A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter X

by Louisa May Alcott

Gladys stood silent for a moment, with her eyes fixed on the little figures, longing for wisdom to convince this man, whom she regarded with mingled pity, admiration and distrust, that he could not walk by his own light alone. He guessed the impulse that kept her there, longed to have her stay, and felt a sudden desire to reinstate himself in her good opinion. That wish, or the hope to keep her by some new and still more powerful allurement, seemed to actuate him as he hastily thrust the gods and goddesses out of sight, and opened another drawer, with a quick glance over his shoulder towards that inner room.

At that instant the clock struck, and Gladys started, saying, in a tone of fond despair,—

“Where is Felix? Will he never come?”

“I heard him raging about some time ago, but perfect silence followed, so I suspect he caught the tormenting word, idea, or fancy, and is busy pinning it,” answered Helwyze, shutting the 138drawer as suddenly as he opened it, with a frown which Gladys did not see; for she had turned away, forgetting him and his salvation in the one absorbing interest of her life.

“How long it takes to write a poem! Three whole months, for he began in September; and it was not to be a long one, he said.”

“He means this to be a masterpiece, so labors like a galley-slave, and can find no rest till it is done. Good practice, but to little purpose, I am afraid. Poetry, even the best, is not profitable now-a-days, I am told,” added Helwyze, speaking with a sort of satisfaction which he could not conceal.

“Who cares for the profit? It is the fame Felix wants, and works for,” answered Gladys, defending the absent with wifely warmth.

“True, but he would not reject the fortune if it came. He is not one of the ethereal sort, who can live on glory and a crust; his gingerbread must not only be gilded, but solid and well-spiced beside. You adore your poet, respect also the worldly wisdom of your spouse, madame.”

When Helwyze sneered, Gladys was silent; so now she mused again, leaning on the high back of the chair which she longed to see occupied. He mused also, with his eyes upon the 139fire, fingers idly tapping, and a furtive smile round his mouth, as if some purpose was taking shape in that busy brain of his. Suddenly he spoke, in a tone of kindly interest, well knowing where her thoughts were, and anxious to end her weary waiting.

“Perhaps the poor fellow has fallen asleep, tired out with striving after immortality. Go and wake him, if you will, for it is time he rested.”

“May I? He does not like to be disturbed; but I fear he is ill: he has eaten scarcely any thing for days, and looks so pale it troubles me. I will peep first; and if he is busy, creep away without a word.”

Stepping toward the one forbidden, yet most fascinating spot in all the house, she softly opened the door and looked in. Canaris was there, apparently asleep, as Helwyze thought; for his head lay on his folded arms as if both were weary. Glancing over her shoulder with a nod and a smile, Gladys went in, anxious to wake and comfort him; for the little room looked solitary, dark, and cold, with dead ashes on the hearth, the student lamp burning dimly, and the food she had brought him hours ago still standing untasted, among the blotted sheets strewn 140all about. At her first touch he looked up, and she was frightened by the expression of his face, it was so desperately miserable.

“Dear, what is it?” she asked, quickly, with her arms about him, as if defying the unknown trouble to reach him there.

“Disappointment,—nothing else;” and he leaned his head against her, grateful for sympathy, since she could give no other help.

“You mean your book, which does not satisfy you even yet?” she said, interpreting the significance of the weary, yet restless, look he wore.

“It never will! I have toiled and tried, with all my heart and soul and mind, if ever a man did; but I cannot do it, Gladys. It torments me, and I cannot escape from it; because, though it is all here in my brain, it will not be expressed in words.”

“Do not try any more; rest now, and by and by, perhaps, it will be easier. You have worked too hard, and are worn out; forget the book, and come and let me take care of you. It breaks my heart to see you so.”

“I was doing it for your sake,—all for you; and I thought this time it would be very good, since my purpose was a just and generous one. But it is not, and I hate it!”

141With a passionate gesture, Canaris hurled a pile of manuscript into the further corner of the room, and pushed his wife from him, as if she too were an affliction and a disappointment. It grieved her bitterly; but she would not be repulsed; and, holding fast in both her own the hand that was about to grasp another sheaf of papers, she cried, with a tone of tender authority, which both controlled and touched him,—

“No, no, you shall not, Felix! Put me away, but do not spoil the book; it has cost us both too much.”

“Not you; forgive me, it is myself with whom I am vexed;” and Canaris penitently kissed the hands that held his, remembering that she could not know the true cause of his effort and regret.

“I shall be jealous, if I find that I have given you up so long in vain. I must have something to repay me for the loss of your society all this weary time. I have worked to fill your place: give me my reward.”

“Have you missed me, then? I thought you happy enough with Helwyze and the books.”

