The existence of this story posthumously published was not known to any
one but Hawthorne himself until some time after his death when the
manuscript was found among his papers. The preparation and copying of his
Note-Books for the press occupied the most of Mrs. Hawthorne's available
time during the interval from 1864 to 1870; but in the latter year having
decided to publish the unfinished romance she began the task of putting
together its loose sheets and deciphering the handwriting which towards
the close of Hawthorne's life had grown somewhat obscure and uncertain.
Her death occurred while she was thus engaged and the transcription was
completed by her daughters. The book was then issued simultaneously in
America and England in 1871.
Although "Septimius Felton" appeared so much later than "The Marble Faun"
it was conceived and in another form begun before the Italian romance
had presented itself to the author's mind. The legend of a bloody foot
leaving its imprint where it passed which figures so prominently in the
following fiction was brought to Hawthorne's notice on a visit to
Smithell's Hall Lancashire England. [Footnote: See _English
Note-Books_ April 7 and August 25 1855.] Only five days after
hearing of it he made a note in his journal referring to "my Romance"
which had to do with a plot involving the affairs of a family established
both in England and New England; and it seems likely that he had already
begun to associate the bloody footstep with this project. What is
extraordinary and must be regarded as an unaccountable coincidence--one
of the strange premonitions of genius--is that in 1850 before he had ever
been to England and before he knew of the existence of Smithell's Hall he
had jotted down in his Note-Book written in America this suggestion:
"The print in blood of a naked foot to be traced through the street of a
town." The idea of treating in fiction the attempt to renew youth or to
attain an earthly immortality had engaged his fancy quite early in his
career as we discover from "Doctor Heidegger's Experiment" in the
"Twice-Told Tales." In 1840 also we find in the journal: "If a man were
sure of living forever he would not care about his offspring." The
"Mosses from an Old Manse" supply another link in this train of
reflection; for "The Virtuoso's Collection" includes some of the elixir
vitae "in an antique sepulchral urn." The narrator there represents
himself as refusing to quaff it. "'No; I desire not an earthly
immortality' said I. 'Were man to live longer on earth the spiritual
would die out of him.... There is a celestial something within us that
requires after a certain time the atmosphere of heaven to preserve it
from ruin.'" On the other hand just before hearing for the first time
the legend of Smithell's Hall he wrote in his English journal:--
"God himself cannot compensate us for being born for any period short of
eternity. All the misery endured here constitutes a claim for another
life and still more _all the happiness;_ because all true happiness
involves something more than the earth owns and needs something more than
a mortal capacity for the enjoyment of it." It is sufficiently clear that
he had meditated on the main theme of "Septimius Felton" at intervals
for many years.
When in August 1855 Hawthorne went by invitation to Smithell's Hall the
lady of the manor on his taking leave asked him "to write a ghost-story
for her house;" and he observes in his notes "the legend is a good one."
Three years afterwards in 1858 on the eve of departure for France and
Italy he began to sketch the outline of a romance laid in England and
having for its hero an American who goes thither to assert his inherited
rights in an old manor-house possessing the peculiarity of a supposed
bloody foot-print on the threshold-stone. This sketch which appears in
the present edition as "The Ancestral Footstep" was in journal form the
story continuing from day to day with the dates attached. There remains
also the manuscript without elate recently edited under the title "Dr.
Grimshawe's Secret" which bears a resemblance to some particulars in
Nothing further seems to have been done in this direction by the author
until he had been to Italy had written "The Marble Faun" and again
returned to The Wayside his home at Concord. It was then in 1861 that
he took up once more the "Romance of Immortality" as the sub-title of the
English edition calls it. "I have not found it possible" he wrote to Mr.
