A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter II

by Louisa May Alcott

Nothing stirred about the vine-clad villa, except the curtains swaying in the balmy wind, that blew up from a garden where mid-summer warmth brooded over drowsy flowers and whispering trees. The lake below gleamed like a mirror garlanded about with water-lilies, opening their white bosoms to the sun. The balcony above burned with deep-hearted roses pouring out their passionate perfume, as if in rivalry of the purple heliotrope, which overflowed great urns on either side of the stone steps.

Nothing broke the silence but the breezy rustle, the murmurous lapse of waters upon a quiet shore, and now and then the brief carol of a bird waking from its noontide sleep. A hammock swung at one end of the balcony, but it was empty; open doors showed the wide hall tenanted only by statues gleaming, cool and coy, in shadowy nooks; and the spirit of repose seemed to haunt the lovely spot.

For an hour the sweet spell lasted; then it was 20broken by the faint, far-off warble of a woman’s voice, which seemed to wake the sleeping palace into life; for, as if drawn by the music, a young man came through the garden, looking as Ferdinand might, when Ariel led him to Miranda.

Too beautiful for a man he was, and seemed to protest against it by a disdainful negligence of all the arts which could enhance the gracious gift. A picturesque carelessness marked his costume, the luxuriant curls that covered his head were in riotous confusion; and as he came into the light he stretched his limbs with the graceful abandon of a young wood-god rousing from his drowse in some green covert.

Swinging a knot of lilies in his hand, he sauntered up the long path, listening with a smile, for as the voice drew nearer he recognized both song and singer.

“Little Gladys must not see me, or she will end her music too soon,” he whispered to himself; and, stepping behind the great vase, he peered between the plumy sprays to watch the coming of the voice that made his verses doubly melodious to their creator’s ear.

Through the shadowy hall there came a slender creature in a quaint white gown, who looked as if she might have stepped down from the marble 21Hebe’s pedestal; for there was something wonderfully virginal and fresh about the maidenly figure with its deep, soft eyes, pale hair, and features clearly cut as a fine cameo. Emerging from the gloom into a flood of sunshine, which touched her head with a glint of gold, and brought out in strong relief the crimson cover of the book, held half-closed against her breast, she came down the steps, still singing softly to herself.

A butterfly was sunning its changeful wings on the carved balustrade, and she paused to watch it, quite unconscious of the picture she made, or the hidden observer who enjoyed it with the delight of one whose senses were keenly alive to all that ministers to pleasure. A childish act enough, but it contrasted curiously with the words she sung,—fervid words, that seemed to drop lingeringly from her lips as if in a new language; lovely, yet half learned.

“Pretty thing! I wish I could sketch her as she stands, and use her as an illustration to that song. No nightingale ever had a sweeter voice for a love-lay than this charming girl,” thought the flattered listener, as, obeying a sudden impulse, he flung up the lilies, stepped out from his ambush, and half-said, half-sung, as he looked up with a glance of mirthful meaning,—

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour,
With music sweet as love which overflows her bower.”

The flowers dropped at her feet, and, leaning forward with the supple grace of girlhood, she looked down to meet the dangerous dark eyes, while her own seemed to wake and deepen with a sudden light as beautiful as the color which dawned in her innocent face. Not the quick red of shame, nor the glow of vanity, but a slow, soft flush like the shadow of a rosy cloud on snow. No otherwise disconcerted, she smiled back at him, and answered with unexpected aptness, in lines that were a truer compliment than his had been,—

“Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.”

It was this charm of swift and subtle sympathy which made the girl seem sometimes like the embodied spirit of all that was most high and pure in his own wayward but aspiring nature. And this the spell that drew him to her now, glad to sun himself like the butterfly in the light of eyes so clear and candid, that he could read 23therein the emotions of a maiden heart just opening to its first, half-conscious love.

Springing up the steps, he said with the caressing air as native to him as his grace of manner. “Sit here and weave a pretty garland for your hair, while I thank you for making my poor verses beautiful. Where did you find the air that fits those words so well?”

“It came itself; as the song did, I think,” she answered simply, as she obeyed him, and began to braid the long brown stems, shaping a chaplet fit for Undine.

“Ah! you will never guess how that came!” he said, sitting at her feet to watch the small fingers at their pretty work. But though his eyes rested there, they grew absent; and he seemed to fall into a reverie not wholly pleasant, for he knit his brows as if the newly won laurel wreath sat uneasily upon a head which seemed made to wear it.

Gladys watched him in reverential silence till he became conscious of her presence again, and gave her leave to speak, with a smile which had in it something of the condescension of an idol towards its devoutest worshipper.

“Were you making poetry, then?” she asked, with the frank curiosity of a child.

24“No, I was wondering where I should be now if I had never made any;” and he looked at the summer paradise around him with an involuntary shiver, as if a chill wind had blown upon him.

