A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter IV

by Louisa May Alcott

Felix, are you asleep?”

“No, sir, only resting.”

“Have you been at work?”

“Decidedly; I rowed across the lake and back.”


“Gladys went with me, singing like a mermaid all the way.”


Both men were lounging in the twilight; but there was a striking difference in their way Of doing it. Canaris lay motionless on a couch, his head pillowed on his arms, enjoying the luxury of repose, with the dolce far niente only possible to those in whose veins runs Southern blood. Helwyze leaned in a great chair, which looked a miracle of comfort; but its occupant stirred restlessly, as if he found no ease among its swelling cushions; and there was an alert expression in his face, betraying that the brain was at work on some thought or purpose which both absorbed and excited.

50A pause followed the brief dialogue, during which Canaris seemed to relapse into his delicious drowse, while Helwyze sat looking at him with the critical regard one bestows on a fine work of art. Yet something in the spectacle of rest he could not share seemed to annoy him; for, suddenly turning up the shaded lamp upon his table, he dispelled the soft gloom, and broke the silence.

“I have a request to make. May I trouble you to listen?”

There was a tone of command in the courteously worded speech, which made Canaris sit erect, with a respectful—

“At your service, sir.”

“I wish you to marry,” continued Helwyze, with such startling abruptness that the young man gazed at him in mute amazement for a moment. Then, veiling his surprise by a laugh, he asked lightly,—

“Isn’t it rather soon for that, sir? I am hardly of age.”

“Geniuses are privileged; and I am not aware of any obstacle, if I am satisfied,” answered Helwyze, with an imperious gesture, which seemed to put aside all objections.

“Do you seriously mean it, sir?”

51“I do.”

“But why such haste?”

“Because it is my pleasure.”

“I will not give up my liberty so soon,” cried the young man, with a mutinous flash of the eye.

“I thought you had already given it up. If you choose to annul the agreement, do it, and go. You know the forfeit.”

“I forgot this possibility. Did I agree to obey in all things?”

“It was so set down in the bond. Entire obedience in return for the success you coveted. Have I failed in my part of the bargain?”

“No, sir; no.”

“Then do yours, or let us cancel the bond, and part.”

“How can we? What can I do without you? Is there no way but this?”


Canaris looked dismayed,—and well he might, for it seemed impossible to put away the cup he had thirsted for, when its first intoxicating draught was at his lips.

Helwyze had spoken with peculiar emphasis, and his words were full of ominous suggestion to the listener’s ear; for he alone knew how much 52rebellion would cost him, since luxury and fame were still dearer than liberty or honor. He sprung up, and paced the room, feeling like some wild creature caught in a snare.

Helwyze, regardless of his chafing, went on calmly, as if to a willing hearer, eying him vigilantly the while, though now his own manner was as persuasive as it had been imperative before.

“I ask no more than many parents do, and will give you my reasons for the demand, though that was not among the stipulations.”

“A starving man does not stop to weigh words, or haggle about promises. I was desperate, and you offered me salvation; can you wonder that I clutched the only hand held out to me?” demanded Canaris, with a world of conflicting emotions in his expressive face, as he paused before his master.

“I am not speaking of the first agreement, that was brief as simple. The second bargain was a more complicated matter. You were not desperate then; you freely entered into it, reaped the benefits of it, and now wish to escape the consequences of your own act. Is that fair?”

“How could I dream that you would exact 53such obedience as this? I am too young; it is a step that may change my whole life; I must have time,” murmured Canaris, while a sudden change passed over his whole face, his eye fell before the glance bent on him, as the other spoke.

“It need not change your life, except to make it freer, perhaps happier. Hitherto you have had all the pleasure, now I desire my share. You often speak of gratitude; prove it by granting my request, and, in adding a new solace to my existence, you will find you have likewise added a new charm to your own.”

“It is so sudden,—I do desire to show my gratitude,—I have tried to do my part faithfully so far,” began Canaris, as if a look, a word, had tamed his high spirit, and enforced docility sorely against his will.

“So far, I grant that, and I thank you for the service which I desire to lessen by the step you decline to take. I have spoilt you for use, but not for ornament. I still like to see you flourish; I enjoy your success; I cannot free you; but I can give you a mate, who will take your place and amuse me at home, while you sing and soar abroad. Is that sufficiently poetical for a poet’s comprehension?” and Helwyze 54smiled, that satiric smile of his, still watching the young man’s agitated countenance.

“But why need I marry? Why cannot”—there Canaris hesitated, for he lacked the courage to make the very natural suggestion Olivia had done.

Helwyze divined the question on his lips, and answered it with stern brevity.

“That is impossible;” then added, with the sudden softening of tone which made his voice irresistibly seductive, “I have given one reason for my whim: there are others, which affect you more nearly and pleasantly, perhaps. Little more than a year ago, your first book came out, making you famous for a time. You have enjoyed your laurels for a twelvemonth, and begin to sigh for more. The world has petted you, as it does any novelty, and expects to be paid for its petting, else it will soon forget you.”

“No fear of that!” exclaimed the other, with the artless arrogance of youth.

“If I thought you would survive the experiment, I would leave you to discover what a fickle mistress you serve. But frost would soon blight your budding talent, so we will keep on the world’s sunny side, and tempt the Muse, not terrify her.”

55Nothing could be smoother than the voice in which these words were said; but a keen ear would have detected an accent of delicate irony in it, and a quick eye have seen that Canaris winced, as if a sore spot had been touched.

“I should think marriage would do that last, most effectually,” he answered, with a scornful shrug, and an air of great distaste.

“Not always: some geniuses are the better for such bondage. I fancy you are one of them, and wish to try the experiment. If it fails, you can play Byron, to your heart’s content.”