Bridge who remained his confidant "to occupy my mind with its usual
trash and nonsense during these anxious times; but as the autumn advances
I myself sitting down at my desk and blotting successive sheets of paper
as of yore." Concerning this place The Wayside he had said in a letter
to George William Curtis in 1852: "I know nothing of the history of the
house except Thoreau's telling me that it was inhabited a generation or
two ago by a man who believed he should never die." It was this legendary
personage whom he now proceeded to revive and embody as Septimius; and the
scene of the story was placed at The Wayside itself and the neighboring
house belonging to Mr. Bronson Alcott both of which stand at the base of
a low ridge running beside the Lexington road in the village of Concord.
Rose Garfield is mentioned as living "in a small house the site of which
is still indicated by the cavity of a cellar in which I this very summer
planted some sunflowers." The cellar-site remains at this day distinctly
visible near the boundary of the land formerly owned by Hawthorne.
Attention may here perhaps appropriately be called to the fact that some of
the ancestors of President Garfield settled at Weston not many miles from
Concord and that the name is still borne by dwellers in the vicinity. One
of the last letters written by the President was an acceptance of an
invitation to visit Concord; and it was his intention to journey thither
by carriage incognito from Boston passing through the scenes where
those ancestors had lived and entering the village by the old Lexington
road on which The Wayside faces. It is an interesting coincidence that
Hawthorne should have chosen for his first heroine's name either
intentionally or through unconscious association this one which belonged
to the region.
The house upon which the story was thus centred and where it was written
had been a farm-house bought and for a time occupied by Hawthorne
previous to his departure for Europe. On coming back to it he made some
additions to the old wooden structure and caused to be built a low tower
which rose above the irregular roofs of the older and newer portions thus
supplying him with a study lifted out of reach of noise or interruption
and in a slight degree recalling the tower in which he had taken so much
pleasure at the Villa Montauto. The study was extremely simple in its
appointments being finished chiefly in stained wood with a vaulted
plaster ceiling and containing besides a few pictures and some plain
furniture a writing-table and a shelf at which Hawthorne sometimes wrote
standing. A story has gone abroad and is widely believed that on
mounting the steep stairs leading to this study he passed through a
trap-door and afterwards placed upon it the chair in which he sat so that
intrusion or interruption became physically impossible. It is wholly
unfounded. There never was any trap-door and no precaution of the kind
described was ever taken. Immediately behind the house the hill rises in
artificial terraces which during the romancer's residence were grassy
and planted with fruit-trees. He afterwards had evergreens set out there
and directed the planting of other trees which still attest his
preference for thick verdure. The twelve acres running back over the hill
were closely covered with light woods and across the road lay a level
tract of eight acres more which included a garden and orchard. From his
study Hawthorne could overlook a good part of his modest domain; the view
embraced a stretch of road lined with trees wide meadows and the hills
across the shallow valley. The branches of trees rose on all sides as if
to embower the house and birds and bees flew about his casement through
which came the fresh perfumes of the woods in summer.
In this spot "Septimius Felton" was written; but the manuscript thrown
aside was mentioned in the Dedicatory Preface to "Our Old Home" as an
"abortive project." As will be found explained in the Introductory Notes
to "The Dolliver Romance" and "The Ancestral Footstep" that phase of the
same general design which was developed in the "Dolliver" was intended to
take the place of this unfinished sketch since resuscitated.
The following story is the last written by my father. It is printed as it
was found among his manuscripts. I believe it is a striking specimen of
the peculiarities and charm of his style and that it will have an added
interest for brother artists and for those who care to study the method
of his composition from the mere fact of its not having received his
final revision. In any case I feel sure that the retention of the
passages within brackets (_e. g._ p. 253) which show how my father
intended to amplify some of the descriptions and develop more fully one or
two of the character studies will not be regretted by appreciative
readers. My earnest thanks are due to Mr. Robert Browning for his kind
assistance and advice in interpreting the manuscript otherwise so
difficult to me.
OR THE ELIXIR OF LIFE.
