The Touch-Stone

Clark Ashton Smith

Nasiphra the philosopher had sought through many years and in many lands for the fabled touch-stone, which was said to reveal the true nature of all things. He had found all manner of stones, from the single boulders that have been carven into the pyramids of monarchs, to the tiny gems that are visible only through a magnifying-glass, but since none of them had effected any change or manifest alteration in the materials with which they were brought in contact, Nasiphra knew that they were not the thing he desired. But the real existence of a touch-stone had been affirmed by all the ancient writers and thinkers, and so, he was loath to abandon his quest, in spite of the appalling number of mineral substances which had been proven to lack the requisite qualities,

One day Nasiphra saw a large oval pebble lying in the gutter, and picked it up through force of habit, though he had no idea that it could be the touch-stone. Its color was an ordinary grey, and the form was no less commonplace than the color. But when Nasiphra took the pebble in his hand, he was startled out of his philosophic calm by the curious results: the fingers that held the pebble had suddenly become those of a skeleton, gleaming white and thin and fleshless in the sunlight; and Nasiphra knew by this token that he had found the touch-stone. He proceeded to make many tests of its add properties, all with truly singular results; it revealed to him the fact that his house was a mouldy sepulchre, that his library was a collection of worm eaten rubbish, that his friends were skeletons, mummies, jackdaws and hyenas, that his wife was a cheap and meretricious trull, that the city in which he lived was an ant-heat, and the world itself a gulf of shadow and emptiness. In truth there was no limit to the disconserting and terrible disclosures that were made by this ordinary-looking pebble. So after a time, Nasiphra threw it away, preferring to share with other men the common illusions, the friendly and benign mirages that made our existence possible.

[December 18, 1929]

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