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New Readings in Biography


                                          O not for him
Blooms my dark nightshade, not doth hemlock brew
Murder for cups within her cavernous root


GRIEVOUS is the lot of the child, more especially of the female child, who is doomed from the tenderest infancy to lack the blessing of a mother’s care.

Was it from this absence of maternal vigilance that the education of the lovely Mithridata was conducted from her babyhood in such an extraordinary manner? That enormous serpents infested her cradle, licking her face and twining round her limbs? That her tiny fingers patted scorpions? And tied knots in the tails of vipers? That her father, the magician Locusto, ever sedulous and affectionate, fed her with spoonsful of the honeyed froth that gathers under the tongues of asps? That as she grew older and craved a more nutritious diet, she partook, at first in infinitesimal doses, but in ever increasing quantities, of arsenic, strychnine, opium, and prussic acid? That at last having attained the flower of youth, she drank habitually from vessels of gold, for her favourite beverages were so corrosive that no other substance could resist their solvent properties?

Gradually accustomed to this strange regimen, she had thriven on it marvellously, and was without a peer for beauty, sense, and goodness. Her father had watched over her education with care, and had instructed her in all lawful knowledge, save only the knowledge of poisons. As no other human being entered the house, Mithridata was unaware that her bringing up had differed in so material a respect from that of other young people.

“Father,” said she one day, bringing him a book she had been perusing, “what strange follies learned men will pen with gravity! Or is it rather that none can set bounds to the license of romancers? These dear serpents, my friends and playfellows, this henbane and antimony, the nourishment of my health and vigour—that one should write of these as pernicious, deadly, and fatal to existence! Is it error or malignity? Or but the wanton freak of an idle imagination?”

“My child,” answered the magician, “it is fit that thou shouldst now learn what hath hitherto been concealed from thee, and with this object I left this treatise in thy way. It speaks truth. Thou hast been nurtured from thy infancy on substances endowed with lethal properties, commonly called poisons. Thy entire frame is impregnated thereby, and, although thou thyself art in the fullest enjoyment of health, thy kiss would be fatal to any one not, like thy father, fortified by a course of antidotes. Now hear the reason. I bear a deadly grudge to the king of this land. He indeed hath not injured me; but his father slew my father, wherefore it is meet that I should slay that ancestor’s son’s son. I have therefore nurtured thee from thy infancy on the deadliest poisons, until thou art a walking vial of pestilence. The young prince shall unseal thee, to his destruction and thy unspeakable advantage. Go to the great city; thou art beautiful as the day; he is young, handsome, and amorous; he will infallibly fall in love with thee. Do thou submit to his caresses, he will perish miserably; thou (such is the charm), ransomed by the kiss of love, wilt become wholesome and innocuous as thy fellows, preserving only thy knowledge of poisons, always useful, in the present state of society invaluable. Thou wilt therefore next repair to the city of Constantinople, bearing recommendatory letters from me to the Empress Theophano, now happily reigning.”

“Father,” said Mithridata, “either I shall love this young prince, or I shall not. If I do not love him, I am nowise minded to suffer him to caress me. If I do love him, I am as little minded to be the cause of his death.”

“Not even in consideration of the benefit which will accrue to thee by this event?”

“Not even for that consideration.”

“O these daughters!” exclaimed the old man. “We bring them up tenderly, we exhaust all our science for the improvement of their minds and bodies, we set out choicest hopes upon them, and entrust them with the fulfilment of our most cherished aspirations; and when all is done, they will not so much as commit a murder to please us! Miserable ingrate, receive the just requital of thy selfish disobedience!”

“O father, do not turn me into a tadpole!”

“I will not, but I will turn thee out of doors.”

And he did.


Though disinherited, Mithridata was not destitute. She had secured a particle of the philosopher’s stone—a slender outfit for a magician’s daughter! yet ensuring her a certain portion of wealth. What should she do now? The great object of her life must henceforth be to avoid committing murder, especially murdering any handsome young man. It would have seemed most natural to retire into a convent, but, not to speak of her lack of vocation, she felt that her father would justly consider that she had disgraced her family, and she still looked forward to reconciliation with him. She might have taken a hermitage, but her instinct told her that a fair solitary can keep young men off only by strong measures; and she disliked the character of a hermitess with a bull-dog. She therefore went straight to the great city, took a house, and surrounded herself with attendants. In the choice of these she was particularly careful to select those only whose personal appearance was such as to discourage any approach to familiarity or endearment. Never before or since was youthful beauty surrounded by such moustached duennas, squinting chambermaids, hunchbacked pages, and stumpy maids-of-all-work. This was a real sorrow to her, for she loved beauty; it was a still sadder trial that she could no longer feel it right to indulge herself in the least morsel of arsenic; she sighed for strychnia, and pined for prussic acid. The change of diet was of course at first most trying to her health, and in fact occasioned a serious illness, but youth and a sound constitution pulled her through.

