Empty Bottles by Howard Pyle

Story type: Literature

In the old, old days when men were wiser than they are in these times, there lived a great philosopher and magician, by name Nicholas Flamel. Not only did he know all the actual sciences, but the black arts as well, and magic, and what not. He conjured demons so that when a body passed the house of a moonlight night a body might see imps, great and small, little and big, sitting on the chimney stacks and the ridge-pole, clattering their heels on the tiles and chatting together.

He could change iron and lead into silver and gold; he discovered the elixir of life, and might have been living even to this day had he thought it worth while to do so.

There was a student at the university whose name was Gebhart, who was so well acquainted with algebra and geometry that he could tell at a single glance how many drops of water there were in a bottle of wine. As for Latin and Greek–he could patter them off like his A B C’s. Nevertheless, he was not satisfied with the things he knew, but was for learning the things that no schools could teach him. So one day he came knocking at Nicholas Flamel’s door.

“Come in,” said the wise man, and there Gebhart found him sitting in the midst of his books and bottles and diagrams and dust and chemicals and cobwebs, making strange figures upon the table with jackstraws and a piece of chalk–for your true wise man can squeeze more learning out of jackstraws and a piece of chalk than we common folk can get out of all the books in the world.

No one else was in the room but the wise man’s servant, whose name was Babette.

“What is it you want?” said the wise man, looking at Gebhart over the rim of his spectacles.

“Master,” said Gebhart, “I have studied day after day at the university, and from early in the morning until late at night, so that my head has hummed and my eyes were sore, yet I have not learned those things that I wish most of all to know–the arts that no one but you can teach. Will you take me as your pupil?”

The wise man shook his head.

“Many would like to be as wise as that,” said he, “and few there be who can become so. Now tell me. Suppose all the riches of the world were offered to you, would you rather be wise?”


“Suppose you might have all the rank and power of a king or of an emperor, would you rather be wise?”


“Suppose I undertook to teach you, would you give up everything of joy and of pleasure to follow me?”


“Perhaps you are hungry,” said the master.

“Yes,” said the student, “I am.”

“Then, Babette, you may bring some bread and cheese.”

It seemed to Gebhart that he had learned all that Nicholas Flamel had to teach him.

It was in the gray of the dawning, and the master took the pupil by the hand and led him up the rickety stairs to the roof of the house, where nothing was to be seen but gray sky, high roofs, and chimney stacks from which the smoke rose straight into the still air.

“Now,” said the master, “I have taught you nearly all of the science that I know, and the time has come to show you the wonderful thing that has been waiting for us from the beginning when time was. You have given up wealth and the world and pleasure and joy and love for the sake of wisdom. Now, then, comes the last test–whether you can remain faithful to me to the end; if you fail in it, all is lost that you have gained.”

After he said that he stripped his cloak away from his shoulders and laid bare the skin. Then he took a bottle of red liquor and began bathing his shoulder-blades with it; and as Gebhart, squatting upon the ridge-pole, looked, he saw two little lumps bud out upon the smooth skin, and then grow and grow and grow until they became two great wings as white as snow.

“Now then,” said the master, “take me by the belt and grip fast, for there is a long, long journey before us, and if you should lose your head and let go your hold you will fall and be dashed to pieces.”

Then he spread the two great wings, and away he flew as fast as the wind, with Gebhart hanging to his belt.

Over hills, over dales, over mountains, over moors he flew, with the brown earth lying so far below that horses and cows looked like pismires and men like fleas.

Then, by-and-by, it was over the ocean they were crossing, with the great ships that pitched and tossed below looking like chips in a puddle in rainy weather.

At last they came to a strange land, far, far away, and there the master lit upon a sea-shore where the sand was as white as silver. As soon as his feet touched the hard ground the great wings were gone like a puff of smoke, and the wise man walked like any other body.

At the edge of the sandy beach was a great, high, naked cliff; and the only way of reaching the top was by a flight of stone steps, as slippery as glass, cut in the solid rock.