“Missed you! happy enough! O Felix! you do not know me, if you think I can be happy without you. He is kind, but only a friend; and 142all the books in the wide world are not as much to me as the one you treat so cruelly.” She clasped tightly the hands she held, and looked into his face with eyes full of unutterable love. Such tender flattery could not but soothe, such tearful reproach fail to soften, a far prouder, harder man than Canaris.

“What reward will you have?” he asked, making an effort to be cheerful for her sake.

“Eat, drink, and rest; then read me every word you have written. I am no critic; but I would try to be impartial: love makes even the ignorant wise, and I shall see the beauty which I know is in it.”

“I put you there, or tried; so truth and beauty should be in it. Some time you shall hear it, but not now. I could not read it to-night, perhaps never; it is such a poor, pale shadow of the thing I meant it to be.”

“Let me read it,” said a voice behind them; and Helwyze stood upon the threshold, wearing his most benignant aspect.

“You?” ejaculated Canaris; while Gladys shrunk a little, as if the proposition did not please her.

“Why not? Young poets never read their own verses well; yet what could be more soothing 143to the most timorous or vain than to hear them read by an admiring and sympathetic friend? Come, let me have my reward, as well as Gladys;” and Helwyze laid his hand upon the unscattered pile of manuscript.

“A penance, rather. It is so blurred, so rough, you could not read it; then the fatigue,”—began Canaris, pleased, yet reluctant still.

“I can read any thing, make rough places smooth, and not tire, for I have a great interest in this story. He has shown me some of it, and it is good.”

Helwyze spoke to Gladys, and his last words conquered her reluctance, whetted her curiosity; he looked at Canaris, and his glance inspired hope, his offer tempted, for his voice could make music of any thing, his praise would be both valuable and cheering.

“Let him, Felix, since he is so kind, I so impatient that I do not want to wait;” and Gladys went to gather up the leaves, which had flown wildly about the room.

“Leave those, I will sort them while you begin. The first part is all here. I am sick of it, and so will you be, before you are through. Go, love, or I may revoke permission, and make the bonfire yet.”

144Canaris laughed as he waved her away; and Gladys, seeing that the cloud had lifted, willingly obeyed, lingering only to give a touch to the dainty luncheon, which was none the worse for being cold.

“Dear, eat and drink, then my feast will be the sweeter.”

“I will; I’ll eat and drink stupendously when you are gone; I wish you bon appetit,” he said, filling the glass, and smiling as he drank.

Contented now, Gladys hurried away, to find Helwyze already seated by the study-table, with the manuscript laid open before him. He looked up, wearing an expression of such pleasurable excitement, that it augured well for what was coming, and she slipped into the chair beside the one set ready for Canaris on the opposite side of the hearth, still hoping he would come and take it. Helwyze began, and soon she forgot every thing,—carried away by the smoothly flowing current of the story which he read so well. A metrical romance, such as many a lover might have imagined in the first inspiration of the great passion, but few could have painted with such skill. A very human story, but all the truer and sweeter for that fact. The men and women in it were full of vitality and color; 145their faces spoke, hearts beat, words glowed; and they seemed to live before the listener’s eye, as if endowed with eloquent flesh and blood.

Gladys forgot their creator utterly, but Helwyze did not; and even while reading on with steadily increasing effect, glanced now and then towards that inner room, where, after a moment of unnecessary bustle, perfect silence reigned. Presently a shadow flickered on the ceiling, a shadow bent as if listening eagerly, though not a sound betrayed its approach as it seemed to glide and vanish behind the tall screen which stood before the door. Gladys saw nothing, her face being intent upon the reader, her thoughts absorbed in following the heart-history of the woman in whom she could not help finding a likeness to herself.

Helwyze saw the shadow, however, and laughed inwardly, as if to see the singer irresistibly drawn by his own music. But no visible smile betrayed this knowledge; and the tale went on with deepening power and pathos, till at its most passionate point he paused.

“Go on; oh, pray go on!” cried Gladys, breathlessly.

“Are you not tired of it?” asked Helwyze; with a keen look.

146“No, no! You are? Then let me read.”

“Not I; but there is no more here. Ask Felix if we may go on.”

“I must! I will! Where is he?” and Gladys hurried round the screen, to find Canaris flung down anyway upon a seat, looking almost as excited as herself.

“Ah,” she cried, delightedly, “you could not keep away! You know that it is good, and you are glad and proud, although you will not own it.”

“Am I? Are you?” he asked, reading the answer in her face, before she could whisper, with the look of mingled awe and adoration which she always wore when speaking of him as a poet,—

“Never can I tell you what I feel. It almost frightens me to find how well you know me and yourself, and other hearts like ours. What gives you this wonderful power, and shows you how to use it?”

“Don’t praise it too much, or I shall wish I had destroyed, instead of re-sorting, the second part for you to hear.” Canaris spoke almost roughly, and rose, as if about to go and do it now. But Gladys caught his hand, saying gayly, as she drew him out into the fire-light with persuasive energy,—

“That you shall never do; but come and enjoy it with us. You need not be so modest, for you know you like it. Now I am perfectly happy.”

