealer in the black art, while she might be stoned as my accomplice. At length she insinuated that I must share my secret with her, and bestow on her like benefits to those I myself enjoyed, or she would denounce me--then she burst into tears.

Thus beset, methought it best to tell the truth. I revealed it as tenderly as I could, and spoke only of very long life, not immortality. When I ended, I rose and said,

"And now, my Bertha, will you denounce the lover of your youth? You will not, I know. But you should suffer no more from my ill-luck and the accursed arts of Cornelius. I will leave you--you have wealth enough saved away, and friends will return in my absence. Young as I seem, and strong as I am, I can work and gain my bread among strangers, unsuspected and unknown. I loved you in youth; God is my witness that I would not desert you in age, but that your safety and happiness require it."

I took my cap and moved toward the door; in a moment Bertha's arms were around my neck and her lips pressed to mine. "No, my husband, my Winzy," she said, "you shall not go alone--take me with you. As you say, among strangers we shall be unsuspected and safe. I am not so very old as quite to shame you, my Winzy; and I dare say the charm will soon wear off, and, with the blessing of God, you will age as is fitting; you shall not leave me."

Thus we prepared secretly for our emigration. We made great pecuniary sacrifices--it could not be helped. We realized a sum sufficient, at least, to maintain us while Bertha lived; and, without saying adieu to anyone, quitted our native country to take refuge in a remote part of western France.

It was cruel to transport poor Bertha from her native village, and the friends of her youth, to a new country, new language, new customs. The strange secret of my destiny rendered this removal immaterial to me; but I compassioned her deeply, and was glad to perceive that she found compensation for her misfortunes in a variety of little ridiculous circumstances. She sought to decrease the apparent disparity of our ages by a thousand feminine arts--rouge, youthful dress, and assumed juvenility of manner. I grieved deeply when I remembered that this was my Bertha, whom I had loved so fondly--the dark-eyed, dark-haired girl, of enchanting smile and fawnlike step--this mincing, simpering, jealous old woman. I should have revered her gray locks and withered cheeks; but thus!--It was my fault, I knew; but I nonetheless deplored this type of human weakness.

Her jealousy never slept. Her chief occupation was to discover that, in spite of outward appearances, I was growing old. The poor soul loved me truly in her heart, but she had a tormenting way of showing it. She would discern wrinkles in my face and decrepitude in my walk, while I bounded along in youthful vigor, the youngest looking of 20 youths. I never dared address another woman; one time, fancying that the village belle regarded me with favoring eyes, she brought me a gray wig. Her constant discourse among her acquaintances was that though I looked so young, there was ruin at work within my frame; and she affirmed that the worst symptom about me was my apparent health. My youth was a disease, she said, and I ought always to prepare, if not for sudden and awful death, at least to awake some morning white-headed, and bowed down with the marks of advanced years. I let her talk--I ofted joined in her conjectures. Her warnings chimed in with my never-ceasing speculations concerning my state, and I took an earnest, though painful, interest in listening to all that her quick wit and excited imagination could say on the subject.

Why dwell on these minute circumstances? We lived on for many long years. Bertha became bedrid and paralytic: I nursed her as a mother might a child. She grew peevish, and still harped on one string--of how long I should survive her. It has ever been a source of consolation to me that I performed my duty scrupulously toward her. She had been mine in youth, she was mine in age, and at last, when I heaped the sod over her corpse, I wept because I had lost all that really bound me to humanity.

Since then how many have been my cares and woes, how few and empty my enjoyments! I pause here in my history--I will pursue it no further. A sailor without rudder or compass, tossed on a stormy sea--a traveler lost on a widespread heath, without landmark or stone to guide him--such have I been: more lost, more hopeless than either. A nearing ship, a gleam from some far cot, may save them; but I have no beacon except the hope of death.

Death! mysterious, ill-visaged friend of weak humanity! Why alone of all mortals have you cast me from your sheltering fold? O, for the peace of the grave! the deep silence of the iron-bound tomb! that thought would cease to work in my brain, and my heart beat no more with emotions varied only by new forms of sadness!

Am I immortal? I return to my first question. Is it not more probable that the alchemist's beverage was fraught rather with longevity than eternal life? Such is my hope. And remember that I only drank half the potion. Was not the whole necessary to complete the charm? To have drained half the Elixir of Immortality is but to be half immortal.

But again, infinity halved is still infinity.

Sometimes I fancy age advancing on me. One gray hair I have found. Fool! do I lament? Yes, the fear of age and death often creeps coldly into my heart, and the more I live, the more I dread death, even while I abhor life. Such a paradox is man--born to perish--when he wars, as I do, against the established laws of nature.

But for this fear surely I might die: the medicine of the alchemist would not be proof against fire, sword, and the strangling waters. I have gazed into the blue depths of placid lakes, and the tumultuous rushing of mighty rivers, and have said, peace inhabits those waters; yet I turned away, to live yet another day. I have pondered whether suicide would be a crime in one to whom thus only the portals of the other world could be opened. I have done all, except becoming a soldier or duelist, an object of destruction to my--no, not my fellow-mortals, and therefore I have shrunk away. They are not my fellows. The inextinguishable power of life in my frame, and their ephemeral existence, places us wide as the poles asunder. I could not raise a hand against the humblest or most powerful among them.

Thus I have lived on for many years--alone, and weary of myself--desiring death, yet never dying--a mortal immortal. Neither ambition nor avarice can enter my mind, and the ardent love that gnaws at my heart, never to be returned--never to find an equal on which to expend itself--lives there only to torment me.

Today I conceived a design by which I may end all--without self-slaughter, without making another man a Cain--an expedition no mortal frame could ever survive, even endued with the youth and strength that inhabits mine. Thus I shall put my immortality to the test, and rest forever--or return, the wonder and benefactor of the human species.

Before I go, a miserable vanity has caused me to pen these pages. I would not die, and leave no name behind. Three centuries have passed since I quaffed the fatal beverage; another year shall not elapse before, encountering gigantic dangers--warring with the powers of frost in their home--beset by famine, toil, and tempest--I yield this body, too tenacious a cage for the soul which thirsts for freedom, to the destructive elements of air and water--or, if I survive, my name shall be recorded among the most famous of the sons of men; and, my task achieved, I shall adopt more resolute means, and, by scattering and annihilating the atoms that compose my frame, set at liberty the life imprisoned within, and so cruelly prevented from soaring from this dim Earth to a sphere more congenial to its immortal essence.

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