A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter III

by Louisa May Alcott

A woman came into the balcony with a swift step, and paused there, as if disappointed to find it deserted. A woman in the midsummer of her life, brilliant, strong, and stately; clad in something dusky and diaphanous, unrelieved by any color, except the pale gold of the laburnum clusters, that drooped from deep bosom and darkest hair. Pride sat on the forehead, with its straight black brows, passion slept in the Southern eyes, lustrous or languid by turns, and will curved the closely folded lips of vivid red.

But over all this beauty, energy, and grace an indescribable blight seemed to have fallen, deeper than the loss of youth’s first freshness, darker than the trace of any common sorrow. Something felt, rather than seen, which gave her the air of a dethroned queen; conquered, but protesting fiercely, even while forced to submit to some inexorable decree, whose bitterest pang was the knowledge that the wrong was self-inflicted.

36As she stood there, looking down the green vista, two figures crossed it. A smile curved the sad mouth, and she said aloud, “Faust and Margaret, playing the old, old game.”

“And Mephistopheles and Martha looking on,” added a melodious voice, behind her, as Helwyze swept back the half-transparent curtain from the long window where he sat.

“The part you give me is not a flattering one,” she answered, veiling mingled pique and pleasure with well-feigned indifference.

“Nor mine; yet I think they suit us both, in a measure. Do you know, Olivia, that the accidental reading of my favorite tragedy, at a certain moment, gave me a hint which has afforded amusement for a year.”

“You mean your fancy for playing Mentor to that boy. A dangerous task for you, Jasper.”

“The danger is the charm. I crave excitement, occupation; and what but something of this sort is left me? Much saving grace in charity, we are told; and who needs it more than I? Surely I have been kinder to Felix than the Providence which left him to die of destitution and despair?”

“Perhaps not. The love of power is strong in men like you, and grows by what it feeds on. 37If I am not mistaken, this whim of a moment has already hardened into a purpose which will mould his life in spite of him. It is an occupation that suits your taste, for you enjoy his beauty and his promise; you like to praise and pamper him till vanity and love of pleasure wax strong, then you check him with an equal satisfaction, and find excitement in curbing his high spirit, his wayward will. By what tie you hold him I cannot tell; but I know it must be something stronger than gratitude, for, though he chafes against the bond, he dares not break it.”

“Ah, that is my secret! What would you not give if I would teach you the art of taming men as I once taught you to train a restive horse?”—and Helwyze looked out at her with eyes full of malicious merriment.

“You have taught me the art of taming a woman; is not that enough?” murmured Olivia, in a tone that would have touched any man’s heart with pity, if with no tenderer emotion.

But Helwyze seemed not to hear the reproach, and went on, as if the other topic suited his mood best.

“I call Canaris my Greek slave, sometimes, 38and he never knows whether to feel flattered or insulted. His father was a Greek adventurer, you know (ended tragically, I suspect), and but for the English mother’s legacy of a trifle of moral sense, Felix would be as satisfactory a young heathen as if brought straight from ancient Athens. It was this peculiar mixture of unscrupulous daring and fitful virtue which attracted me, as much as his unusual beauty and undoubted talent. Money can buy almost any thing, you know; so I bought my handsome Alcibiades, and an excellent bargain I find him.”

“But when you tire of him, what then? You cannot sell him again, nor throw him away, like a book you weary of. Neither can you leave him neglected in the lumber-room, with distasteful statues or bad pictures. Affection, if you have it, will not outlast your admiration, and I have much curiosity to know what will become of your ‘handsome Alcibiades’ then.”

“Then, my cousin, I will give him to you, for I have fancied of late that you rather coveted him. You could not manage him now,—the savage in him is not quite civilized yet,—but wait a little, and I will make a charming plaything for you. I know you will treat him kindly, 39since it is truly said, Those who have served, best know how to rule.”

The sneer stung her deeply, for there was no humiliation this proud woman had not suffered at the hands of a brutal and unfaithful husband. Pity was as bitter a draught to her as to the man who thus cruelly reminded her of the long bondage which had left an ineffaceable blight upon her life. The wound bled inwardly, but she retaliated, as only such a woman could.

“Love is the one master who can rule and bind without danger or disgrace. I shall remember that, and when you give me Felix he will find me a gentler mistress than I was ten years ago—to you.”

