A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter VI

by Louisa May Alcott

So the days went by, fast and fair in outward seeming, while an undercurrent of unquiet emotion rolled below. Helwyze made no sign of impatience, but silently forwarded his wish, by devoting himself to Olivia; thereby making a green oasis in the desert of her life, and leaving the young pair to themselves.

At first, Canaris shunned every one as much as possible; but sympathy, not solitude, was the balm he wanted, and who could give it him so freely as Gladys? Her mute surprise and doubt and grief at this capricious coldness, after such winning warmth, showed him that the guileless heart was already his, and added a soothing sense of power to the reluctance and regret which by turns tormented him.

Irresistibly drawn by the best instincts of a faulty but aspiring nature to that which was lovely, true, and pure, he soon returned to Gladys, finding in her sweet society a refreshment and repose Olivia’s could never give him. 80Love he did not feel, but affection, the more helpful for its calmness; confidence, which was given again fourfold; and reverence, daily deepening as time showed him the gentle strength and crystal clarity of the spirit he was linking to his own by ties which death itself could not sever. But the very virtues which won, also made him hesitate, though rash enough when yielding to an attraction far less noble. A sense of unworthiness restrained him, even when reluctance had passed from resignation to something like desire, and he paused, as one might, who longed to break a delicate plant, yet delayed, lest it should wither too quickly in his hand.

Helwyze and Olivia watched this brief wooing with peculiar interest. She, being happy herself, was full of good hope for Gladys, and let her step, unwarned, into the magic circle drawn around her. He sat as if at a play, enjoying the pretty pastoral enacted before him, content to let “summer and seclusion” bring the young pair together as naturally and easily as spring-time mates the birds. Suspense gave zest to the new combination, surprise added to its flavor, and a dash of danger made it unusually attractive to him.

Canaris came to him one day, with a resolute 81expression on his face, which rendered it noble, as well as beautiful.

“Sir, I will not do this thing; I dare not.”

“Dare not! Is cowardice to be added to disobedience and falsehood?” and Helwyze looked up from his book with a contemptuous frown.

“I will not be sneered out of my purpose; for I never did a braver, better act than when I say to you, ‘I dare not lie to Gladys.’”

“What need of lying? Surely you love her now, or you are a more accomplished actor than I thought you.”

“I have tried,—tried too faithfully for her peace, I fear; but, though I reverence her as an angel, I do not love her as a woman. How can I look into her innocent, confiding face, and tell her,—she who is all truth,—that I love as she does?”

“Yet that is the commonest, most easily forgiven falsehood a man can utter. Is it so hard for you to deceive?”

Quick and deep rose the hot scarlet to Canaris’s face, and his eyes fell, as if borne down by the emphasis of that one word. But the sincerity of his desire brought courage even out of shame; and, lifting his head with a humility more impressive than pride or anger, he said, steadily,—

82“If this truth redeems that falsehood, I shall, at least, have recovered my own self-respect. I never knew that I had lost it, till Gladys showed me how poor I was in the virtue which makes her what she is.”

“What conscientious qualm is this? Where would this truth-telling bring you? How would your self-respect bear the knowledge that you had broken the girl’s heart? for, angel as you call her, she has one, and you have stolen it.”

“At your bidding.”

“Long before I thought of it. Did you imagine you could play with her, to pique Olivia, without harm to Gladys? Is yours a face to smile on a woman, day after day, and not teach her to love? In what way but this can you atone for such selfish thoughtlessness? Come, if we are to talk of honor and honesty, do it fairly, and not shift the responsibility of your acts upon my shoulders.”

“Have I done that? I never meant to trouble her. Is there no way out of it but this? Oh, sir, I am not fit to marry her! What am I, to take a fellow-creature’s happiness into my hands? What have I to offer her but the truth in return for her love, if I must take it to secure her peace?”

83“If you offer the truth, you certainly will have nothing else, and not even receive love in return, perhaps; for her respect may go with all the rest. If I know her, the loss of that would wound her heart more deeply than the disappointment your silence will bring her now. Think of this, and be wise as well as generous in the atonement you should make.”

“Bound, whichever way I look; for when I meant to be kindest I am cruel.”

