Humphrey tells an unbelievable tale.
|To Live Forever
My friend, Humphrey Holly, sat back in the armchair and puffed on his pipe before answering my question.
“The fountain of youth? Yes, strangely enough, I do believe in that old myth, as you call it. Not only that, but I am quite certain that it exists. You see, my great grandfather was the famous explorer, Horace Holly.”
He fell silent then, as if this information should be sufficient to settle the matter. I raised my hands, palms upward, in obvious confusion. “And what relevance does that have?” I asked. “I fail to see how that has anything to do with the matter.”
Humph smiled. “Ah, a neglected education, of course. Horace Holly’s adventures in Africa were recorded by that bounder, Henry Rider Haggard, in one of his alleged novels of the late 19th Century. It was the book, She, that contains the most relevant account of the discovery of the fountain of youth by Horace. You probably saw the movie of his tale, although I wouldn’t be surprised if you had forgotten it already. It was a pretty atrocious film, after all. But Haggard’s book was not the fiction that everyone supposes. My great grandfather told me all about it and I have done my own researches to establish the truth of the thing. I can assure you, there is a fountain of youth.”
I stared at Humphrey in disbelief. It was not like him to make preposterous assertions and this was as ridiculous as such claims get. “How can you be so sure?” I asked.
“I went to Africa and found it, using the information in Haggard’s book and an old map in old Horace’s legacy to me.” He took another puff at his pipe and grinned through the smoke.
“What? You mean you’ve seen it? The actual fountain of youth?”
Humph nodded in smug triumph. “Yes, I’ve seen it.”
“And how can you know that it was the actual thing? It could have been any old fountain.” I had another thought and added, “If it was a fountain at all.”
“Oh yes, it’s a fountain alright. But as for how I know it’s the right one, that’s another story.”
I was not going to leave it at that. “I’ve got time. Tell me about it.”
He sat up with a sudden intensity that surprised me. “You wouldn’t believe me. This time you’ll just have to take my word for it. There is a fountain of youth and I know where it is.”
My certainty that he was either lying or fantasizing wavered. I had never seen him so taken up with anything before. Normally, he prided himself on being laid back and relaxed; now he was wound like a spring and clearly emotionally involved with the story. His attitude made me even more determined to drag his tale from him. There was something unusual going on here.
It took the whole evening to persuade him to tell me about it, and I must have promised him several times to keep an open mind on the subject. I meant it too; mocking his belief was only going to end our friendship, I could see that. It was well past midnight when he finally agreed to tell the story.
He told of how he had become obsessed with Haggard’s version of Horace’s adventure and had read everything he could that offered even a remote connection with the whole thing. When Horace’s bequest of the map had come down to him, he had amassed the funds to go off to Africa and see for himself. After years of searching he had found a place that seemed to fit all the descriptions and, after many hardships and difficulties, he had established the fountain’s precise position. Shortly thereafter, he stood before an intermittent geyser that must, surely, be the one his great grandfather had found.
I interrupted then. “What made you so certain it must be the right fountain?”
“Ah, that was my problem,” explained Humph. “How could I prove beyond doubt that this geyser had the extravagant power claimed for it? I waited for a long time before I came up with an answer that should put the matter to rest once and for all.”
“And that was?”
Humphrey shrugged. “I came to the conclusion that I would have to enter the fountain myself. There was no other way to be sure.”
“And did you? And what happened?”
“Whoa, slow down there,” he said. “It wasn’t that easy. If you’d read the book, you’d know that when Ayesha, the She of the book’s title, entered the fountain the second time, she dissolved into the reality of her two thousand years of life. In moments she went from a beautiful, fascinating young maiden to a dehydrated skeleton and then to dust blowing away in the force of the geyser. It was possible that the second immersion reversed the effects of the first but that wasn’t the only conceivable explanation. It might just as easily have been that the geyser could send you either way, depending on circumstances I had no inkling of. It was a risky business, stepping into that flow, I can tell you.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
Humph looked at me with a strange expression then. “I entered the fountain,” he said.
He spread his arms wide. “And you see the result. Impressed?”
I looked at him, totally bemused by this apparent reduction of the story to farce. “So this is a they-killed-me-damn-them-they-killed-me tale after all?”
Humph laughed. “No, you idiot. What you don’t know is that Horace Holly wasn’t my great grandfather at all. He was my father. I’m a hundred and twenty years old.”
There was dead silence in the room as we stared at each other. Surely he couldn’t expect me to believe this? Either my friend was pulling the greatest April fool joke of all time or he was raving and the little men in white coats would be arriving at any time. I opted for the easier explanation.
“So this is all a big joke? What’s the punchline?”
He sighed. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me. Well, I decided to go through this to see if you wanted to live forever. I have some of the fountain water in a vial, you see. Drink it and keep me company for eternity.”
For a moment I considered this. If it were all true, I could indeed live forever. It might become a bit tedious with Humph as my sole compatriot but I guess I could always wander off on my own. Then I imagined the endless boredom of life stretching out to no end, day following day in relentless succession. That might well be why Humphrey was so eager to have a friend along for his own tedious journey of life without limit.
This made my choice easy. “I don’t think so, Humph. If this is a joke, there’s no point in me drinking the water, and, if it’s true, I have no wish to prolong my life into an eternal round without reason. Not for me, thanks.”
Humphrey seemed quite taken aback by my words. He tried briefly to dissuade me, but I could see in his eyes that I’d hit a nerve. He was beginning to find that immortality wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, that was becoming clear.
And then he did something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was a terrible revenge for the disappointment I’d heaped on him but I cannot blame him.
He produced a glass vial from his pocket and removed the cork from its throat. A clear, bright liquid swirled in the container and he raised it high above his head as he spoke the words that follow.
“I suppose I always knew that it would come to this.”
With that he tilted his head back and poured the water down his throat.
Momentarily nothing happened and then he began to shrink. Back into his clothes went his body, the flesh and skin wrinkling back on the bones, his face becoming a ghastly grin as it became bare of expression apart from the familiar smile of death. He collapsed into a heap of clothes and bones on the floor, already the sinews twisting and thinning as they dried out. In minutes he was nothing but grey dust spilled from a pile of shapeless clothes.
It was a hell of a way to prove your story true.
Word count: 1,420
For SCREAMS!!! April 19 2021
Prompt: The Fountain of Youth.