The last words dropped from her lips as softly as if full of tender reminiscence, but they pricked pride, since they could not touch a relentless heart. Helwyze betrayed it by the sombre fire of his eye, the tone in which he answered.

“And I will ask of you the only gift I care to accept,—your new protégée, Gladys. Tell me where you found her; the child interests me much.”

“I know it;” and, stifling a pang of jealous pain, Olivia obeyed with the docility of one in whom will was conquered by a stronger power.

40“A freak took me to the hills in March. My winter had been a vain chase after happiness, and I wanted solitude. I found it where chance led me,—in this girl’s home. A poor, bleak place enough; but it suited me, for there were only the father and daughter, and they left me to myself. The man died suddenly, and no one mourned, for he was a selfish tyrant. The girl was left quite alone, and nearly penniless, but so happy in her freedom that she had no fears. I liked the courage of the creature; I knew how she felt; I saw great capacity for something fine in her. I said, ‘Come with me for a little, and time will show you the next step.’ She came; time has shown her, and the next step will take her from my house to yours, unless I much mistake your purpose.”

Leaning in the low, lounging chair, Helwyze had listened motionless, except that the fingers of one thin hand moved fitfully, as if he played upon some instrument inaudible to all ears but his own. A frequent gesture of his, and most significant, to any one who knew that his favorite pastime was touching human heart-strings with marvellous success in producing discords by his uncanny skill.

As Olivia paused, he asked in a voice as suave as cold,—

41“My purpose? Have I any?”

“You say she interests you, and you watch her in a way that proves it. Have you not already resolved to win her for your amusement, by some bribe as cunning as that you gave Canaris for his liberty?”

“I have. You are a shrewd woman, Olivia.”

“Yet she is not beautiful;” and her eye vainly searched the inscrutable countenance, that showed so passionless and pale against the purple cushion where it leaned.

“Pardon me, the loveliest woman I have seen for years. A beautiful, fresh soul is most attractive when one is weary of more material charms. This girl seems made of spirit, fire, and dew; a mixture rare as it is exquisite, and the spell is all the greater because of its fine and elusive quality. I promise myself much satisfaction in observing how this young creature meets the trials and temptations life and love will bring her; and to do this she must be near at hand.”

“Happy Gladys!”

Olivia smiled a scornful smile, but folded her arms to curb the rebellious swelling of her heart at the thought of another woman nearer than herself. She turned away as she spoke; but 42Helwyze saw the quiver of her lips, and read the meaning of the piercing glance she shot into the garden, as if to find and annihilate that unconscious rival.

Content for the moment with the touch of daily torture which was the atonement exacted for past disloyalty, he lifted the poor soul from despair to delight by the utterance of three words, accompanied by a laugh as mirthless as musical,—

“Happy Felix, rather.”

“Is he to marry her?” and Olivia fronted him, glowing with a sudden joy which made her lovely as well as brilliant.

“Who else?”


“I!” and the word was full of a bitterness which thrilled every nerve the woman had, for an irrepressible regret wrung it from lips sternly shut on all complaint, except to her.

“Why not?” she cried, daring to answer with impetuous warmth and candor. “What woman would not be glad to serve you for the sake of the luxury with which you would surround her, if not for the love you might win and give, if you chose?”

“Bah! what have I to do with love? Thank 43Heaven my passions are all dead, else life would be a hell, not the purgatory it is,” he said, glancing at his wasted limbs, with an expression which would have been pathetic, had it not been defiant; for that long discipline of pain had failed to conquer the spirit of the man, and it seemed to sit aloof, viewing with a curious mixture of compassion and contempt the slow ruin of the body which imprisoned it.

With an impulse womanly as winning, Olivia plucked a wine-dark rose from the trellis nearest her, and, bending towards him, laid it in his hand, with a look and gesture of one glad to give all she possessed, if that were possible.

“Your love of beauty still survives, and is a solace to you. Let me minister to it when I can; and be assured I offer my little friend as freely as I do my choicest rose.”

“Thanks; the flower for me, the friend for Felix. Young as he is, he knows how to woo, and she will listen to his love-tale as willingly as she did to the highly colored romance he was telling her just now. You would soon find her a burden, Olivia, and so should I, unless she came in this way. We need do nothing but leave the young pair to summer and seclusion; they will make the match better and 44more quickly than we could. Then a month for the honeymoon business, and all can be comfortably settled before October frosts set in.”

