A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XI

by Louisa May Alcott

And Gladys was happy for a little while. Canaris labored doggedly till all was finished as she wished. Helwyze lent the aid which commands celerity; and early in the new year the book came out, to win for itself and its author the admiration and regard she had prophesied. But while the outside world, with which she had little to do except through her husband, rejoiced over him and his work, she, in her own small world, where he was all in all, was finding cause to wonder and grieve at the change which took place in him.

“I have done my task, now let me play,” he said; and play he did, quite as energetically as he had worked, though to far less purpose. Praise seemed to intoxicate him, for he appeared to forget every thing else, and bask in its sunshine, as if he never could have enough of it. His satisfaction would have been called egregious vanity, had it not been so gracefully expressed, and the work done so excellent that all 154agreed the young man had a right to be proud of it, and enjoy his reward as he pleased. He went out much, being again caressed and fêted to his heart’s content, leaving Gladys to amuse Helwyze; for a very little of this sort of gayety satisfied her, and there was something painful to her in the almost feverish eagerness with which her husband sought and enjoyed excitement of all kinds. Glad and proud though she was, it troubled her to see him as utterly engrossed as if existence had no higher aim than the most refined and varied pleasure; and she began to feel that, though the task was done, she had not got him back again from that other mistress, who seemed to have bewitched him with her dazzling charms.

“He will soon have enough of it, and return to us none the worse. Remember how young he is; how natural that he should love pleasure overmuch, when he gets it, since he has had so little hitherto,” said Helwyze, answering the silent trouble in the face of Gladys; for she never spoke of her daily increasing anxiety.

“But it does not seem to make him happy; and for that reason I sometimes think it cannot be the best kind of pleasure for him,” answered Gladys, remembering how flushed and 155weary he had been when he came in last night, so late that it was nearly dawn.

“He is one who will taste all kinds, and not be contented till he has had his fill. Roaming about Europe with that bad, brilliant father of his gave him glimpses of many things which he was too poor to enjoy then, but not too young to remember and desire now, when it is possible to gratify the wish. Let him go, he will come back to you when he is tired. It is the only way to manage him, I find.”

But Gladys did not think so; and, finding that Helwyze would not speak, she resolved that she would venture to do it, for many things disturbed her, which wifely loyalty forbade her to repeat; as well as a feeling that Helwyze would not see cause for anxiety in her simple fears, since he encouraged Felix in this reckless gayety.

Some hours later, she found Canaris newly risen, sitting at his escritoire in their own room, with a strew of gold and notes before him, which he affected to be counting busily; though when she entered she had seen him in a despondent attitude, doing nothing.

“How pale you look. Why will you stay so late and get these weary headaches?” she asked, stroking the thick locks off his forehead with a caressing touch.

“‘Too late I stayed, forgive the crime;
Unheeded flew the hours;
For lightly falls the foot of time,
That only treads on flowers.’”

sang Canaris, looking up at her with an assumption of mirth, sadder than the melancholy which it could not wholly hide.

“You make light of it, Felix; but I am sure you will fall ill, if you do not get more sleep and quieter dreams,” she said, still smoothing the glossy dark rings of which she was so proud.

“Cara mia, what do you know about my dreams?” he asked, with a hint of surprise in the manner, which was still careless.

“You toss about, and talk so wildly sometimes, that it troubles me to hear you.”

“I will stop it at once. What do I talk about? Something amusing, I hope,” he asked, quickly.

“That I cannot tell, for you speak in French or Italian; but you sigh terribly, and often seem angry or excited about something.”

“That is odd. I do not remember my dreams, but it is little wonder my poor wits are distraught, after all they have been through lately. Did I talk last night, and spoil your sleep, love?” asked Canaris, idly piling up a 157little heap of coins, though listening intently for her reply.

“Yes: you seemed very busy, and said more than once, ‘Le jeu est fait, rien ne va plus.’ ‘Rouge gagne et couleur,’—or, ‘Rouge perd et couleur gagne.’ I know what those words mean, because I have read them in a novel; and they trouble me from your lips, Felix.”

“I must have been dreaming of a week I once spent in Homberg, with my father. We don’t do that sort of thing here.”

“Not under the same name, perhaps. Dear, do you ever play?” asked Gladys, leaning her cheek against the head which had sunk a little, as he leaned forward to smooth out the crumpled notes before him.

“Why not? One must amuse one’s self.”

“Not so. Please promise that you will try some safer way? This is not—honest.” She hesitated over the last word, for his tone had been short and sharp, but uttered it bravely, and stole an arm about his neck, mutely asking pardon for the speech which cost her so much.

“What is? Life is all a lottery, and one must keep trying one’s luck while the wheel goes round; for prizes are few and blanks many, you know.”