“A costly experiment for some one.” Canaris paused in his impatient march, to look down with a glance of pity at the dead lily still knotted in his button-hole.

Helwyze laughed at the touch of sentiment,—a low, quiet laugh; but it made the young man flush, and hastily fling away the faded flower, whose pure loveliness had been a joy to him an hour ago. With a half docile, half defiant look, he asked coldly,—

“What next, sir?”

“Only this: you have done well. Now, you must do better, and let the second book be free from the chief fault which critics found,—that, though the poet wrote of love, it was evident he had never felt it.”

56“Who shall say that?” with sudden warmth.

“I, for one. You know nothing of love, though you may flatter yourself you do. So far, it has been pretty play enough, but I will not have you waste yourself, or your time. You need inspiration, this will give it you. At your age, it is easy to love the first sweet woman brought near you, and almost impossible for any such to resist your wooing. An early marriage will not only give heart and brain a fillip, but add the new touch of romance needed to keep up the world’s interest in the rising star, whose mysterious advent piques curiosity as strongly as his work excites wonder and delight.”

Composure and content had been gradually creeping back into the listener’s mien, as a skilful hand touched the various chords that vibrated most tunefully in a young, imaginative, ardent nature. Vivid fancy painted the “sweet woman” in a breath, quick wit saw at once the worldly wisdom of the advice, and ambition found no obstacle impassable.

“You are right, sir, I submit; but I claim the privilege of choosing my inspirer,” he said, warily.

“You have already chosen, if I am not much mistaken. A short wooing, but a sure one; for 57little Gladys has no coquetry, and will not keep you waiting for her answer.”

“Gladys is a child,” began Canaris, still hesitating to avow the truth.

“The fitter mate for you.”

“But, sir, you are mistaken: I do not love her.”

“Then, why teach her to love you?”

“I have not: I was only kind. Surely I cannot be expected to marry every young girl who blushes when I look at her,” he said, with sullen petulance, for women had spoilt the handsome youth, and he was as ungrateful as such idols usually are.

“Then, who?—ah! I perceive; I had forgotten that a boy’s first tendresse is too often for a woman twice his age. May I trouble you?” and Helwyze held up the empty glass with which he had been toying while he talked.

Among the strew of books upon the table at his elbow stood an antique silver flagon, coolly frosted over by the iced wine it held. This Canaris obediently lifted; and, as he stooped to fill the rosy bowl of the Venetian goblet, Helwyze leaned forward, till the two faces were so close that eye looked into eye, as he said, in one swift sentence, “It was to win Olivia for 58yourself, then, that you wooed Gladys for me, three hours ago?”

The flagon was not heavy, but it shook in the young man’s grasp, and the wine overflowed the delicate glass, dyeing red the hand that held it. One face glowed with shame and anger; the other remained unmoved, except a baffling smile upon the lips, that added, in mild reproach,—

“My Ganymede has lost his skill; it is time I filled his place with a neat-handed Hebe. Make haste, and bring her to me soon.”

Mutely Canaris removed all traces of the treacherous mishap, inwardly cursing his imprudent confidences, wondering what malignant chance brought within ear-shot one who rarely left his own apartments at the other end of the villa; and conscious of an almost superstitious fear of this man, who read so surely, and dragged to light so ruthlessly, hidden hopes and half-formed designs.

Vouchsafing no enlightenment, Helwyze sipped the cool draught with an air of satisfaction, continuing the conversation in a tone of exasperating calmness.

“Among other amusing fables with which you beguiled poor Gladys, I think you promised counsel and comfort. Keep your word, and 59marry her. It is the least you can do, after destroying her faith in the one friend she possessed. A pleasant, but a dangerous pastime, and not in the best taste; let me advise you to beware of it in future.”

There was a covert menace in the tone, a warning in the significant grip of the pale fingers round the glass, as if about to snap its slender stem. Canaris was white now with impotent wrath, and a thrill went through his vigorous young frame, as if the wild creature was about to break loose, and defy its captor.

But the powerful eye was on him, with a spark of fire in its depths, and controlled till words, both sweet and bitter, soothed and won him.

“I know that any breath of tenderness would pass by Olivia as idly as the wind. You doubt this, and a word will prove it. I am not a tyrant, though I seem such; therefore you are free to try your fate before you gratify my whim and make Gladys happy.”

“You think the answer will be ‘No?’” and Canaris forgot every thing but the hope which tempted, even while reason told him it was vain.

“It always has been; it always will be, if I know her.”

60“Will be till you ask.”

“Rest easy; I am done with love.”

“But if she answers ‘Yes’?”

“Then bid good-bye to peace,—and me.”

The answer startled the young lover, and made him shrink from what he ardently desired; for the new passion was but an enthralment of the senses, and he knew it by the fine instinct which permits such men to see and condemn their lower nature, even while yielding to its sway.

But pride silenced doubt, and native courage made it impossible to shun the trial or accept the warning. His eye lit, his head rose, and he spoke out manfully, though unconsciously he wore the look of one who goes to lead a forlorn hope,—

“I shall try my fate to-night, and, if I fail, you may do what you like with me.”

“Not a coward, thank Heaven!” mused Helwyze, as he looked after the retreating figure with the contemptuous admiration one gives to any foolhardy enterprise bravely undertaken. “He must have his lesson, and will be the tamer for it, unless Olivia takes me at my word, and humors the boy, for vengeance’ sake. That would be a most dramatic complication, and 61endanger my winter’s comfort seriously. Come, suspense is a new emotion; I will enjoy it, and meantime make sure of Gladys, or I may be left in the lurch. A reckless boy and a disappointed woman are capable of any folly.”