A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter VIII

by Louisa May Alcott

Home at last, thank Heaven!” exclaimed Canaris, as the door opened, letting forth a stream of light and warmth into the chilly gloom of the October night. Gladys made no answer but an upward look, which seemed to utter the tender welcome he had forgotten to give; and, nestling her hand in his, let him lead her through the bright hall, up the wide stairway to her own domain.

“As we return a little before our time, we must not expect a jubilee. Look about you, love, and rest. I will send Mrs. Bland presently, and tell Helwyze we are come.”

He hurried away, showing no sign of the ennui which had fitfully betrayed itself during the last week. Gladys watched him wistfully, then turned to see what home was like, with eyes that brightened beautifully as they took in the varied charms of the luxurious apartments prepared for her. The newly kindled light filled the room with a dusky splendor; for deepest 102crimson glowed everywhere, making her feel as if she stood in the heart of a great rose whose silken petals curtained her round with a color, warmth, and fragrance which would render sleep a “rapture of repose.” Womanlike, she enjoyed every dainty device and sumptuous detail; yet the smile of pleasure was followed by a faint sigh, as if the new magnificence oppressed her, or something much desired had been forgotten.

Stepping carefully, like one who had no right there, she passed on to a charming drawing-room, evidently intended for but two occupants, and all the pleasanter to her for that suggestion. Pausing on the threshold of another door, she peeped in, expecting to find one of those scented, satin boudoirs, which are fitter for the coquetries of a Parisian belle, than for a young wife to hope and dream and pray in.

But there was no splendor here; and, with a cry of glad surprise, its new owner took possession, wondering what gentle magic had guessed and gathered here the simple treasures she best loved. White everywhere, except the pale green of the softly tinted walls, and the mossy carpet strewn with mimic snowdrops. A sheaf of lilies in a silver vase stood on the low chimney-piece above the hearth, where a hospitable 103fire lay ready to kindle at a touch; and this was the only sign of luxury the room displayed. Quaint furniture, with no ornament except its own grace or usefulness, gave the place a homelike air; and chintz hangings, fresh and delicate as green leaves scattered upon snow could make them, seemed to shut out the world, securing the sweet privacy a happy woman loves.

Gladys felt this instantly, and, lifting her hand to draw the pretty draperies yet closer, discovered a new surprise, which touched her to the heart. Instead of looking out into the darkness of the autumn night, she found a little woodland nook imprisoned between the glass-door and the deep window beyond. A veritable bit of the forest, with slender ferns nodding in their sleep, hardy vines climbing up a lichened stump to show their scarlet berries, pine-needles pricking through the moss, rough arbutus leaves hiding coyly till spring should freshen their russet edges, acorns looking as if just dropped by some busy squirrel, and all manner of humble weeds, growing here as happily as when they carpeted the wood for any careless foot to tread upon.

These dear familiar things were as grateful to Gladys as the sight of friendly faces; and, 104throwing wide the doors, she knelt down to breathe with childish eagerness the damp, fresh odors that came out to meet her.

“How sweet of him to make such a lovely nest for me, and then slip away before I could thank him,” thought the tender-hearted creature, with tears in the eyes that dwelt delightedly upon the tremulous maiden-hair bending to her touch, and the sturdy grasses waking up in this new summer.

A sound of opening doors dispelled her reverie; and with girlish trepidation she hastened to smooth the waves of her bright hair, assume the one pretty dress she would accept from Olivia, and clasp the bridal pearls about her neck; then hastened down before the somewhat dreaded Mrs. Bland appeared.

It pleased her to go wandering alone through the great house, warmed and lighted everywhere; for Helwyze made this his world, and gathered about him every luxury which taste, caprice, or necessity demanded. A marvellously beautiful and varied home it seemed to simple Gladys, as she passed from picture-gallery to music-room, eyed with artless wonder the subdued magnificence of the salon, or paused enchanted in a conservatory whose crystal walls enclosed a fairyland of bloom and verdure.

105Here and there she came upon some characteristic whim or arrangement, which made her smile with amusement, or sigh with pity, remembering the recluse who tried to cheer his solitude by these devices. One recess held a single picture glowing with the warm splendor of the East. A divan, a Persian rug, an amber-mouthed nargileh, and a Turkish coffee service, all gold and scarlet, completed the illusion. In another shadowy nook tinkled a little fountain guarded by one white-limbed nymph, who seemed to watch with placid interest the curious sea-creatures peopling the basin below. The third showed a study-chair, a shaded lamp, and certain favorite books, left open, as if to be taken up again when the mood returned. In one of these places Gladys lingered with fresh compassion stirring at her heart, though it looked the least inviting of them all. Behind the curtains of a window looking out upon the broad street on which the mansion faced stood a single chair, and nothing more.

“He shall not be so lonely now, if I can interest or amuse him,” thought Gladys, as she looked at the worn spot in the carpet, the crumpled cushion on the window-ledge; mute witnesses that Helwyze felt drawn towards his kin, and 106found some solace in watching the activity he could no longer share.