“Ah, do not speak in that reckless way. Forgive me for asking questions; but you are all I have, and I must take care of you, since no one else has the right.”

“Or the will. Ask what you please. I will tell you any thing, my visible conscience;” and Canaris took her in the circle of his arm, subdued by the courageous tenderness that made her what he called her.

“Is that all yours?” she whispered, pointing a small forefinger rather sternly at the money before him, and sweetening the question with a kiss.

“No, it is yours, every penny of it. Put it in the little drawer, and make merry with it, else I shall be sorry I won it for you.”

“That I cannot do. Please do not ask me. There is always enough in the little drawer for me, and I like better to use the money you have earned.”

“Say, rather, the salary which you earn and I spend. It is all wrong, Gladys; but I cannot help it!” and Canaris pushed away his winnings, as if he despised them and himself.

“It is my fault that you did this, because I begged you not to let Mr. Helwyze give me so much. I can take any thing from you, for I love you, but not from him; so you try to make me 159think you have enough to gratify my every wish. Is not that true?”

“Yes: I hate to have you accept any thing from him, and find it harder to do so myself, than before you came. Yet I cannot help liking play; for it is an inherited taste, and he knows it.”

“And does not warn you?”

“Not he: I inherit my father’s luck as well as skill, and Helwyze enjoys hearing of my success in this, as in other things. We used to play together, till he tired of it. There is nothing equal to it when one is tormented with ennui!”

“Felix, I fear that, though a kind friend, he is not a wise one. Why does he encourage your vices, and take no interest in strengthening your virtues? Forgive me, but we all have both, and I want you to be as good as you are gifted,” she said, with such an earnest, tender face, he could not feel offended.

“He does not care for that. The contest between the good and evil in me interests him most, for he knows how to lay his hand on the weak or wicked spots in a man’s heart; and playing with other people’s passions is his favorite amusement. Have you not discovered this?”

Canaris spoke gloomily, and Gladys shivered 160as she held him closer, and answered in a whisper,—

“Yes, I feel as if under a microscope when with him; yet he is very kind to me, and very patient with my ignorance. Felix, is he trying to discover the evil in me, when he gives me strange things to read, and sits watching me while I do it?”

“Gott bewahre!—but of this I am sure, he will find no evil in you, my white-souled little wife, unless he puts it there. Gladys, refuse to read what pains and puzzles you. I will not let him vex your peace. Can he not be content with me, since I am his, body and soul?”

Canaris put her hastily away, to walk the room with a new sense of wrong hot within him at the thought of the dangers into which he had brought her against his will. But Gladys, caring only for him, ventured to add, with her kindling eyes upon his troubled face,—

“I will not let him vex your peace! Refuse to do the things which you feel are wrong, lest what are only pleasures now may become terrible temptations by and by. I love and trust you as he never can; I will not believe your vices stronger than your virtues; and I will defend you, if he tries to harm the husband God has given me.”

“Bless you for that! it is so long since I have had any one to care for me, that I forget my duty to you. I am tired of all this froth and folly; I will stay at home hereafter; that will be safest, if not happiest.”

He began impetuously, but his voice fell, and was almost inaudible at the last word, as he turned away to hide the expression of regret which he could not disguise. But Gladys heard and saw, and the vague fear which sometimes haunted her stirred again, and took form in the bitter thought, “Home is not happy: am I the cause?”

She put it from her instantly, as if doubt were dishonor, and spoke out in the cordial tone which always cheered and soothed him,—

“It shall be both, if I can make it so. Let me try, and perhaps I can do for you what Mr. Helwyze says I have done for him,—caused him to forget his troubles, and be glad he is alive.”

Canaris swung round with a peculiar expression on his face.

“He says that, does he? Then he is satisfied with his bargain! I thought as much, though he never condescended to confess it to me.”

“What bargain, Felix?”

“The pair of us. We were costly, but he got 162us, as he gets every thing he sets his heart upon. He was growing tired of me; but when I would have gone, he kept me, by making it possible for me to win you for myself—and him. Six months between us have shown you this, I know, and it is in vain to hide from you how much I long to break away and be free again—if I ever can.”

He looked ready to break away at once, and Gladys sympathized with him, seeing now the cause of his unrest.

“I know the feeling, for I too am tired of this life; not because it is so quiet, but so divided. I want to live for you alone, no matter how poor and humble my place may be. Now I am so little with you, I sometimes feel as if I should grow less and less to you, till I am nothing but a burden and a stumbling-block. Can we not go, and be happy somewhere else? must we stay here all our lives?” she asked, confessing the desire which had been strengthening rapidly of late.

