A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XII

by Louisa May Alcott

Olivia came before the swallows; for the three words, “I miss you,” would have brought her from the ends of the earth, had she exiled herself so far. She had waited for him to want and call her, as he often did when others wearied or failed him. Seldom had so long a time passed without some word from him; and endless doubts, fears, conjectures, had harassed her, as month after month went by, and no summons came. Now she hastened, ready for any thing he might ask of her, since her reward would be a glimpse of the only heaven she knew.

“Amuse Felix: he is falling in love with his wife, and it spoils both of them for my use. He says he has forgotten you. Come often, and teach him to remember, as penalty for his bad taste and manners,” was the single order Helwyze gave; but Olivia needed no other; and, for the sake of coming often, would have smiled upon a far less agreeable man than Canaris.

174Gladys tried to welcome the new guest cordially, as an unsuspicious dove might have welcomed a falcon to its peaceful cote; but her heart sunk when she found her happy quiet sorely disturbed, her husband’s place deserted, and the old glamour slowly returning to separate them, in spite of all her gentle arts. For Canaris, feeling quite safe in the sincere affection which now bound him to his wife, was foolhardy in his desire to show Olivia how heart-whole he had become. This piqued her irresistibly, because Helwyze was looking on, and she would win his approval at any cost. So these three, from divers motives, joined together to teach poor Gladys how much a woman can suffer with silent fortitude and make no sign.

The weeks that followed seemed unusually gay and sunny ones; for April came in blandly, and Olivia made a pleasant stir throughout the house by her frequent visits, and the various excursions she proposed. Many of these Gladys escaped; for her pain was not the jealousy that would drive her to out-rival her rival, but the sorrowful shame and pity which made her long to hide herself, till Felix should come back and be forgiven. Helwyze naturally declined the long drives, the exhilarating rides in the bright 175spring weather, which were so attractive to the younger man, and sat at home watching Gladys, now more absorbingly interesting than ever. He could not but admire the patience, strength, and dignity of the creature; for she made no complaint, showed no suspicion, asked no advice, but went straight on, like one who followed with faltering feet, but unwavering eye, the single star in all the sky that would lead her right. A craving curiosity to know what she felt and thought possessed him, and he invited confidence by unwonted kindliness, as well as the unfailing courtesy he showed her.

But Gladys would not speak either to him or to her husband, who seemed wilfully blind to the slowly changing face, all the sadder for the smile it always wore when his eyes were on it. At first, Helwyze tried his gentlest arts; but, finding her as true as brave, was driven, by the morbid curiosity which he had indulged till it became a mania, to use means as subtle as sinful,—like a burglar, who, failing to pick a lock, grows desperate and breaks it, careless of consequences.

Taking his daily walk through the house, he once came upon Gladys watering the jardinière, which was her especial care, and always kept 176full of her favorite plants. She was not singing as she worked, but seriously busy as a child, holding in both hands her little watering-pot to shower the thirsty ferns and flowers, who turned up their faces to be washed with the silent delight which was their thanks.

“See how the dear things enjoy it! I feel as if they knew and watched for me, and I never like to disappoint them of their bath,” she said, looking over her shoulder, as he paused beside her. She was used to this now, and was never surprised or startled when below stairs by his noiseless approach.

“They are doing finely. Did Moss bring in some cyclamens? They are in full bloom now, and you are fond of them, I think?”

“Yes, here they are: both purple and white, so sweet and lovely! See how many buds this one has. I shall enjoy seeing them come out, they unfurl so prettily;” and, full of interest, Gladys parted the leaves to show several baby buds, whose rosy faces were just peeping from their green hoods.

Helwyze liked to see her among the flowers; for there was something peculiarly innocent and fresh about her then, as if the woman forgot her griefs, and was a girl again. It struck him anew, 177as she stood there in the sunshine, leaning down to tend the soft leaves and cherish the delicate buds with a caressing hand.

“Like seeks like: you are a sort of cyclamen yourself. I never observed it before, but the likeness is quite striking,” he said, with the slow smile which usually prefaced some speech which bore a double meaning.

“Am I?” and Gladys eyed the flowers, pleased, yet a little shy, of compliment from him.

“This is especially like you,” continued Helwyze, touching one of the freshest. “Out of these strong sombre leaves rises a wraith-like blossom, with white, softly folded petals, a rosy color on its modest face, and a most sweet perfume for those whose sense is fine enough to perceive it. Most of all, perhaps, it resembles you in this,—it hides its heart, and, if one tries to look too closely, there is danger of snapping the slender stem.”