It was a day in early spring; and as that sweet genial time of year and
atmosphere calls out tender greenness from the ground--beautiful flowers
or leaves that look beautiful because so long unseen under the snow and
decay--so the pleasant air and warmth had called out three young people
who sat on a sunny hill-side enjoying the warm day and one another. For
they were all friends: two of them young men and playmates from boyhood;
the third a girl who two or three years younger than themselves had
been the object of their boy-love their little rustic childish
gallantries their budding affections; until growing all towards manhood
and womanhood they had ceased to talk about such matters perhaps
thinking about them the more.
These three young people were neighbors' children dwelling in houses that
stood by the side of the great Lexington road along a ridgy hill that
rose abruptly behind them its brow covered with a wood and which
stretched with one or two breaks and interruptions into the heart of the
village of Concord the county town. It was in the side of this hill that
according to tradition the first settlers of the village had burrowed in
caverns which they had dug out for their shelter like swallows and
woodchucks. As its slope was towards the south and its ridge and crowning
woods defended them from the northern blasts and snow-drifts it was an
admirable situation for the fierce New England winter; and the temperature
was milder by several degrees along this hill-side than on the
unprotected plains or by the river or in any other part of Concord. So
that here during the hundred years that had elapsed since the first
settlement of the place dwellings had successively risen close to the
hill's foot and the meadow that lay on the other side of the road--a
fertile tract--had been cultivated; and these three young people were the
children's children's children of persons of respectability who had dwelt
there--Rose Garfield in a small house the site of which is still
indicated by the cavity of a cellar in which I this very past summer
planted some sunflowers to thrust their great disks out from the hollow
and allure the bee and the humming-bird; Robert Hagburn in a house of
somewhat more pretension a hundred yards or so nearer to the village
standing back from the road in the broader space which the retreating
hill cloven by a gap in that place afforded; where some elms intervened
between it and the road offering a site which some person of a natural
taste for the gently picturesque had seized upon. Those same elms or
their successors still flung a noble shade over the same old house which
the magic hand of Alcott has improved by the touch that throws grace
amiableness and natural beauty over scenes that have little pretension in
Now the other young man Septimius Felton dwelt in a small wooden house
then I suppose of some score of years' standing--a two-story house
gabled before but with only two rooms on a floor crowded upon by the
hill behind--a house of thick walls as if the projector had that sturdy
feeling of permanence in life which incites people to make strong their
earthly habitations as if deluding themselves with the idea that they
could still inhabit them; in short an ordinary dwelling of a well-to-do
New England farmer such as his race had been for two or three generations
past although there were traditions of ancestors who had led lives of
thought and study and possessed all the erudition that the universities
of England could bestow. Whether any natural turn for study had descended
to Septimius from these worthies or how his tendencies came to be
different from those of his family--who within the memory of the
neighborhood had been content to sow and reap the rich field in front of
their homestead--so it was that Septimius had early manifested a taste
for study. By the kind aid of the good minister of the town he had been
fitted for college; had passed through Cambridge by means of what little
money his father had left him and by his own exertions in school-keeping;
and was now a recently decorated baccalaureate with as was understood a
purpose to devote himself to the ministry under the auspices of that
reverend and good friend whose support and instruction had already stood
him in such stead.
Now here were these young people on that beautiful spring morning sitting
on the hill-side a pleasant spectacle of fresh life--pleasant as if
they had sprouted like green things under the influence of the warm sun.
The girl was very pretty a little freckled a little tanned but with a
face that glimmered and gleamed with quick and cheerful expressions; a
slender form not very large with a quick grace in its movements; sunny
hair that had a tendency to curl which she probably favored at such
moments as her household occupation left her; a sociable and pleasant
child as both of the young men evidently thought. Robert Hagburn one
might suppose would have been the most to her taste; a ruddy burly young
fellow handsome and free of manner six feet high famous through the
neighborhood for strength and athletic skill the early promise of what
was to be a man fit for all offices of active rural life and to be in
mature age the selectman the deacon the representative the colonel. As
for Septimius let him alone a moment or two and then they would see him
with his head bent down brooding brooding his eyes fixed on some chip
some stone some common plant any commonest thing as if it were the clew
and index to some mystery; and when by chance startled out of these
meditations he lifted his eyes there would be a kind of perplexity a
dissatisfied foiled look in them as if of his speculations he found no
end. Such was now the case while Robert and the girl were running on with
a gay talk about a serious subject so that gay as it was it was
interspersed with little thrills of fear on the girl's part of excitement
on Robert's. Their talk was of public trouble.