“Think rather what you will write next. It is so lovely I want more, although I do not understand all this,” touching the book upon her knee with a regretful sigh.

“Neither do I; much of it is poor stuff, Gladys. Do not puzzle your sweet wits over it.”

“That is because you are so modest. People say true genius is always humble.”

“Then, I am not a true genius; for I am as proud as Lucifer.”

“You may well be proud of such work as this;” and she carefully brushed a fallen petal from the silken cover.

“But I am not proud of that. At times I almost hate it!” exclaimed the capricious poet, impetuously, then checked himself, and added more composedly, “I mean to do so much better, that this first attempt shall be forgotten.”

“I think you will never do better; for this came from your heart, without a thought of what the world would say. Hereafter all you write may be more perfect in form but less true in 25spirit, because you will have the fear of the world, and loss of fame before your eyes.”

“How can you know that?” he asked, wondering that this young girl, so lately met, should read him so well, and touch a secret doubt that kept him idle after the first essay, which had been a most flattering success.

“Nay, I do not know, I only feel as if it must be so. I always sing best when alone, and the thought of doing it for praise or money spoils the music to my ear.”

“I feel as if it would be possible to do any thing here, and forget that there is a world outside.”

“Then it is not dull to you? I am glad, for I thought it would be, because so many people want you, and you might choose many gayer places in which to spend your summer holiday.”

“I have no choice in this; yet I was willing enough to come. The first time is always pleasant, and I am tired of the gayer places,” he said, with a blasé air that ill concealed how sweet the taste of praise had been to one who hungered for it.

“Yet it must seem very beautiful to be so sought, admired, and loved,” the girl said wistfully, 26for few of fortune’s favors had fallen into her lap as yet.

“It is, and I was intoxicated with the wine of success for a time. But after all, I find a bitter drop in it, for there is always a higher step to take, a brighter prize to win, and one is never satisfied.”

He paused an instant with the craving yet despondent look poets and painters wear as they labor for perfection in “a divine despair;” then added, in a tone of kindly satisfaction which rung true on the sensitive ear that listened,—

“But all that nonsense pleases Helwyze, and he has so few delights, I would not rob him of one even so small as this, for I owe every thing to him, you know.”

“I do not know. May I?”

“You may; for I want you to like my friend, and now I think you only fear him.”

“Mr. Canaris, I do not dislike your friend. He has been most kind to me, I am grieved if I seem ungrateful,” murmured Gladys, with a vague trouble in her artless face, for she had no power to explain the instinctive recoil which had unconsciously betrayed itself.

“Hear what he did for me, and then it may be easier to show as well as to feel gratitude; 27since but for him you would have had none of these foolish rhymes to sing.”

With a look askance, a quick gesture, and a curious laugh, Canaris tossed the book into the urn below, and the heliotrope gave a fragrant sigh as it closed above the treasure given to its keeping. Gladys uttered a little cry, but her companion took no heed, for clasping his hands about his knee he looked off into the bloomy wilderness below as if he saw a younger self there, and spoke of him with a pitiful sort of interest.

“Three years ago an ambitious boy came to seek his fortune in the great city yonder. He possessed nothing but sundry accomplishments, and a handful of verses which he tried to sell. Failing in this hope after various trials, he grew desperate, and thought to end his life like poor Chatterton. No, not like Chatterton,—for this boy was not an impostor.”

“Had he no friend anywhere?” asked Gladys,—her work neglected while she listened with intensest interest to the tale so tragically begun.

“He thought not, but chance sent him one at the last hour, and when he called on death, Helwyze came. It always seemed to me as if, unwittingly, I conjured from the fire kindled to 28destroy myself a genie who had power to change me from the miserable wretch I was, into the happy man I am. For more than a year I have been with him,—first as secretary, then protégé, now friend, almost son; for he asks nothing of me except such services as I love to render, and gives me every aid towards winning my way. Is not that magnificent generosity? Can I help regarding him with superstitious gratitude? Am I not rightly named Felix?”

“Yes, oh yes! Tell me more, please. I have led such a lonely life, that human beings are like wonder-books to me, and I am never tired of reading them.” Gladys looked with a rapt expression into the face upturned to hers, little dreaming how dangerous such lore might be to her.

“Then you should read Helwyze; he is a romance that will both charm and make your heart ache, if you dare to try him.”

“I dare, if I may, because I would so gladly lose my fear of him in the gentler feeling that grows in me as I listen.”

Canaris was irresistibly led on to confidences he had no right to make, it was so pleasant to feel that he had the power to move the girl by his words, as the wind sways a leaf upon its delicate 29stem. A half-fledged purpose lurked in a dark corner of his mind, and even while denying its existence to himself, he yielded to its influence, careless of consequences.