“That is its nature, and it cannot help being shy. I kneel down and look up without touching it; then one sees that it has nothing to hide,” protested Gladys, following out the flower fancy, half in earnest, half in jest, for she felt there was a question and a reproach in his words.

“Perhaps not; let us see, in my way.” With a light touch Helwyze turned the reluctant cyclamen upward, and in its purple cup there clung a newly fallen drop, like a secret tear.

Mute and stricken, Gladys looked at the little symbol of herself, owning, with a throb of pain, that if in nothing else, they were alike in that.

Helwyze stood silent likewise, inhaling the faint fragrance while he softly ruffled the curled petals as if searching for another tear. Suddenly Gladys spoke out with the directness which always gave him a keen pleasure, asking, as she stretched her hand involuntarily to shield the more helpless flower,—

“Sir, why do you wish to read my heart?”

“To comfort it.”

“Do I need comfort, then?”

“Do you not?”

“If I have a sorrow, God only can console me, and He only need know it. To you it should be sacred. Forgive me if I seem ungrateful; but you cannot help me, if you would.”

“Do you doubt my will?”

“I try to doubt no one; but I fear—I fear many things;” and, as if afraid of saying too much, Gladys broke off, to hurry away, wearing 179so strange a look that Helwyze was consumed with a desire to know its meaning.

He saw no more of her till twilight, for Canaris took her place just then, reading a foreign book, which she could not manage; but, when Felix went out, he sought one of his solitary haunts, hoping she would appear.

She did; for the day closed early with a gusty rain, and the sunset hour was gray and cold, leaving no after-glow to tint the western sky and bathe the great room in ruddy light. Pale and noiseless as a spirit, Gladys went to and fro, trying to quiet the unrest that made her nights sleepless, her days one long struggle to be patient, just, and kind. She tried to sing, but the song died in her throat; she tried to sew, but her eyes were dim, and the flower under her needle only reminded her that “pansies were for thoughts,” and hers, alas! were too sad for thinking; she took up a book, but laid it down again, since Felix was not there to finish it with her. Her own rooms seemed so empty, she could not return thither when she had looked for him in vain; and, longing for some human voice to speak to her, it was a relief to come upon Helwyze sitting in his lonely corner,—for she never now went to the library, unless duty called her.

“A dull evening, and dull company,” he said, as she paused beside him, glad to have found something to take her out of herself, for a time at least.

“Such a long day! and such a dreary night as it will be!” she answered, leaning her forehead against the window-pane, to watch the drops fall, and listen to the melancholy wind.

“Shorten the one and cheer the other, as I do: sleep, dream, and forget.”

“I cannot!” and there was a world of suffering in the words that broke from her against her will.

“Try my sleep-compeller as freely as I tried yours. See, these will give you one, if not all the three desired blessings,—quiet slumber, delicious dreams, or utter oblivion for a time.”

As he spoke, Helwyze had drawn out a little bonbonnière of tortoise-shell and silver, which he always carried, and shaken into his palm half a dozen white comfits, which he offered to Gladys, with a benign expression born of real sympathy and compassion. She hesitated; and he added, in a tone of mild reproach, which smote her generous heart with compunction,—

“Since I may not even try to minister to your troubled mind, let me, at least, give a little rest to your weary body. Trust me, child, these 181cannot hurt you; and, strong as you are, you will break down if you do not sleep.”

Without a word, she took them; and, as they melted on her tongue, first sweet, then bitter, she stood leaning against the rainy window-pane, listening to Helwyze, who began to talk as if he too had tasted the Indian drug, which “made the face of Coleridge shine, as he conversed like one inspired.”

It seemed a very simple, friendly act; but this man had learned to know how subtly the mind works; to see how often an apparently impulsive action is born of an almost unconscious thought, an unacknowledged purpose, a deeply hidden motive, which to many seem rather the child than the father of the deed. Helwyze did not deceive himself, and owned that baffled desire prompted that unpremeditated offer, and was ready to avail itself of any self-betrayal which might follow its acceptance, for he had given Gladys hasheesh.

It could not harm; it might soothe and comfort her unrest. It surely would make her forget for a while, and in that temporary oblivion perhaps he might discover what he burned to know. The very uncertainty of its effect added to the daring of the deed; and, while he talked, he 182waited to see how it would affect her, well knowing that in such a temperament as hers all processes are rapid. For an hour he conversed so delightfully of Rome and its wonders, that Gladys was amazed to find Felix had come in, unheard for once.

All through dinner she brightened steadily, thinking the happy mood was brought by her prodigal’s return, quite forgetting Helwyze and his bitter-sweet bonbons.