The wise man led the way, and the student followed close at his heels, every now and then slipping and stumbling so that, had it not been for the help that the master gave him, he would have fallen more than once and have been dashed to pieces upon the rocks below.

At last they reached the top, and there found themselves in a desert, without stick of wood or blade of grass, but only gray stones and skulls and bones bleaching in the sun.

In the middle of the plain was a castle such as the eyes of man never saw before, for it was built all of crystal from roof to cellar. Around it was a high wall of steel, and in the wall were seven gates of polished brass.

The wise man led the way straight to the middle gate of the seven, where there hung a horn of pure silver, which he set to his lips. He blew a blast so loud and shrill that it made Gebhart’s ears tingle. In an instant there sounded a great rumble and grumble like the noise of loud thunder, and the gates of brass swung slowly back, as though of themselves.

But when Gebhart saw what he saw within the gates his heart crumbled away for fear, and his knees knocked together; for there, in the very middle of the way, stood a monstrous, hideous dragon, that blew out flames and clouds of smoke from his gaping mouth like a chimney a-fire.

But the wise master was as cool as smooth water; he thrust his hand into the bosom of his jacket and drew forth a little black box, which he flung straight into the gaping mouth.

Snap!–the dragon swallowed the box.

The next moment it gave a great, loud, terrible cry, and, clapping and rattling its wings, leaped into the air and flew away, bellowing like a bull.

If Gebhart had been wonder-struck at seeing the outside of the castle, he was ten thousand times more amazed to see the inside thereof. For, as the master led the way and he followed, he passed through four-and-twenty rooms, each one more wonderful than the other. Everywhere was gold and silver and dazzling jewels that glistened so brightly that one had to shut one’s eyes to their sparkle. Beside all this, there were silks and satins and velvets and laces and crystal and ebony and sandal-wood that smelled sweeter than musk and rose leaves. All the wealth of the world brought together into one place could not make such riches as Gebhart saw with his two eyes in these four-and-twenty rooms. His heart beat fast within him.

At last they reached a little door of solid iron, beside which hung a sword with a blade that shone like lightning. The master took the sword in one hand and laid the other upon the latch of the door. Then he turned to Gebhart and spoke for the first time since they had started upon their long journey.

“In this room,” said he, “you will see a strange thing happen, and in a little while I shall be as one dead. As soon as that comes to pass, go you straightway through to the room beyond, where you will find upon a marble table a goblet of water and a silver dagger. Touch nothing else, and look at nothing else, for if you do all will be lost to both of us. Bring the water straightway, and sprinkle my face with it, and when that is done you and I will be the wisest and greatest men that ever lived, for I will make you equal to myself in all that I know. So now swear to do what I have just bid you, and not turn aside a hair’s breadth in the going and the coming.

“I swear,” said Gebhart, and crossed his heart.

Then the master opened the door and entered, with Gebhart close at his heels.

In the centre of the room was a great red cock, with eyes that shone like sparks of fire. So soon as he saw the master he flew at him, screaming fearfully, and spitting out darts of fire that blazed and sparkled like lightning.

It was a dreadful battle between the master and the cock. Up and down they fought, and here and there. Sometimes the student could see the wise man whirling and striking with his sword; and then again he would be hidden in a sheet of flame. But after a while he made a lucky stroke, and off flew the cock’s head. Then, lo and behold! instead of a cock it was a great, hairy, black demon that lay dead on the floor.

But, though the master had conquered, he looked like one sorely sick. He was just able to stagger to a couch that stood by the wall, and there he fell and lay, without breath or motion, like one dead, and as white as wax.

As soon as Gebhart had gathered his wits together he remembered what the master had said about the other room.

The door of it was also of iron. He opened it and passed within, and there saw two great tables or blocks of polished marble. Upon one was the dagger and a goblet of gold brimming with water. Upon the other lay the figure of a woman, and as Gebhart looked at her he thought her more beautiful than any thought or dream could picture. But her eyes were closed, and she lay like a lifeless figure of wax.