"My grandfather says" said Rose Garfield "that we shall never be able to
stand against old England because the men are a weaker race than he
remembers in his day--weaker than his father who came from England--and
the women slighter still; so that we are dwindling away grandfather
thinks; only a little sprightlier he says sometimes looking at me."
"Lighter to be sure" said Robert Hagburn; "there is the lightness of the
Englishwomen compressed into little space. I have seen them and know. And
as to the men Rose if they have lost one spark of courage and strength
that their English forefathers brought from the old land--lost any one
good quality without having made it up by as good or better--then for my
part I don't want the breed to exist any longer. And this war that they
say is coming on will be a good opportunity to test the matter.
Septimius! Don't you think so?"
"Think what?" asked Septimius gravely lifting up his head.
"Think! why that your countrymen are worthy to live" said Robert Hagburn
impatiently. "For there is a question on that point."
"It is hardly worth answering or considering" said Septimius looking at
him thoughtfully. "We live so little while that (always setting aside the
effect on a future existence) it is little matter whether we live or no."
"Little matter!" said Rose at first bewildered then laughing--"little
matter! when it is such a comfort to live so pleasant so sweet!"
"Yes and so many things to do" said Robert; "to make fields yield
produce; to be busy among men and happy among the women-folk; to play
work fight and be active in many ways."
"Yes; but so soon stilled before your activity has come to any definite
end" responded Septimius gloomily. "I doubt if it had been left to my
choice whether I should have taken existence on such terms; so much
trouble of preparation to live and then no life at all; a ponderous
beginning and nothing more."
"Do you find fault with Providence Septimius?" asked Rose a feeling of
solemnity coming over her cheerful and buoyant nature. Then she burst out
a-laughing. "How grave he looks Robert; as if he had lived two or three
lives already and knew all about the value of it. But I think it was
worth while to be born if only for the sake of one such pleasant spring
morning as this; and God gives us many and better things when these are
"We hope so" said Septimius who was again looking on the ground. "But who
"I thought you knew" said Robert Hagburn. "You have been to college and
have learned no doubt a great many things. You are a student of
theology too and have looked into these matters. Who should know if not
"Rose and you have just as good means of ascertaining these points as I"
said Septimius; "all the certainty that can be had lies on the surface as
it should and equally accessible to every man or woman. If we try to
grope deeper we labor for naught and get less wise while we try to be
more so. If life were long enough to enable us thoroughly to sift these
matters then indeed!--but it is so short!"
"Always this same complaint" said Robert. "Septimius how long do you wish
"Forever!" said Septimius. "It is none too long for all I wish to know."
"Forever?" exclaimed Rose shivering doubtfully. "Ah there would come
many many thoughts and after a while we should want a little rest."
"Forever?" said Robert Hagburn. "And what would the people do who wish to
fill our places? You are unfair Septimius. Live and let live! Turn about!
Give me my seventy years and let me go--my seventy years of what this
life has--toil enjoyment suffering struggle fight rest--only let me
have my share of what's going and I shall be content."
"Content with leaving everything at odd ends; content with being nothing
as you were before!"
"No Septimius content with heaven at last" said Rose who had come out
of her laughing mood into a sweet seriousness. "Oh dear! think what a worn
and ugly thing one of these fresh little blades of grass would seem if it
were not to fade and wither in its time after being green in its time."
"Well well my pretty Rose" said Septimius apart "an immortal weed is
not very lovely to think of that is true; but I should be content with
one thing and that is yourself if you were immortal just as you are at
seventeen so fresh so dewy so red-lipped so golden-haired so gay so
frolicsome so gentle."
