Alan Austen, as nervous as a kitten, went up certain dark and creaky stairs in the neighborhood of Pell Street, and peered about for a long time on the dim landing before he found the name he wanted written obscurely on one of the doors.
He pushed open this door, as he had been told to do, and found himself in a tiny room, which contained no furniture but a plain kitchen table, a rocking-chair, and an ordinary chair. On one of the dirty buff colored walls were a couple of shelves, containing in all perhaps a dozen bottles and jars.
An old man sat in the rocking-chair, reading a newspaper. Alan, without a word, handed him the card he had been given. “Sit down, Mr. Austen,” said the old man very politely. “I am glad to make your acquaintance.”
“Is it true,” asked Alan, “that you have a certain mixture that has-er-quite extraordinary effects?”
“My dear sir,” replied the old man, “my stock in trade is not very large – I don’t deal in laxatives and teething mixtures – but such as it is, it is varied. I think nothing I sell has effects which could be precisely described as ordinary.”
“Well, the fact is” – began Alan.
“Here, for example,” interrupted the old man, reaching for a bottle from the shelf. ” Here is a liquid as colorless as water, almost tasteless, quite imperceptible in coffee, milk, wine, or any other beverage. It is also quite imperceptible to any known method of autopsy.”
“Do you mean it is a poison?” cried Alan, very much horrified.
“Call it a glove-cleaner if you like,” said the old man indifferently. “Maybe it will clean gloves. I have never tried. One might call it a life-cleaner. Lives need cleaning sometimes.”
“I want nothing of that sort,” said Alan.
“Probably it is just as well,”
said the old man.
“Do you know the price of this? For one teaspoonful, which is sufficient, I ask five thousand dollars. Never less. Not a penny less.”
“I hope all your mixtures are not as expensive,” said Alan apprehensively.
“Oh dear, no,” said the old man. “It would be no good charging that sort of price for a love potion, for example. Young people who need a love potion very seldom have five thousand dollars. Otherwise they would not need a love potion.”
“I am glad to hear that,” said Alan.
“I look at it like this,” said the old man. “Please a customer with one article, and he will come back when he needs another. Even if it is more costly. He will save up for it, if necessary.”
“So,” said Alan, “do you really sell love potions?”
“If I did not sell love potions,” said the old man, reaching for another bottle, “I should not have mentioned the other matter to you. It is only when one is in a position to oblige that one can afford to be so confidential.”
“And these potions,” said Alan. “They are not just – just – er – .”
“Oh, no,” said the old man. “Their effects are permanent, and extend far beyond casual impulse. But they include it. Bountifully, insistently. Everlastingly.”
” Dear me! ” said Alan, attempting a look of scientific detachment. ” How very interesting! ”
“But consider the spiritual side,” said the old man.
“I do indeed,” said Alan.
“For indifference,” said the old man, “they substitute devotion. For scorn, adoration. Give one tiny measure of this to the young lady – its flavor is imperceptible in orange juice, soup, or cocktails – and however gay and giddy she is, she will change altogether. She will want nothing but solitude, and you.”
“I can hardly believe it,” said Alan. “She is so fond of parties.”