A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter V

by Louisa May Alcott

Helwyze folded black velvet paletôt about him, stroked the damp hair off his forehead, and, with hands loosely clasped behind his back, went walking slowly through the quiet house, to find the bright drawing-room and breezy balcony already deserted.

No sound of voice or step gave him the clew he sought; and, pausing in the hall, he stood a moment, his finger on his lip, wondering whither Gladys had betaken herself.

“Not with them, assuredly. Dreaming in the moonshine somewhere. I must look again.”

Retracing his noiseless steps, he glanced here and there with eyes which nothing could escape, for trifles were significant to his quick wit; and he found answers to unspoken queries in the relics the vanished trio left behind them. Olivia’s fan, flung down upon a couch, made him smile, as if he saw her toss it there when yielding half-impatiently to the entreaties of Canaris. An ottoman, pushed hastily aside, told where the 63young lover sat, till he beguiled her out to listen to the pleading which would wax eloquent and bold under cover of the summer night. The instrument stood open, a favorite song upon the rack, but the glimmering keys were mute; and the wind alone was singing fitfully. A little hat lay in the window, as if ready to be caught up in glad haste when the summons came; but the dew had dimmed the freshness of its azure ribbons, and there was a forlorn look about the girlish thing, which told the story of a timid hope, a silent disappointment.

“Where the deuce is the child?” and Helwyze cast an ireful look about the empty room; for motion wearied him, and any thwarting of his will was dangerous. Suddenly his eye brightened, and he nodded, as if well pleased; for below the dark drapery that hung before an arch, a fold of softest white betrayed the wearer.

“Now I have her!” he whispered, as if to some familiar; and, parting the curtains, looked down upon the little figure sitting there alone, bathed in moonlight as purely placid as the face turned on him when he spoke.

“Might one come in? The house seems quite deserted, and I want some charitable soul to say a friendly word to me.”

64“Oh, yes! What can I do, sir?” With the look of a suddenly awakened child, Gladys rose up, and involuntarily put out her hand as if to heap yet more commodiously the pillows of the couch which filled the alcove; then paused, remembering what Canaris had told her of the invalid’s rejection of all sympathy, and stood regarding him with a shy, yet wistful glance, which plainly showed the impulse of her tender heart.

Conscious that the surest way to win this simple creature was by submitting to be comforted,—for in her, womanly compassion was stronger than womanly ambition, vanity, or interest,—Helwyze shed a reassuring smile upon her, as he threw himself down, exclaiming, with a sigh of satisfaction, doubly effective from one who so seldom owned the weariness that oppressed him,—

“Yes: you shall make me comfortable, if you kindly will; the heat exhausts me, and I cannot sleep. Ah, this is pleasant! You have the gift of piling pillows for weary heads, Gladys. Now, let the moonlight make a picture of you, as it did before I spoilt it; then I shall envy no man.”

Pleased, yet abashed, the girl sank back into her place on the wide window ledge, and bent 65her face over the blooming linden spray that lay upon her lap, unconsciously making of herself a prettier picture than before.

“Musing here alone? Not sorrowfully, I hope?”

“I never feel alone, sir, and seldom sorrowful.”

“‘They never are alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts;’ yet it would not be unnatural if you felt both sad and solitary, so young, so isolated, in this big, bad world of ours.”

“A beautiful and happy world to me, sir. Even loneliness is pleasant, because with it comes—liberty.”

The last word fell from her lips involuntarily; and, with a wonderfully expressive gesture, she lifted her arms as if some heavy fetter had newly dropped away.

Ardent emphasis and forceful action both surprised and interested Helwyze, confirming his suspicion that this girlish bosom hid a spirit as strong as pure, capable of deep suffering, exquisite happiness, heroic effort. His eye shone, and he gave a satisfied nod; for his first careless words had struck fire from the girl, making his task easier and more attractive.

“And how will you use this freedom? A precious, yet a perilous, gift for such as you.”

66“Can any thing so infinitely sweet and sacred be dangerous? He who planted the longing for it here, and gave it me when most needed, will surely teach me how to use it. I have no fear.”