After Gebhart had gazed at her a long, long time, he took up the goblet and the dagger from the table and turned towards the door.

Then, before he left that place, he thought that he would have just one more look at the beautiful figure. So he did, and gazed and gazed until his heart melted away within him like a lump of butter; and, hardly knowing what he did, he stooped and kissed the lips.

Instantly he did so a great humming sound filled the whole castle, so sweet and musical that it made him tremble to listen. Then suddenly the figure opened its eyes and looked straight at him.

“At last!” she said; “have you come at last?”

“Yes,” said Gebhart, “I have come.”

Then the beautiful woman arose and stepped down from the table to the floor; and if Gebhart thought her beautiful before, he thought her a thousand times more beautiful now that her eyes looked into his.

“Listen,” said she. “I have been asleep for hundreds upon hundreds of years, for so it was fated to be until he should come who was to bring me back to life again. You are he, and now you shall live with me forever. In this castle is the wealth gathered by the king of the genii, and it is greater than all the riches of the world. It and the castle likewise shall be yours. I can transport everything into any part of the world you choose, and can by my arts make you prince or king or emperor. Come.”

“Stop,” said Gebhart. “I must first do as my master bade me.”

He led the way into the other room, the lady following him, and so they both stood together by the couch where the wise man lay. When the lady saw his face she cried out in a loud voice: “It is the great master! What are you going to do?”

“I am going to sprinkle his face with this water,” said Gebhart.

“Stop!” said she. “Listen to what I have to say. In your hand you hold the water of life and the dagger of death. The master is not dead, but sleeping; if you sprinkle that water upon him he will awaken, young, handsome and more powerful than the greatest magician that ever lived. I myself, this castle, and everything that is in it will be his, and, instead of your becoming a prince or a king or an emperor, he will be so in your place. That, I say, will happen if he wakens. Now the dagger of death is the only thing in the world that has power to kill him. You have it in your hand. You have but to give him one stroke with it while he sleeps, and he will never waken again, and then all will be yours–your very own.”

Gebhart neither spoke nor moved, but stood looking down upon his master. Then he set down the goblet very softly on the floor, and, shutting his eyes that he might not see the blow, raised the dagger to strike.

“That is all your promises amount to,” said Nicholas Flamel the wise man. “After all, Babette, you need not bring the bread and cheese, for he shall be no pupil of mine.”

Then Gebhart opened his eyes.

There sat the wise man in the midst of his books and bottles and diagrams and dust and chemicals and cobwebs, making strange figures upon the table with jackstraws and a piece of chalk.

And Babette, who had just opened the cupboard door for the loaf of bread and the cheese, shut it again with a bang, and went back to her spinning.

So Gebhart had to go back again to his Greek and Latin and algebra and geometry; for, after all, one cannot pour a gallon of beer into a quart pot, or the wisdom of a Nicholas Flamel into such an one as Gebhart.

As for the name of this story, why, if some promises are not bottles full of nothing but wind, there is little need to have a name for anything.

“Since we are in the way of talking of fools,” said the Fisherman who drew the Genie out of the sea–“since we are in the way of talking of fools, I can tell you a story of the fool of all fools, and how, one after the other, he wasted as good gifts as a man’s ears ever heard tell of.”

“What was his name?” said the Lad who fiddled for the Jew in the bramble-bush.

“That,” said the Fisherman, “I do not know.”

“And what is this story about?” asked St. George.

“Tis,” said the Fisherman, “about a hole in the ground.”

“And is that all?” said the Soldier who cheated the Devil.

“Nay,” said the Fisherman, blowing a whiff from his pipe; “there were some things in the hole–a bowl of treasure, an earthen-ware jar, and a pair of candlesticks.”

“And what do you call your story,” said St. George.

“Why,” said the Fisherman, “for lack of a better name I will call it–“

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