A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XIII

by Louisa May Alcott

After what would have seemed a wonderfully short time to a more careless waiter, three blows were struck, in the French fashion, and Canaris had barely time to reach his place, when the deep blue curtains slid noiselessly apart, showing the visible portion of the hall, arranged to suggest a mediæval room. An easy task, when a suit of rusty armor already stood there; and Helwyze had brought spoils from all quarters of the globe, in the shape of old furniture, tapestry, weapons, and trophies of many a wild hunt.

“What is it?” whispered Canaris eagerly.

“An Idyl of the King.”

“I see: the first. How well they look it!”

They did; Olivia, as

“An ancient dame in dim brocade;
And near her, like a blossom, vermeil-white,
That lightly breaks a faded flower-sheath,
Stood the fair Enid, all in faded silk.”
Gladys, clad in a quaint costume of tarnished gray and silver damask, singing, in “the sweet voice of a bird,”—

“Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel, and lower the proud;
Turn thy wild wheel through sunshine, storm, and cloud;
Thy wheel and thee we neither love nor hate.
“Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel with smile and frown;
With that wild wheel we go not up nor down;
Our hoard is little, but our hearts are great.
“Smile and we smile, the lords of many lands;
Frown and we smile, the lords of our own hands;
For man is man and master of his fate.
“Turn, turn thy wheel above the staring crowd;
Thy wheel and thou art shadows in the cloud;
Thy wheel and thee we neither love nor hate.”

There was something inexpressibly touching in the way Gladys gave the words, which had such significance addressed to those who listened so intently, that they nearly forgot to pay the tribute which all actors, the greatest as the least, desire, when the curtain dropped, and the song was done.

“A capital idea of Olivia’s, and beautifully carried out. This promises to be pleasant;” and Helwyze sat erect upon the divan, where Canaris came to lounge beside him.

“Which comes next? I don’t remember. If it is Vivien, they will have to skip it, unless 190they call you in for Merlin,” he said, talking gayly, because a little conscience-stricken by the look Gladys wore, as she sung, with her eyes upon him,—

“Our hoard is little, but our hearts are great.” “They will not want a Merlin; for Gladys could not act Vivien, if she would,” answered Helwyze, tapping restlessly as he waited.

“She said she could do ‘any thing’ to-night; and, upon my life, she looked as if she might even beguile you ‘mighty master,’ of your strongest spell.”

“She will never try.”

But both were mistaken; for, when they looked again, the dim light showed a dark and hooded shape, with glittering eyes and the semblance of a flowing, hoary beard, leaning half-hidden in a bower of tall shrubs from the conservatory. It was Olivia, as Merlin; and, being of noble proportions, she looked the part excellently. Upon the wizard’s knee sat Vivien,—

“A twist of gold was round her hair;
A robe of samite without price, that more exprest
Than hid her, clung about her lissome limbs,
In color like the satin-shining palm
On sallows in the windy gleams of March.”

In any other mood, Gladys would never have consented to be loosely clad in a great mantle of some Indian fabric, which shimmered like woven light, with its alternate stripes of gold-covered silk and softest wool. Shoulders and arms showed rosy white under the veil of hair which swept to her knee, as she clung there, singing sweet and low, with eyes on Merlin’s face, lips near his own, and head upon his breast:—

“In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours,
Faith and unfaith can ne’er be equal powers;
Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all.
“It is the little rift within the lute
That by and by will make the music mute,
And ever widening, slowly silence all.
“The little rift within the lover’s lute,
Or little pitted speck in garner’d fruit,
That, rotting inward, slowly moulders all.
“It is not worth the keeping: let it go:
But shall it? Answer, darling, answer ‘No;’
And trust me not at all or all in all.”

There Gladys seemed to forget her part, and, turning, stretched her arms towards her husband, as if in music she had found a tongue to plead her cause. The involuntary gesture recalled to her that other verse which Vivien added to her song; and something impelled her to sing it, standing erect, with face, figure, voice 192all trembling with the strong emotion that suddenly controlled her:—

“My name, once mine, now thine, is closelier mine,
For fame, could fame be mine, that fame were thine;
And shame, could shame be thine, that shame were mine;
So trust me not at all or all in all.”

Down fell the curtain there, and the two men looked at one another in silence for an instant, dazzled, troubled, and surprised; for in this brilliant, impassioned creature they did not recognize the Gladys they believed they knew so well.

“What possessed her to sing that? She is so unlike herself, I do not know her,” said Canaris, excited by the discoveries he was making.

“She is inspired to-night; so be prepared for any thing. These women will work wonders, they are acting to the men they love,” answered Helwyze, warily, yet excited also; because, for him, a double drama was passing on that little stage, and he found it marvellously fascinating.

“I never knew how beautiful she was!” mused Canaris, half aloud, his eyes upon the blue draperies which hid her from his sight.

“You never saw her in such gear before. Splendor suits her present mood, as well as simplicity becomes her usual self-restraint. You 193have made her jealous, and your angel will prove herself a woman, after all.”

“Is that the cause of this sudden change in her? Then I don’t regret playing truant, for the woman suits me better than the angel,” cried Canaris, conscious that the pale affection he had borne his wife so long was already glowing with new warmth and color, in spite of his seeming neglect.