The bent head was erect now; the earnest face turned full on Helwyze with such serene faith shining in it, that the sneer died off his lips, and something like genuine compassion touched him, at the sight of such brave innocence tranquilly confronting the unknown future.

“May nothing molest, or make afraid. While here, you are quite safe;—you do, then, think of going?” he added, as a quick change arrested him.

“I do, sir, and soon. I only wait to see how, and where.”

It was difficult to believe that so resolute a tone could come into a voice so gentle, or that lips whose shape was a smile could curl with such soft scorn. But both were there; for the memory of that other woman’s story embittered even gratitude, since in the girl’s simple creed disloyalty to love was next to disloyalty to God.

Helwyze watched her closely, while his fingers fell to tapping idly on the sofa scroll; and the spark brightened under the lids that contracted 67with the intent expression of concentrated sight.

“Perhaps I can show you how and when. May I?” he asked, assuming a paternal air, which inwardly amused him much.

Gladys looked, hesitated, and a shade of perplexity dimmed the clear brightness of her glance, as if vaguely conscious of distrust, and troubled by its seeming causelessness.

Helwyze saw it, and quickly added the magical word which lulled suspicion, roused interest, and irresistibly allured her fancy.

“Pardon me; I should not have ventured to speak, if Felix had not hinted that you began to weary of dependence, as all free spirits must; your own words confirm the hint; and I desired to share my cousin’s pleasure in befriending, if I might, one who can so richly repay all obligation. Believe me, Gladys, your voice is a treasure, which, having discovered, we want to share between us.”

If the moonlight had been daybreak, the girl’s cheek could not have shown a rosier glow, as she half-averted it to hide the joy she felt at knowing Canaris had taken thought for her so soon. Her heart fluttered with tender hopes and fears, like a nestful of eager birds; and, forgetting 68doubt in delight, she yielded to the lure held out to her.

“You are most kind: I shall be truly grateful if you will advise me, sir. Mrs. Surry has done so much, I can ask no more, but rather hasten to relieve her of all further care of me.”

“She will be loth to lose you; but the friend of whom I am about to speak needs you much, and can give you what you love better even than kindness,—independence.”

“Yes: that is what I long for! I will do any thing for daily bread, if I may earn it honestly, and eat it in freedom,” leaning nearer, with clasped hands and eager look.

“Could you be happy to spend some hours of each day in reading, singing to, and amusing a poor soul, who sorely needs such pleasant comforting?”

“I could. It would be very sweet to do it; and I know how, excellently well, for I have had good training. My father was an invalid, and I his only nurse for years.”

“Fortunate for me in all ways,” thought Helwyze, finding another reason for his purpose; while Gladys, bee-like, getting sweetness out of bitter-herbs, said to herself, “Those weary years had their use, and are not wasted, as I feared.”

69“I think these duties will not be difficult nor distasteful,” continued Helwyze, marking the effect of each attraction, as he mentioned it with modest brevity. “It is a quiet place; plenty of rare books to read, fine pictures to study, and music to enjoy; a little clever society, to keep wits bright and enliven solitude; hours of leisure, and entire liberty to use them as you will. Would this satisfy you, Gladys, till something better can be found?”

“Better!” echoed the girl, with the expression of one who, having asked for a crust, is bidden to a feast. “Ah, sir, it sounds too pleasant for belief. I long for all these lovely things, but never hoped to have them. Can I earn so much happiness? Am I a fit companion for this poor lady, who must need the gentlest nursing, if she suffers in the midst of so much to enjoy?”

“You will suit exactly; have no fear of that, my good child. Just be your own happy, helpful self, and you can make sunshine anywhere. We will talk more of this when you have turned it over in that wise young head of yours. Olivia may have some more attractive plan to offer.”

But Gladys shook “the wise young head” with a decided air, as piquante as the sudden resolution in her artless voice.

70“I shall choose for myself; your plan pleases me better than any Mrs. Surry is likely to propose. She says I must not work, but rest and enjoy myself. I will work; I love it; ease steals away my strength, and pleasure seems to dazzle me. I must be strong, for I have only myself to lean upon; I must see clearly, for my only guide is my own conscience. I will think of your most kind offer, and be ready to accept it whenever you like to try me, sir.”