“While he lives I must stay, if he wants me. I cannot be ungrateful. Remember all he has done for me. It will not be long to wait, perhaps.”

Canaris spoke hurriedly, as if regretting his 163involuntary outburst, and anxious to atone for it by the submission which always seemed at war with some stronger, if not nobler, sentiment. Gladys sat silent, lost in thought; while her husband swept the ill-gotten money into a drawer, and locked it up, as if relieved to have it out of sight. Soon the cloud lifted, however; and going to him, as he stood at the window, looking out with the air of a caged eagle, she said, with her hand upon his arm,—

“You are right: we will be grateful and patient; but while we wait we must work, because in that one always finds strength and comfort. What can we do to earn the wherewithal to found our own little home upon when this is gone? I have nothing valuable; have you?”

“Nothing but this;” and he touched the bright head beside him, recalling the moment when she said her hair was all the gold she had.

Gladys remembered it as well, and the promise then made to help him, both as wife and woman. The time seemed to have come; and, taking counsel of her own integrity, she had dared to speak in the “sincere voice that made truth sweeter than falsehood.” Now she tried, in her simple way, to show how the self-respect he seemed in danger of losing might be preserved 164by a task whose purpose would be both salvation and reward.

“Then let the wit inside this head of mine show you how to turn an honest penny,” she began, unfolding her plan with an enthusiasm which redeemed its most prosaic features. “Mr. Helwyze says that even the best poetry is not profitable, except in fame. That you already have; and pride and pleasure in the new book is enough, without spoiling it by being vexed about the money it may bring. But you can use your pen in other ways, before it is time to write another poem. One of these ways is the translation of that curious Spanish book you were speaking of the other day. That will bring something, as it is rare and old; and you, that have half a dozen languages at your tongue’s end, can easily find plenty of such work, now that you do not absolutely need it.”

“That sounds a little bitter, Gladys. Don’t let my resentful temper spoil your sweet one.”

“I am learning fast; among other things, that to him who hath, more shall be given; so you, being a successful man, may hope for plenty of help from all now, though you were left to starve, when a kind word would have saved you so much suffering,” Gladys answered, not bitterly, 165but with a woman’s pitiful memory of the wrongs done those dearest her.

“God knows it would!” ejaculated Canaris, with unusual fervor.

“Mr. Helwyze remembers that, I think; and this is perhaps the reason why he is so generous now. Too much so for your good, I fear; and so I speak, because, young as I am, I cannot help trying to watch over you, as a wife should.”

“I like it, Gladys. I am old, in many things, for my years, but a boy still in love, and you must teach me how to be worthy of all you give so generously and sweetly.”

“Do I give the most?”

“All women do, they say. But go on, and tell the rest of this fine plan of yours. While I use my polyglot accomplishments, what becomes of you?” he asked, hastily returning to the safer subject; for the wistful look in her eyes smote him to the heart.

“I work also. You are still Mr. Helwyze’s homme d’affaires, as he calls you; I am still his reader. But when he does not need me, I shall take up my old craft again, and embroider, as I used at home. You do not know how skilful I am with the needle, and never dreamed that the initials on the handkerchiefs you admired so 166much were all my work. Oh, I am a thrifty wife, though such a little one!” and Gladys broke into her clear child’s laugh, which seemed to cheer them both, as a lark’s song makes music even in a cloud.

Canaris laughed with her; for these glimpses of practical gifts and shrewd common sense in Gladys were very like the discovery of a rock under its veil of moss, or garland of airy columbines.

“But what will he say to all this?” asked the young man, with a downward gesture of the finger, and in his eye a glimmer of malicious satisfaction at the thought of having at least one secret in which Helwyze had no part.

“We need not tell him. It is nothing to him what we do up here. Let him find out, if he cares to know,” answered Gladys, with a charmingly mutinous air, as she tripped away to her own little room.

“He will care, and he will find out. He has no right; but that will not stop him,” returned Canaris, following to lean in the door-way, and watch her kneeling before a great basket, from which she pulled reels of gay silk, unfinished bits of work, and fragments of old lace.

“See!” she said, holding up one of the latter, 167“I can both make and mend; and one who is clever at this sort of thing can earn a pretty penny in a quiet way. Through my old employer I can get all the work I want; so please do not forbid it, Felix: I should be so much happier, if I might?”

“I will forbid nothing that makes you happy. But Helwyze will be exceeding wroth when he discovers it, unless the absurdity of beggars living in a palace strikes him as it does me.”

“I am not afraid!”

“You never saw him in a rage: I have. Quite calm and cool, but rather awful, as he withers you with a look, or drives you half wild with a word that stings like a whip, and makes you hate him.”

“Still I would not fear him, unless I had done wrong.”