"But I am to grow old and to be brown and wrinkled gray-haired and ugly"
said Rose rather sadly as she thus enumerated the items of her decay
"and then you would think me all lost and gone. But still there might be
youth underneath for one that really loved me to see. Ah Septimius
Felton! such love as would see with ever-new eyes is the true love." And
she ran away and left him suddenly and Robert Hagburn departing at the
same time this little knot of three was dissolved and Septimius went
along the wayside wall thoughtfully as was his wont to his own
dwelling. He had stopped for some moments on the threshold vaguely
enjoying it is probable the light and warmth of the new spring day and
the sweet air which was somewhat unwonted to the young man because he
was accustomed to spend much of his day in thought and study within doors
and indeed like most studious young men was overfond of the fireside
and of making life as artificial as he could by fireside heat and
lamplight in order to suit it to the artificial intellectual and moral
atmosphere which he derived from books instead of living healthfully in
the open air and among his fellow-beings. Still he felt the pleasure of
being warmed through by this natural heat and though blinking a little
from its superfluity could not but confess an enjoyment and cheerfulness
in this flood of morning light that came aslant the hill-side. While he
thus stood he felt a friendly hand laid upon his shoulder and looking
up there was the minister of the village the old friend of Septimius to
whose advice and aid it was owing that Septimius had followed his
instincts by going to college instead of spending a thwarted and
dissatisfied life in the field that fronted the house. He was a man of
middle age or little beyond of a sagacious kindly aspect; the
experience the lifelong intimate acquaintance with many concerns of his
people being more apparent in him than the scholarship for which he had
been early distinguished. A tanned man like one who labored in his own
grounds occasionally; a man of homely plain address which when occasion
called for it he could readily exchange for the polished manner of one
who had seen a more refined world than this about him.
"Well Septimius" said the minister kindly "have you yet come to any
conclusion about the subject of which we have been talking?"
"Only so far sir" replied Septimius "that I find myself every day less
inclined to take up the profession which I have had in view so many years.
I do not think myself fit for the sacred desk."
"Surely not; no one is" replied the clergyman; "but if I may trust my own
judgment you have at least many of the intellectual qualifications that
should adapt you to it. There is something of the Puritan character in
you Septimius derived from holy men among your ancestors; as for
instance a deep brooding turn such as befits that heavy brow; a
disposition to meditate on things hidden; a turn for meditative
inquiry--all these things with grace to boot mark you as the germ of a
man who might do God service. Your reputation as a scholar stands high at
college. You have not a turn for worldly business."
"Ah but sir" said Septimius casting down his heavy brows "I lack
"Faith perhaps" replied the minister; "at least you think so."
"Cannot I know it?" asked Septimius.
"Scarcely just now" said his friend. "Study for the ministry; bind your
thoughts to it; pray; ask a belief and you will soon find you have it.
Doubts may occasionally press in; and it is so with every clergyman. But
your prevailing mood will be faith."
"It has seemed to me" observed Septimius "that it is not the prevailing
mood the most common one that is to be trusted. This is habit
formality the shallow covering which we close over what is real and
seldom suffer to be blown aside. But it is the snake-like doubt that
thrusts out its head which gives us a glimpse of reality. Surely such
moments are a hundred times as real as the dull quiet moments of faith or
what you call such."
"I am sorry for you" said the minister; "yet to a youth of your frame of
character of your ability I will say and your requisition for something
profound in the grounds of your belief it is not unusual to meet this
trouble. Men like you have to fight for their faith. They fight in the
first place to win it and ever afterwards to hold it. The Devil tilts
with them daily and often seems to win."
"Yes; but" replied Septimius "he takes deadly weapons now. If he meet me
with the cold pure steel of a spiritual argument I might win or lose and
still not feel that all was lost; but he takes as it were a great clod
of earth massive rocks and mud soil and dirt and flings it at me
overwhelmingly; so that I am buried under it."
"How is that?" said the minister. "Tell me more plainly."