“Thanks; I like to try you now, then; sit here and croon some drowsy song, to show how well you can lull wakeful senses into that blessed oblivion called sleep.”

As he spoke, Helwyze drew a low seat beside the couch, and beckoned her to come and take it; for she had risen as if to go, and he had no mind to be left alone yet.

“I am so pleased you asked me to do this, for it is my special gift. Papa was very stubborn, but he always had to yield, and often called me his ‘sleep compeller.’ Let me drop the curtain first, light is so exciting, and draws the insects. I shall keep them off with this pretty fan, and you will find the faint perfume soothing.”

Full of the sweetest good-will, Gladys leaned 71across the couch to darken the recess before the lullaby began. But Helwyze, feeling in a mood for investigation and experiment, arrested the outstretched hand, and, holding it in his, turned the full brilliance of his fine eyes on hers, asking with most seductive candor,—

“Gladys, if I were the friend of whom we spoke, would you come to me? You compel truth as well as sleep, and I cannot deceive you, while you so willingly serve me.”

A moment she stood looking down into the singular countenance before her with a curious intentness in her own. A slight quickening of the breath was all the sign she gave of a consciousness of the penetrative glance fixed upon her, the close grasp of his hand; otherwise unembarrassed as a child, she regarded him with an expression maidenly modest, but quite composed. Helwyze keenly enjoyed these glimpses of the new character with which he chose to meddle, yet was both piqued and amused by her present composure, when the mere name of Felix filled her with the delicious shamefacedness of a first love.

It was a little curious that during the instant the two surveyed each other, that, while the girl’s color faded, a light red tinged the man’s 72pale cheek, her eye grew clear and cold as his softened, and the small hand seemed to hold the larger by the mere contact of its passive fingers.

Slow to arrive, the answer was both comprehensive and significant, but very brief, for three words held it.

“Could I come?”

Helwyze laughed with real enjoyment.

“You certainly have the gift of surprises, if no other, and it makes you charming, Gladys. I fancied you as unsophisticated as if you were eight, instead of eighteen, and here I find you as discreet as any woman of the world,—more so than many. Where did you learn it, child?”

“From myself; I have no other teacher.”

“Ah! ‘instinct is a fine thing, my masters.’ You could not have a better guide. Rest easy, little friend, the proprieties shall be preserved, and you can come, if you decide to do me the honor. My old housekeeper is a most decorous and maternal creature, and into her keeping you will pass. Felix pleased me well, but his time is too valuable now; and, selfish as I am, I hesitate to keep for my own comfort the man who can charm so many. Will you come, and take his place?”

73Helwyze could not deny himself the pleasure of calling back the tell-tale color, for the blushes of a chaste woman are as beautiful as the blooming of a flower. Quickly the red tide rose, even to the brow, the eyes fell, the hand thrilled, and the steady voice faltered traitorously, “I could not fill it, sir.”

Still detaining her, that he might catch the sweet aroma of an opening heart, Helwyze added, as the last temptation to this young Eve, whom he was beguiling out of the safe garden of her tranquil girlhood into the unknown world of pain and passion, waiting for womankind beyond,—

“Not for my own sake alone do I want you, but for his. Life is full of perils for him, and he needs a home. I cannot make one for him, except in this way, for my house is my prison, and he wearies of it naturally. But I can give it a new charm, add a never-failing attraction, and make it homelike by a woman’s presence. Will you help me in this?”

“I am not wise enough; Mrs. Surry is often with you: surely she could make it homelike far better than I,” stammered Gladys, chilled by a sudden fear, as she remembered Canaris’ face as he departed with Olivia an hour ago.

74“Pardon; that is precisely what she cannot do. Such women weary while they dazzle, the gentler sort win while they soothe. We shall see less of her in future; it is not well for Felix. Take pity on me, at least, and answer ‘Yes.’”

“I do, sir.”