“He makes you feel so, whether you have or not; and you ask pardon for doing what you know is right. It is singular, but he certainly does make black seem white, sometimes,” mused Canaris, knitting his brows with the old perplexity.

“I am afraid so;” and Gladys folded up a sigh in the parcel of rosy floss she laid away. Then she chased the frown from her husband’s 168face by talking blithely of the home they would yet earn and enjoy together.

Conscious that things were more amiss with him than she suspected, Canaris was glad to try the new cure, and soon found it so helpful, that he was anxious to continue it. Very pleasant were the hours they spent together in their own rooms, when the duties they owed Helwyze were done; all the pleasanter for them, perhaps, because this domestic league of theirs shut him out from their real life as inevitably as it drew them nearer to one another.

The task now in hand was one that Canaris could do easily and well; and Gladys’s example kept him at it when the charm of novelty was gone. While he wrote she sat near, so quietly busy, that he often forgot her presence; but when he looked up, the glance of approval, the encouraging word, the tender smile, were always ready, and wonderfully inspiring; for this sweet comrade grew dearer day by day. While he rested she still worked; and he loved to watch the flowery wonders grow beneath her needle, swift as skilful. Now a golden wheat-ear, a scarlet poppy, a blue violet; or the white embroidery, that made his eyes ache with following the tiny stitches, which seemed to sow seed-pearls along 169a hem, weave graceful ciphers, or make lace-work like a cobweb.

Something in it pleased his artistic sense of the beautiful, and soothed him, as did the conversation that naturally went on between them. Oftenest he talked, telling her more of his varied life than any other human being knew; and in these confidences she found the clew to many things which had pained or puzzled her before; because, spite of her love, Gladys was clear-sighted, even against her will. Then she would answer with the story of her monotonous days, her lonely labors, dreams, and hopes; and they would comfort one another by making pictures of a future too beautiful ever to be true.

Helwyze was quick to perceive the new change which came over Felix, the happy peace which had returned to Gladys. He “did care, and he did find out,” what the young people were about. At first he smiled at the girl’s delusion in believing that she could fix a nature so mercurial as that of Canaris, but did not wonder at his yielding, for a time at least, to such tender persuasion; and, calling them “a pair of innocents,” Helwyze let them alone, till he discovered that his power was in danger.

Presently, he began to miss the sense of undivided 170control which was so agreeable to him. Canaris was as serviceable as ever, but no longer made him sole confidant, counsellor, and friend. Gladys was scrupulously faithful still, but her intense interest in his world of books was much lessened: for she was reading a more engrossing volume than any of these,—the heart of the man she loved. Something was gone which he had bargained for, thought he had secured, and now felt wronged at losing,—an indescribable charm, especially pervading his intercourse with Gladys; for this friendship, sweet as honey, pure as dew, had just begun to blossom, when a chilly breath seemed to check its progress, leaving only cheerful service, not the spontaneous devotion which had been so much to him.

He said nothing; but for all his imperturbability, it annoyed him, as the gnat annoyed the lion; and, though scarcely acknowledged even to himself, it lurked under various moods and motives, impelling him to words and acts which produced dangerous consequences.

“Pray forgive us, we are very late.”

“Time goes so fast, we quite forgot!” exclaimed Felix and Gladys both together, as they hurried into the library, one bright March morning, looking so blithe and young, that 171Helwyze suddenly felt old and sad and bitter-hearted, as if they had stolen something from him.

“I have learned to wait,” he said, with the cold brevity which was the only sign of displeasure Gladys ever saw in him.

In remorseful silence she hastened to find her place in the book they were reading; but Canaris, who seemed bubbling over with good spirits, took no notice of the chill, and asked, with unabated cheerfulness,—

“Any commissions, sir, beside these letters? I feel as if I ‘could put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes,’ it is such a glorious, spring-like day.”

“Nothing but the letters. Stay a moment, while I add another;” and, taking up the pen he had laid by, Helwyze wrote hastily,—

“To Olivia at the South:—

“The swallows will be returning soon; return with them, if you can. I am deadly dull: come and make a little mischief to amuse me. I miss you.

Jasper.” Sealing and directing this, he handed it to Canaris, who had been whispering to Gladys more like a lover than a husband of half a year’s 172standing. Something in the elder man’s face made the younger glance involuntarily at the letter as he took it.

“Olivia? I promised to write her, but I”—

“Dared not?”

“No: I forgot it;” and Canaris went off, laughing at the grande passion, which now seemed very foolish and far away.

“This time, I think, you will remember, for I mean to fight fire with fire,” thought Helwyze, with a grim smile, such as Louis XI. might have worn when sending some gallant young knight to carry his own death-warrant.