“Then I will go on and let compassion finish what I have begun. Till thirty, Helwyze led a wonderfully free, rich life, I infer from hints dropped in unguarded moments,—for confidential moods are rare. Every good gift was his, and nothing to alloy his happiness, unless it was the restless nature which kept him wandering like an Arab long after most men have found some ambition to absorb, or some tie to restrain, them. From what I have gathered, I know that a great passion was beginning to tame his unquiet spirit, when a great misfortune came to afflict it, and in an hour changed a life of entire freedom to one of the bitterest bondage such a man can know.”

“Oh, what?” cried Gladys, as he artfully paused just there to see her bend nearer, and her lips part with the tremor of suspense.

“A terrible fall; and for ten years he has never known a day’s rest from pain of some sort, and never will, till death releases him ten years hence, perhaps, if his indomitable will keeps him alive so long.”

30“Alas, alas! is there no cure?” sighed Gladys, as the violet eyes grew dim for very pity of so hard a fate.


A brief silence followed while the shadow of a great white cloud drifted across the sky, blotting out the sunshine for a moment.

All the flowers strayed down upon the steps and lay there forgotten, as the hands that held them were clasped together on the girl’s breast, as if the mere knowledge of a lot like this lay heavy at her heart.

Satisfied with his effect, the story-teller was tempted to add another stroke, and went on with the fluency of one who saw all things dramatically, and could not help coloring them in his own vivid fancy.

“That seems very terrible to you, but in truth the physical affliction was not so great as the loss that tried his soul; for he loved ardently, and had just won his suit, when the misfortune came which tied him to a bed of torment for some years. A fall from heaven to hell could hardly have seemed worse than to be precipitated from the heights of such a happiness to the depths of such a double woe; for she, the beautiful, beloved woman proved disloyal, and 31left him lying there, like Prometheus, with the vulture of remembered bliss to rend his heart.”

“Could he not forget her?” and Gladys trembled with indignation at the perfidy which seemed impossible to a nature born for self-sacrifice.

“He never will forget or forgive, although the man she married well avenged him while he lived, and bequeathed her a memory which all his gold could not gild. Her fate is the harder now; for the old love has revived, and Helwyze is dearer than in his days of unmarred strength. He knows it, but will not accept the tardy atonement; for contempt has killed his love, and with him there is no resurrection of the dead. A very patient and remorseful love is hers: for she has been humiliated in spirit, as he can never be, by the bodily ills above which he has risen so heroically that his courage has subdued the haughtiest woman I ever met.”

“You know her, then?” and Gladys bent to look into his face, with her own shadowed by an intuition of the truth.


“I am afraid to listen any more. It is terrible to know that such bitterness and grief lie hidden in the hearts about me. Why did you tell me this?” she demanded, shrinking from 32him, as if some prophetic fear had stepped between them.

“Why did I? Because I wished to make you pity my friend, and help me put a little brightness into his hard life. You can do it if you will, for you soothe and please him, and few possess the power to give him any comfort. He makes no complaint, asks no pity, and insists on ignoring the pain which preys upon him, till it grows too great to be concealed; then shuts himself up alone, to endure it like a Spartan. Forgive me if in my eagerness I have said too much, and forget whatever troubled you.”

Canaris spoke with genuine regret, and hoped to banish the cloud from a face which had been as placid as the lake below, till he disturbed it by reflections that affrighted her.

“It is easy to forgive, but not to forget, words which cannot be unsaid. I was so happy here; and now it is all spoilt. She was a new-made friend, and very kind to me when I was desolate. I shall seem a thankless beggar if I go away before I have paid my debt as best I can. How shall I tell her that I must?”

“Of whom do you speak? I gave no name. I thought you would not guess. Why must you go, Gladys?” asked the young man, surprised to 33see how quickly she felt the chill of doubt, and tried to escape obligation, when neither love nor respect brightened it.

“I need give no name, because you know. It is as well, perhaps, that I have guessed it. I ought not to have been so content, since I am here through charity. I must take up my life and try to shape it for myself; but the world seems very large now I am all alone.”

She spoke half to herself, and looked beyond the safe, secluded garden, to the gray mountains whose rough paths her feet had trod before they were led here to rest.

Quick to be swayed by the varying impulses which ruled him with capricious force, Canaris was now full of pity for the trouble he had wrought, and when she rose, like a bird startled from its nest, he rose also, and, taking the hand put out as if involuntarily asking help, he said with regretful gentleness,—

“Do not be afraid, we will befriend you. Helwyze shall counsel and I will comfort, if we can. I should not have told that dismal story; I will atone for it by a new song, and you shall grow happy in singing it.”

She hesitated, withdrew her hand, and looked askance at him, as if one doubt bred others. 34An approaching footstep made her start, and stand a moment with head erect, eye fixed, and ear intent, like a listening deer, then whispering, “It is she; hide me till I learn to look as if I did not know!”—Gladys sprung down the steps, and vanished like a wraith, leaving no token of her presence but the lilies in the dust, for the young man followed fleetly.