“You often say, where women are is discord; yet you are planning to bring one into your house in the most dangerous way. Have you no fears, Jasper?”

“Not of Gladys; she is so young, I can mould her as I please, and that suits me. She will become my house well, this tender, transparent little creature, with her tranquil eyes, and the sincere voice which makes truth sweeter than falsehood. You must come and see her there; but never try to alter her, or the charm will be destroyed.”

“You may be satisfied: but how will it be with Felix? Hitherto your sway has been undivided, now you must share it; for with all her gentleness she is strong, and will rule him.”

“And I, Gladys. Felix suits me excellently, and it will only add another charm to the relation if I control him through the medium of another. My young lion is discovering his power rapidly, and I must give him a Una before he breaks loose and chooses for himself. If matters must be complicated, I choose to do 45it, and it will occupy my winter pleasantly to watch the success of this new combination.”

While he talked, Helwyze had been absently stripping leaf after leaf from the great rose, till nothing but the golden heart remained trembling on the thorny stem.

Olivia had watched the velvet petals fall one by one, feeling a sad sympathy with the ill-used gift; yet, as the last leaf fluttered to the ground, she involuntarily lifted up her hand to break another, glad if even in the destruction of so frail a thing he could find a moment’s pleasure.

“No, let them hang; their rich color pleases best among the green; their cloying perfume is too heavy for the house. A snowdrop, leaning from its dainty sheath undaunted by March winds, is more to my taste now,” he said, dropping the relics of the rose, with the slow smile which often lent such significance to a careless word.

“I cannot give you that: spring flowers are all gone long ago,” began Olivia, regretfully.

“Nay, you give me one in Gladys; no spring flower could be more delicate than she, gathered by your own hand from the bleak nook where you found her. It is the faint, vernal fragrance of natures, coyly hidden from common eye and 46touch, which satisfies and soothes senses refined by suffering.”

“Yet you will destroy it, like the rose, in finding out the secret of its life. I wondered why this pale, cold innocence was so attractive to a man like you. There was a time when you would have laughed at such a fancy, and craved something with more warmth and brilliancy.”

“I am wiser now, and live here, not here,” he answered, touching first his forehead then his breast, with melancholy meaning. “While my brain is spared me I can survive the ossification of all the heart I ever had, since, at best, it is an unruly member. Almost as inconvenient as a conscience; that, thank fortune, I never had. Yes; to study the mysterious mechanism of human nature is a most absorbing pastime, when books weary, and other sources of enjoyment are forbidden. Try it, and see what an exciting game it becomes, when men and women are the pawns you learn to move at will. Goethe’s boyish puppet-show was but a symbol of the skill and power which made the man the magician he became.”

“An impious pastime, a dearly purchased fame, built on the broken hearts of women!” exclaimed Olivia, walking to and fro with the 47noiseless step and restless grace of a leopardess pacing its cage.

Helwyze neither seemed to see nor hear her, for his gloomy eyes stared at a little bird tilting on a spray that swung in the freshening wind, and his thoughts followed their own path.

“‘Pale, cold innocence.’ It is curious that it should charm me. A good sign, perhaps; for poets tell us that fallen angels sigh for the heaven they have lost, and try to rise again on the wings of spirits stronger and purer than themselves. Would they not find virtue insipid after a fiery draught of sin? Did not Paradise seem a little dull to Dante, in spite of Beatrice? I wish I knew.”

“Is it for this that you want the girl’s help?” asked Olivia, pausing in her march to look at him. “I shall wait with interest to see if she lifts you up to sainthood, or you drag her down to your level, where intellect is God, conscience ignored, and love despised. Unhappy Gladys! I should have said, because I cannot keep her from you, if I would; and in your hands she will be as helpless as the dumb creatures surgeons torture, that they may watch a living nerve, count the throbbing of an artery, or see how long the poor things will live bereft of some vital part. Let 48the child alone, Jasper, or you will repent of it.”

“Upon my word, Olivia, you are in an ominously prophetic mood. I hear a carriage; and, as I am invisible to all eyes but your gifted ones, pardon me if I unceremoniously leave the priestess on her tripod.”

And the curtain dropped between them as suddenly as it had been lifted, depriving the woman of the one troubled joy of her life,—companionship with him.