Knowing that she should find him in the library, where most of his time was spent, she soon wended her way thither. The door stood hospitably open; and, as she approached, she saw the two men standing together, marked, as never before, the sharp contrast between them, and felt a glow of wifely pride in the young husband whom she was learning to love with all the ardor of a pure and tender soul.

Canaris was talking eagerly, as he turned the leaves of a thin manuscript which lay between them. Helwyze listened, with his eyes fixed on the speaker so intently that it startled the new-comer, when, without a sound to warn him of her approach, he turned suddenly upon her with the smile which dazzled without warming those on whom it was shed.

“I have been chiding this capricious fellow for the haste which spoils the welcome I hoped to give you. But I pardon him, since he brings the sunshine with him,” he said, going to meet her, with genuine pleasure in his face.

“I could not have a kinder welcome, sir. I was glad to come; Felix feared you might be needing him.”

107“So duty brought him back a week too soon? A poet’s honeymoon should be a long one; I regret to be the cause of its abridgment.”

Something in the satirical glimmer of his eye made Gladys glance at her husband, who spoke out frankly,—

“There were other reasons. Gladys hates a crowd, and so do I. Bad weather made it impossible to be romantic, so we thought it best to come home and be comfortable.”

“I trust you will be; but I have little to offer, since the attractions of half a dozen cities could not satisfy you.”

“Indeed, we should be most ungrateful if we were not happy here,” cried Gladys, eagerly. “Only let me be useful as well as happy, else I shall not deserve this lovely home you give us.”

“She is anxious to begin her ministrations; and I can recommend her, for she is quick to learn one’s ways, patient with one’s whims, fruitful in charming devices for amusement, and the best of comrades,” said Canaris, drawing her to him with a look more grateful than fond.

“From that speech, and other signs, I infer that Felix is about to leave me to your tender mercies, and fall to work upon his new book; since it seems he could not resist making poetry 108when he should have been making love. Are you not jealous of the rival who steals him from you, even before the honeymoon has set?” asked Helwyze, touching the little manuscript before him.

“Not if she makes him great, and I can make him happy,” answered Gladys, with an air of perfect content and trust.

“I warn you that the Muse is a jealous mistress, and will often rob you of him. Are you ready to give him up, and resign yourself to more prosaic companionship?”

“Why need I give him up? He says I do not disturb him when he writes. He allowed me to sit beside him while he made these lovely songs, and watch them grow. He even let me help with a word sometimes, and I copied the verses fairly, that he might see how beautiful they were. Did I not, Felix?”

Gladys spoke with such innocent pride, and looked up in her husband’s face so gratefully, that he could not but thank her with a caress, as he said, laughing,—

“Ah, that was only play. I’ve had my holiday, and now I must work at a task in which no one can help me. Come and see the den where I shut myself up when the divine frenzy seizes me. 109Mr. Helwyze is jailer, and only lets me out when I have done my stint.”

Full of some pleasurable excitement, Canaris led his wife across the room, threw open a door, and bade her look in. Like a curious child, she peeped, but saw only a small, bare cabinet de travail.

“No room, you see, even for a little thing like you. None dare enter here without my keeper’s leave. Remember that, else you may fare like Bluebeard’s Fatima.” Canaris spoke gayly, and turned a key in the door with a warning click, as he glanced over his shoulder at Helwyze. Gladys did not see the look, but something in his words seemed to disturb her.

“I do not like this place, it is close and dark. I think I shall not want to come, even if you are here;” and, waiting for no reply, she stepped out from the chill of the unused room, as if glad to escape.

“Mysterious intuition! she felt that we had a skeleton in here, though it is such a little one,” whispered Canaris, with an uneasy laugh.

“Such a sensitive plant will fare ill between us, I am afraid,” answered Helwyze, as he followed her, leaving the other to open drawers and settle papers, like one eager to begin his work.

110Gladys was standing in the full glare of the fire, as if its cheerful magic could exorcise all dark fancies. Helwyze eyed the white figure for an instant, feeling that his lonely hearthstone had acquired a new charm; then joined her, saying quietly,—

“This is the place where Felix and I have lived together for nearly two years. Do you like it?”

“More than I can tell. It does not seem strange to me, for he has often described it; and when I thought of coming here, I was more curious to see this room than any other.”

“It will be all the pleasanter henceforth if Felix can spare you to me sometimes. Come and see the corner I have prepared, hoping to tempt you here when he shuts us out. It used to be his; so you will like it, I think.” Helwyze paced slowly down the long room, Gladys beside him, saying, as she looked about her hungrily,—

“So many books! and doubtless you have read them all?”

“Not quite; but you may, if you will. See, here is your place; come often, and be sure you never will disturb me.”

But one book lay on the little table, and its white cover, silver lettered, shone against the 111dark cloth so invitingly that Gladys took it up, glowing with pleasure as she read her own name upon the volume she knew and loved so well.

“For me? you knew that nothing else would be so beautiful and precious. Sir, why are you so generous?”

“It amuses me to do these little things, and you must humor me, as Felix does. You shall pay for them in your own coin, so there need be no sense of obligation. Rest satisfied I shall get the best of the bargain.” Before she could reply a servant appeared, announced dinner, and vanished as noiselessly as he came.