Reader, hast thou known what it is to live with a heart inflamed by love for thy fellow-creatures which thou couldst not manifest neither by word or deed? To pine with fruitless longings for good? and to consume with vain yearnings for usefulness? To be misjudged and haply reviled by thy fellows for failing to do what is not given thee to do? If so, thou wilt pity poor Mithridata, whose nature was most ardent, expansive, and affectionate, but who, from the necessity under which she laboured of avoiding as much as possible all contact with human beings, saw herself condemned to a life of solitude, and knew that she was regarded as a monster of pride and exclusiveness. She dared bestow no kind look, no encouraging gesture on any one, lest this small beginning should lead to the manifestation of her fatal power. Her own servants, whose minds were generally as deformed as their bodies, hated her, and bitterly resented what they deemed her haughty disdain of them. Her munificence none could deny, but bounty without tenderness receives no more gratitude than it deserves. The young of her own sex secretly rejoiced at her unamiability, regarding it as a providential set-off against her beauty, while they detested and denounced her as a—well, they would say viper in the manger, who spoiled everybody else’s lovers and would have none of her own. For with all Mithridata’s severity, there was no getting rid of the young men, the giddy moths that flew around her brilliant but baleful candle. Not all the cold water thrown upon them, literally as well as figuratively, could keep them from her door. They filled her house with bouquets and billets doux; they stood before her windows, they sat on the steps, they ran beside her litter when she was carried abroad, they assembled at night to serenade her, fighting desperately among themselves. They sought to gain admission as tradesmen, as errand boys, even as scullions male and female. To such lengths did they proceed, that a particularly audacious youth actually attempted to carry her off one evening, and would have succeeded but for the imposition of another, who flew at him with a drawn sword, and after a fierce contest smote him bleeding to the ground. Mithridata had fainted, of course. What was her horror on reviving to find herself in the arms of a young man of exquisite beauty and princely mien, sucking death from her lips with extraordinary relish! She shrieked, she struggled; if she made any unfeminine use of her hands, let the urgency of the case plead her apology. The youth reproached her bitterly for her ingratitude. She listened in silent misery, unable to defend herself. The shaft of love had penetrated her bosom also, and it cost her almost as much for her own sake to dismiss the young man as it did to see him move away, slowly and languidly staggering to his doom.

For the next few days messages came continually, urging her to haste to a youth dying for her sake, whom her presence would revive effectually. She steadily refused, but how much her refusal cost her! She wept, she wrung her hands, she called for death and execrated her nurture. With that strange appetite for self-torment which almost seems to diminish the pangs of the wretched, she collected books on poisons, studied all the symptoms described, and fancied her hapless lover undergoing them all in turn. At length a message came which admitted of no evasion. The King commanded her presence. Admonished by past experience, she provided herself with a veil and mask, and repaired to the palace.

The old King seemed labouring under deep affliction; under happier circumstances he must have been joyous and debonair. He addressed her with austerity, yet with kindness.

“Maiden,” he began, “thy unaccountable cruelty to my son—”

“Thy son!” she exclaimed. “The Prince. O father, thou art revenged for my disobedience!”

The King looked surprised, but continued:—“surpasses what history hath hitherto recorded of the most obdurate monsters. Thou art indebted to him for thy honour, to preserve which he has risked his life. Thou bringest him to the verge of the grave by thy cruelty, and when a smile, a look from thee would restore him, thou wilt not bestow it.”

“Alas! great King,” she replied, “I know too well what your Majesty’s opinion of me must be. I must bear it as I may. Believe me, the sight of me could effect nothing towards the restoration of thy son.”

“Of that I shall judge,” said the King, “when thou hast divested thyself of that veil and mask.”

Mithridata reluctantly complied.

“By Heaven!” exclaimed the King, “such a sight might recall the departing soul from Paradise. Haste to my son, and instantly; it is not yet too late.”

“O King,” urged Mithridata, “how could this countenance do thy son any good. Is he not suffering from the effects of seventy-two poisons?”

“I am not aware of that,” said the King.

“Are not his entrails burned up with fire? Is not his flesh in a state of deliquescence? Has not his skin already peeled off his body? Is he not tormented by incessant gripes and vomitings?”

“Not to my knowledge,” said the King. “the symptoms, as I understand, are not unlike those which I remember to have experienced myself, in a milder form, certainly. He lies in bed, eats and drinks nothing, and incessantly calls upon thee.”

“This is most incomprehensible,” said Mithridata. “There was no drug in my father’s laboratory that could have produced such an effect.”

“The sum of the matter is,” continued the King, “that either thou wilt repair forthwith to my son’s chamber and subsequently to church; or else unto the scaffold.”

“If it must be so, I choose the scaffold,” said Mithridata resolutely. “Believe me, O King, my appearance in thy son’s chamber would but destroy whatever feeble hope of recovery may remain. I love him beyond everything on earth, and not for worlds would I have his blood on my soul.”

“Chamberlain,” cried the monarch, “bring me a strait waistcoat!”

Driven into a corner, Mithridata flung herself at the King’s feet, taking care, however, not to touch him, and confided to him all her wretched history.

The venerable monarch burst into a peal of laughter. “À bon chat bon rat!” he exclaimed, as soon as he had recovered himself. “So thou art the daughter of my old friend the magician Locusto! I fathomed his craft, and, as he fed his child upon poisons, I fed mine upon antidotes. Never did any child in the world take an equal quantity of physic: but there is now no poison on earth can harm him. Ye are clearly made for each other; haste to his bedside, and, as the spell requires, rid thyself of thy venefic properties in his arms as expeditiously as possible. Thy father shall be bidden to the wedding, and an honoured guest he shall be, for having taught us that the kiss of Love is the remedy for every poison.”

Garnett's note:

P. 173. The Poison Maid. The author wrote this tale in entire forgetfulness of Hawthorne’s “Rapaccini’s Daughter,” which nevertheless he had certainly read.

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