A VIRTUOSO'S COLLECTION
From "Mosses From An Old Manse"
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 admittance.
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
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
"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 I.
"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
"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
"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, Pegasus."
"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
"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
"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,"
"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 "
"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
"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
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 WISEST."
"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 him."
"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
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
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
"See!" said the virtuoso, blowing with all his force at the lighted lamp.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.