Canaris stood perplexed, abashed, remorseful; for Helwyze had the art to turn even his virtues into weapons against him, making his new-born regard for Gladys a reason for being falsely true, dishonorably tender. The honest impulse suddenly looked weak and selfish, compassion seemed nobler than sincerity, and present peace better than future happiness.

Helwyze saw that he was wavering, and turned the scale by calling to his aid one of the strongest passions that rule men,—the spirit of rivalry,—knowing well its power over one so young, so vain and sensitive.

“Felix, there must be an end of this; I am tired of it. Since you are more enamoured of truth than Gladys, choose, and abide by it. I shall miss my congenial comrade, but I will not 84keep him if he feels my friendship slavery. I release you from all promises: go your way, in peace; I can do without you.”

A daring offer, and Helwyze risked much in making it; but he knew the man before him, and that in seeming to set free, he only added another link to the invisible chain by which he held him. Canaris looked relieved, amazed, and touched, as he exclaimed, incredulously,—

“Do you mean it, sir?”

“I do; but in return for your liberty I claim the right to use mine as I will.”

“Use it? I do not understand.”

“To comfort Gladys.”


“You do not love her, and leave her doubly forlorn, since you have given her a glimpse of love. I must befriend her, as you will not; and when she comes to me, as she has promised, if she is happy, I shall keep her.”

“As fille adoptive.”

Canaris affirmed, not asked, this; and, in the changed tone, the suspicious glance, Helwyze saw that he had aimed well. With a smile that was a sneer, he answered coldly,—

“Hardly that: the paternal element is sadly lacking in me; and, if it were not, I fear a man 85of forty could not adopt a girl of eighteen without compromising her, especially one so lonely and so lovely as poor little Gladys.”

“You will marry her? Yet when I hinted it, you said, ‘Impossible!’”

“I did; but then I did not know how helpful she could be, how glad to love, how easy to be won by kindness. Ennui drives one to do the rashest things; and when you are gone, I shall find it difficult to fill your place. ’Tis a pity to tie the pretty creature to such a clod. But, if I can help and keep her in no other way, I may do it, remembering that her captivity would be a short one; it should be my care that it was a very light one while it lasted.”

“But she loves me!” exclaimed Canaris, with jealous inconsistency.

“I fear so; yet you reject her for a scruple. Hearts are easily caught in the rebound; and who will hold hers more gently than I? Olivia will tell you I can be gentle when it suits me.”

The name stung Canaris, where pride was sorest; and the thought, that this man could take from him both the woman whom he loved and the girl who loved him, roused an ignoble desire to silence the noble one. He showed it instantly, for his eye shot a quick glance at the 86mirror; a smile that was almost insolent passed over his face; and his air was full of the proud consciousness of youth, health, comeliness, and talent.

“Thanks for my freedom; I shall know how to use it. Since I may tell Gladys the truth, I do not dread her love so much; and will atone generously, if I can. I think she will accept poverty with me rather than luxury with you. At least she shall have her choice.”

“Well said. You will succeed, since you possess all the gifts which win women except wealth and”—

“Stop! you shall not say it,” cried Canaris, hotly. “Are you possessed of a devil, that you torment me so?” He clenched his hands, and walked fast through the room, as if to escape from some fierce impulse.

A certain, almost brutal, frankness characterized the intercourse of these men at times; for the tie between them was a peculiar one, and fretted both, though both clung to it with strange tenacity. With equal candor and entire composure Helwyze answered the excited question.

“We are all possessed, more or less; happy the man who is master. My demon is a bad one; for your intellectual devil is hard to manage, 87since he demands the best of us, and is not satisfied or cheated as easily as some that are stronger, yet less cunning. Yours is ambition,—an insatiable fellow, who gives you no rest. I had a fancy to help you rule him; but he proves less interesting that I thought to find him, and is getting to be a bore. See what you can do, alone; only, when he gets the upper hand again, excuse me from interfering: once is enough.”

Canaris made no reply, but dashed out of the room, as if he could bear no more, leaving Helwyze to throw down his book, muttering impatiently,—

“Here is a froward favorite, and excitement with a vengeance! He will not speak yet; for with all his fire he is wary, and while he fumes I must work. But how? but how?”