She looked so, as she saw her husband sink into the tall-backed chair, and took her place beside him, laughing at the almost comic mixture of sternness, resignation, and impatience betrayed by his set lips, silent acquiescence, and excited eyes.

“Now we are ready;” and Gladys folded her hands with the rapturous contentment of a child at its first fairy spectacle.

“All but the story. I will fetch it;” and Helwyze stepped quickly behind the screen before either could stir.

Gladys half rose, but Canaris drew her down again, whispering, in an almost resentful tone,—

“Let him, if he will; you wait on him too much. I put the papers in order; he will read them easily enough.”

“Nay, do not be angry, dear; he does it to please me, and surely no one could read it better. I know you would feel too much to do it well,” she answered, her hand in his, with its most soothing touch.

There was no time for more. Helwyze returned, 148and, after a hasty resettling of the manuscript, read on, without pausing, to the story’s end, as if unconscious of fatigue, and bent on doing justice to the power of the protégé whose success was his benefactor’s best reward. At first, Gladys glanced at her husband from time to time; but presently the living man beside her grew less real than that other, who, despite a new name and country, strange surroundings, and far different circumstances, was so unmistakably the same, that she could not help feeling and following his fate to its close, with an interest almost as intense as if, in very truth, she saw Canaris going to his end. Her interest in the woman lessened, and was lost in her eagerness to have the hero worthy of the love she gave, the honor others felt for him; and, when the romance brought him to defeat and death, she was so wrought upon by this illusion, that she fell into a passion of sudden tears, weeping as she had never wept before.

Felix sat motionless, his hand over his eyes, lips closely folded, lest they should betray too much emotion; the irresistible conviction that it was good, strengthening every instant, till he felt only the fascination and excitement of an hour, which foretold others even more delicious. 149When the tale ended, the melodious voice grew silent, and nothing was heard but the eloquent sobbing of a woman. Words seemed unnecessary, and none were uttered for several minutes, then Helwyze asked briefly,—

“Shall we burn it?”

As briefly Canaris answered “No;” and Gladys, quickly recovering the self-control so seldom lost, looked up with “a face, clear shining after rain,” as she said in the emphatic tone of deepest feeling,—

“It would be like burning a live thing. But, Felix, you must not kill that man: I cannot have him die so. Let him live to conquer all his enemies, the worst in himself; then, if you must end tragically, let the woman go; she would not care, if he were safe.”

“But she is the heroine of the piece; and, if it does not end with her lamenting over the fallen hero, the dramatic point is lost,” said Helwyze; for Canaris had sprung up, and was walking restlessly about the room, as if the spirits he had evoked were too strong to be laid even by himself.

“I know nothing about that; but I feel the moral point would be lost, if it is not changed. Surely, powerful as pity is, a lofty admiration is 150better; and this poem would be nobler, in every way, if that man ends by living well, than by dying ignominiously in spite of his courage. I cannot explain it, but I am sure it is so; and I will not let Felix spoil his best piece of work by such a mistake.”

“Then you like it? You would be happy if I changed and let it go before the world, for your sake more than for my own?”

Canaris paused beside her, pale with some emotion stronger than gratified vanity or ambitious hope. Gladys thought it was love; and, carried out of herself by the tender pride that overflowed her heart and would not be controlled, she let an action, more eloquent than any words, express the happiness she was the first to feel, the homage she would be the first to pay. Kneeling before him, she clasped her hands together, and looked up at him with cheeks still wet, lips still tremulous, eyes still full of wonder, admiration, fervent gratitude, and love.

In one usually so self-restrained as Gladys such joyful abandonment was doubly captivating and impressive. Canaris felt it so; and, lifting her up, pressed her to a heart whose loud throbbing thanked her, even while he gently turned her face away, as if he could not 151bear to see and receive such worship from so pure a source. The unexpected humility in his voice touched her strangely, and made her feel more deeply than ever how genuine was the genius which should yet make him great, as well as beloved.

“I will do what you wish, for you see more clearly than I. You shall be happy, and I will be proud of doing it, even if no one else sees any good in my work.”

“They will! they must! It may not be the grandest thing you will ever do, but it is so human, it cannot fail to touch and charm; and to me that is as great an act as to astonish or dazzle by splendid learning or wonderful wit. Make it noble as well as beautiful, then people will love as well as praise you.”

“I will try, Gladys. I see now what I should have written, and—if I can—it shall be done.”

“I promised you inspiration, you remember: have I not kept my word?” asked Helwyze, forgotten, and content to be forgotten, until now.

Canaris looked up quickly; but there was no gratitude in his face, as he answered, with his hand on the head he pressed against his 152shoulder, and a certain subdued passion in his voice,—

“You have: not the highest inspiration; but, if she is happy, it will atone for much.”