“I shall stay at home, and enjoy the society of my pretty wife. What have you done to make yourself so beautiful to-night? Is it the new gown?” asked Canaris, surveying her with laughing but most genuine surprise and satisfaction as they returned to the drawing-room again.

“It is not new: I made it long ago, to please you, but you never noticed it before,” answered Gladys, glancing at the pale-hued dress, all broad, soft folds from waist to ankle, with its winter trimming of swan’s down at the neck and wrists; simple, but most becoming to her flower-like face and girlish figure.

“What cruel blindness! But I see and admire it now, and honestly declare that not Olivia in all her splendor is arrayed so much to my taste as you, my Sancta Simplicitas.”

183“It is pleasant to hear you say so; but that alone does not make me happy: it must be having you at home all to myself again,” she whispered, with shining eyes, cheeks that glowed with a deeper rose each hour, and an indescribably blest expression in a face which now was both brilliant and dreamy.

Helwyze heard what she said, and, fearing to lose sight of her, promptly challenged Canaris to chess, a favorite pastime with them both. For an hour they played, well matched and keenly interested, while Gladys sat by, already tasting the restful peace, the delicious dreams, promised her.

The clock was on the stroke of eight, the game was nearly over, when a quick ring arrested Helwyze in the act of making the final move. There was a stir in the hall, then, bringing with her a waft of fresh, damp air, Olivia appeared, brave in purple silk and Roman gold.

“I thought you were all asleep or dead; but now I see the cause of this awful silence,” she cried. “Don’t speak, don’t stir; let me enjoy the fine tableau you make. Retsch’s ‘Game of Life,’ quite perfect, and most effective.”

It certainly was to an observer; for Canaris, flushed and eager, looked the young man to the 184life; Helwyze, calm but intent, with his finger on his lip, pondering that last fateful move, was an excellent Satan; and behind them stood Gladys, wonderfully resembling the wistful angel, with that new brightness on her face.

“Which wins?” asked Olivia, rustling toward them, conscious of having made an impressive entrance; for both men looked up to welcome her, though Gladys never lifted her eyes from the mimic battle Felix seemed about to lose.

“I do, as usual,” answered Helwyze, turning to finish the game with the careless ease of a victor.

“Not this time;” and Gladys touched a piece which Canaris in the hurry of the moment was about to overlook. He saw its value at a glance, made the one move that could save him, and in an instant cried “Checkmate,” with a laugh of triumph.

“Not fair, the angel interfered,” said Olivia, shaking a warning finger at Gladys, who echoed her husband’s laugh with one still more exultant, as she put her hand upon his shoulder, saying, in a low, intense voice never heard from her lips before,—

“I have won him; he is mine, and cannot be taken from me any more.”

“Dearest child, no one wants him, except to play with and admire,” began Olivia, rather startled by the look and manner of the lately meek, mute Gladys.

Here Helwyze struck in, anxious to avert Olivia’s attention; for her undesirable presence disconcerted him, since her woman’s wit might discover what it was easy to conceal from Canaris.

“You have come to entertain us, like the amiable enchantress that you are?” he asked, suggestively; for nothing charmed Olivia more than permission to amuse him, when others failed.

“I have a thought,—a happy thought,—if Gladys will help me. You have given me one living picture: I will give you others, and she shall sing the scenes we illustrate.”

“Take Felix, and give us ‘The God and the Bayadere,’” said Helwyze, glancing at the young pair behind them, he intent upon their conversation, she upon him. “No, I will have only Gladys. You will act and sing for us, I know?” and Olivia turned to her with a most engaging smile.

“I never acted in my life, but I will try. I think I should like it for I feel as if I could do 186any thing to-night;” and she came to them with a swift step, an eager air, as if longing to find some outlet for the strange energy which seemed to thrill every nerve and set her heart to beating audibly.

“You look so. Do you know all these songs?” asked Olivia, taking up the book which had suggested her happy thought.

“There are but four: I know them all. I will gladly sing them; for I set them to music, if they had none of their own already. I often do that to those Felix writes me.”

“Come, then. I want the key of the great press, where you keep your spoils, Jasper.”

“Mrs. Bland will give it you. Order what you will, if you are going to treat us to an Arabian Night’s entertainment.”

“Better than that. We are going to teach a small poet, by illustrating the work of a great one;” and, with a mischievous laugh, Olivia vanished, beckoning Gladys to follow.

The two men beguiled the time as best they might: Canaris playing softly to himself in the music-room; Helwyze listening intently to the sounds that came from behind the curtains, now dropped over a double door-way leading to the lower end of the hall. Olivia’s imperious voice 187was heard, directing men and maids. More than once an excited laugh from Gladys jarred upon his ear; and, as minute after minute passed, his impatience to see her again increased.