“This has been a bachelor establishment so long that we are grown careless. If you will pardon all deficiencies of costume, we will not delay installing Madame Canaris in the place she does us the honor to fill.”

“But I am not the mistress, sir. Please change nothing; my place at home was very humble; I am afraid I cannot fill the new one as I ought,” stammered Gladys, somewhat dismayed at the prospect which the new name and duty suggested.

“You will have no care, except of us. Mrs. Bland keeps the machinery running smoothly, and we lead a very quiet life. My territory ends 112at that door; all beyond is yours. I chiefly haunt this wing, but sometimes roam about below stairs a little, a very harmless ghost, so do not be alarmed if you should meet me.”

Helwyze spoke lightly, and tapped at the door of the den as he passed.

“Come out, slave of the pen, and be fed.”

Canaris came, wearing a preoccupied air, and sauntered after them, as Helwyze led the new mistress to her place, shy and rosy, but resolved to do honor to her husband at all costs.

Her first act, however, gave them both a slight shock of surprise; for the instant they were seated, Gladys laid her hands together, bent her head, and whispered Grace, as if obeying a natural impulse to ask Heaven’s blessing on the first bread she broke in her new home. The effect of the devoutly simple act was characteristically shown by the three observers. The servant paused, with an uplifted cover in his hand, respectfully astonished; Canaris looked intensely annoyed; and Helwyze leaned back with the suggestion of a shrug, as he glanced critically from the dimpled hands to the nugget of gold that shone against the bended neck. The instant she looked up, the man whisked off the silver cover with an air of relief; Canaris fell 113upon his bread like a hungry boy, and Helwyze tranquilly began to talk.

“Was the surprise Felix prepared for you a satisfactory one? Olivia and I took pleasure in obeying his directions.”

“It was lovely! I have not thanked him yet, but I shall. You, also, sir, in some better way than words. What made you think of it?” she asked, looking at Canaris with a mute request for pardon of her involuntary offence.

Glad to rush into speech, Canaris gave at some length the history of his fancy to reproduce, as nearly as he could, the little room at home, which she had described to him with regretful minuteness; for she had sold every thing to pay the debts which were the sole legacy her father left her. While they talked, Helwyze, who ate little, was observing both. Gladys looked more girlish than ever, in spite of the mingled dignity and anxiety her quiet but timid air betrayed. Canaris seemed in high spirits, talking rapidly, laughing often, and glancing about him as if glad to be again where nothing inharmonious disturbed his taste and comfort. Not till dessert was on the table, however, did he own, in words, the feeling of voluptuous satisfaction which was enhanced by the memory 114that he had been rash enough to risk the loss of all.

“It is not so very terrible, you see, Gladys. You eat and drink like a bird; but I know you enjoy this as much as I do, after those detestable hotels,” he said, detecting an expression of relief in his young wife’s face, as the noiseless servant quitted the room for the last time.

“Indeed I do. It is so pleasant to have all one’s senses gratified at once, and the common duties of life made beautiful and easy,” answered Gladys, surveying with feminine appreciation the well-appointed table which had that air of accustomed elegance so grateful to fastidious tastes.

“Ah, ha! this little ascetic of mine will become a Sybarite yet, and agree with me that enjoyment is a duty,” exclaimed Canaris, looking very like a young Bacchus, as he held up his wine to watch its rich color, and inhale its bouquet with zest.

“The more delicate the senses, the more delicate the delight. I suspect Madame finds her grapes and water as delicious as you do your olives and old wine,” said Helwyze, finding a still more refined satisfaction than either in the pretty contrast between the purple grapes and 115the white fingers that pulled them apart, the softly curling lips that were the rosier for their temperate draughts, and the unspoiled simplicity of the girl sitting there in pearls and shimmering silk.

“When one has known poverty, and the sad shifts which make it seem mean, as well as hard, perhaps one does unduly value these things. I hope I shall not; but I do find them very tempting,” she said, thoughtfully eying the new scene in which she found herself.

Helwyze seemed to be absently listening to the musical chime of silver against glass; but he made a note of that hope, wondering if hardship had given her more of its austere virtue than it had her husband.

“How shall you resist temptation?” he asked, curiously.

“I shall work. This is dangerously pleasant; so let me begin at once, and sing, while you take your coffee in the drawing-room. I know the way; come when you will, I shall be ready;” and Gladys rose with the energetic expression which often broke through her native gentleness. Canaris held the door for her, and was about to resume his seat, when Helwyze checked him:—

116“We will follow at once. Was I not right in my prediction?” he asked, as they left the room together.

“That we should soon tire of each other? You were wrong in that.”

“I meant the ease with which you would soon learn to love.”

“I have not learned—yet.”

“Then this vivacity is a cloak for the pangs of remorse, is it?” and Helwyze laughed incredulously.

“No: it is the satisfaction I already feel in the atonement I mean to make. I have a grand idea. I, too, shall work, and give Gladys reason to be proud of me, if nothing more.”

Something of her own energy was in his mien, and it became him. But Helwyze quenched the noble ardor by saying, coldly,—

“I see: it is the old passion under a new name. May your virtuous aspirations be blest!”