“How shall I thank you?” and Helwyze kissed the hand as he released it, leaving a little thorn of jealousy behind to hoodwink prudence, stimulate desire, and fret the inward peace that was her best possession.

Glad to take refuge in music, the girl assumed her seat, and began to sing dreamily to the slow waving of the green spray. Helwyze feigned to be courting slumber, but from the ambush of downcast lids he stole sidelong glances at the countenance so near his own, that he could mark the gradual subsiding of emotion, the slow return of the repose which made its greatest charm for him. And so well did he feign, that presently, as if glad to see her task successfully ended, Gladys stole away to the seclusion of her own happy thoughts.

Busied with his new plans and purposes, Helwyze waited till his patience was rewarded by seeing the face of Canaris appear at the window, glance in, and vanish as silently as it came. But 75one look was enough, and in that flash of time the other read how the rash wooing had sped, or thought he did, till Olivia came sweeping through the room, flung wide the curtains, and looked in with eyes as brilliant as if, they had borrowed light of the fire-flies dancing there without.

“A fan, a cigarette, a scarlet flower behind the ear, and the Spanish donna would be quite perfect,” he said, surveying with lazy admiration the richly colored face, which looked out from the black lace, wrapped mantilla-wise over the dark hair and whitely gleaming arms.

“Is the snowdrop gone? Then I will come in, and hear how the new handmaid suits. I saw her at her pleasing task.”

“So well that I should like to keep her at it long and often. Where is Felix?”

His words, his look, angered Olivia, and she answered with smiling ambiguity,—

“Out of his misery, at last.”

“Cruel as ever. I told him it would be so.”

“On the contrary, I have been kind, as I promised to be.”

“Then his face belied him.”

“Would it please you, if I had ventured to forestall your promised gift, and accepted all 76Felix has to offer me, himself. I have my whims, like you, and follow them as recklessly.”

Helwyze knit his brows, but answered negligently, “Folly never pleases me. It will be amusing to see which tires first. I shall miss him; but his place is already filled, and Gladys has the charm of novelty.”

“You have spoken, then?”

“Forewarned, forearmed; I have her promise, and Felix can go when he likes.”

Olivia paled, dropped her mask, and exclaimed in undisguised alarm,—

“There is no need: I have no thought of such folly! My kindness to Felix was the sparing him an avowal, which was simply absurd. A word, a laugh, did it, for ridicule cures more quickly and surely than compassion.”

“I thought so. Why try to fence with me, Madama? you always get the worst of it,” and Helwyze made the green twig whistle through the air with a sharp turn of the wrist, as he rose to go; for these two, bound together by a mutual wrong, seldom met without bitter words, the dregs of a love which might have blest them both.

He found Felix waiting for him, in a somewhat haughty mood; Olivia having judged wisely that 77ridicule, though a harsh, was a speedy cure for the youthful delusion, which had been fostered by the isolation in which they lived, and the ardent imagination of a poet.

“You were right, sir. What are your commands?” he asked, controlling disappointment, pique, and unwillingness with a spirit that won respect and forbearance even from Helwyze, who answered with a cordial warmth, as rare as charming,—

“I have none: the completion of my wish I leave to you. Consult your own time and pleasure, and, when it is happily accomplished, be assured I shall not forget that you have shown me the obedience of a son.”

Quick as a child to be touched, and won by kindness, Canaris flushed with grateful feeling and put out his hand impulsively, as he had done when selling his liberty, for now he was selling his love.

“Forgive my waywardness. I will be guided by you, for I owe you my life, and all the happiness I have known in it. Gladys shall be a daughter to you; but give me time—I must teach myself to forget.”

His voice broke as he stumbled over the last words, for pride was sore, and submission hard. 78But Helwyze soothed the one and softened the other by one of the sympathetic touches which occasionally broke from him, proving that the man’s heart, was not yet quite dead. Laying his hand upon the young man’s shoulder, he said in a tone which stirred the hearer deeply,—

“I feared this pain was in store for you, but could not save you from it. Accept the gentle comforter I bring you, for I have known the same pain, and I had no Gladys.”