“Wait till you see Olivia as Guinevere. I know she cannot resist that part, and I suspect she is willing to efface herself so far that she may take us by storm by and by.”

Helwyze prophesied truly; and, when next the curtains parted, the stately Queen sat in the nunnery of Almesbury, with the little novice at her feet. Olivia was right splendid now, for her sumptuous beauty well became the costly stuffs in which she had draped herself with the graceful art of a woman whose physical loveliness was her best possession. A trifle too gorgeous, perhaps, for the repentant Guinevere; but a most grand and gracious spectacle, nevertheless, as she leaned in the tall carved chair, with jewelled arms lying languidly across her lap, and absent eyes still full of love and longing for lost Launcelot.

Gladys, in white wimple and close-folded gown of gray, sat on a stool beside the “one low light,” humming softly, her rosary fallen at her feet,—

“the Queen looked up, and said,
‘O maiden, if indeed you list to sing
Sing, and unbind my heart, that I may weep.’
Whereat full willingly sang the little maid,
Late, late, so late! and dark the night and chill!
Late, late, so late! but we can enter still.
Too late! too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light had we: for that we do repent,
And, learning this, the bridegroom will relent.
Too late! too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light, so late! and dark and chill the night!
O let us in, that we may find the light!
Too late! too late! ye cannot enter now.
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?
O let us in, tho’ late, to kiss his feet!
No, no, too late! ye cannot enter now.”

Slowly the proud head had drooped, the stately figure sunk, till, as the last lament died away, nothing remained of splendid Guinevere but a hidden face, a cloud of black hair from which the crown had fallen, a heap of rich robes quivering with the stormy sobs of a guilty woman’s smitten heart. The curtains closed on this tableau, which was made the more effective by the strong contrast between the despairing 195Queen and the little novice telling her beads in meek dismay.

“Good heavens, that sounded like the wail of a lost soul! My blood runs cold, and I feel as if I ought to say my prayers,” muttered Canaris, with a shiver; for, with his susceptible temperament, music always exerted over him an almost painful power.

“If you knew any,” sneered Helwyze, whose eyes now glittered with something stronger than excitement.

“I do: Gladys taught me, and I am not ashamed to own it.”

“Much good may it do you.” Then, in a quieter tone, he asked, “Is there any song in ‘Elaine’? I forget; and that is the only one we have not had.”

“There is ‘The Song of Love and Death.’ Gladys was learning it lately; and, if I remember rightly, it was heart-rending. I hope she will not sing it, for this sort of thing is rather too much for me;” and Canaris got up to wander aimlessly about, humming the gayest airs he knew, as if to drown the sorrowful “Too late! too late!” still wailing in his ear.

By this time Gladys was no longer quite herself: an inward excitement possessed her, a wild 196desire to sing her very heart out came over her, and a strange chill, which she thought a vague presentiment of coming ill, crept through her blood. Every thing seemed vast and awful; every sense grew painfully acute; and she walked as in a dream, so vivid, yet so mysterious, that she did not try to explain it even to herself. Her identity was doubled: one Gladys moved and spoke as she was told,—a pale, dim figure, of no interest to any one; the other was alive in every fibre, thrilled with intense desire for something, and bent on finding it, though deserts, oceans, and boundless realms of air were passed to gain it.

Olivia wondered at her unsuspected power, and felt a little envious of her enchanting gift. But she was too absorbed in “setting the stage,” dressing her prima donna, and planning how to end the spectacle with her favorite character of Cleopatra, to do more than observe that Gladys’s eyes were luminous and large, her face growing more and more colorless, her manner less and less excited, yet unnaturally calm.

“This is the last, and you have the stage alone. Do your best for Felix; then you shall rest and be thanked,” she whispered, somewhat anxiously, as she placed Elaine in her tower, 197leaning against the dark screen, which was unfolded, to suggest the casement she flung back when Launcelot passed below,—

“And glanced not up, nor waved his hand,
Nor bade farewell, but sadly rode away.”

The “lily maid of Astolat” could not have looked more wan and weird than Gladys, as she stood in her trailing robes of dead white, with loosely gathered locks, hands clasped over the gay bit of tapestry which simulated the cover of the shield, eyes that seemed to see something invisible to those about her, and began her song, in a veiled voice, at once so sad and solemn, that Helwyze held his breath, and Canaris felt as if she called him from beyond the grave:—

“Sweet is true love, tho’ given in vain, in vain;
And sweet is death, who puts an end to pain;
I know not which is sweeter, no, not I.
Love, art thou sweet? then bitter death must be;
Love, thou art bitter; sweet is death to me.
O Love, if death be sweeter, let me die.
Sweet love, that seems not made to fade away,
Sweet death, that seems to make us loveless clay,
I know not which is sweeter, no, not I.
I fain would follow love, if that could be;
I needs must follow death, who calls for me:
Call and I follow, I follow! let me die!”

Carried beyond self-control by the unsuspected presence of the drug, which was doing its work with perilous rapidity, Gladys, remembering only that the last line should be sung with force, and that she sung for Felix, obeyed the wild impulse to let her voice rise and ring out with a shrill, despairing power and passion, which startled every listener, and echoed through the room, like Elaine’s unearthly cry of hapless love and death.

Olivia dropped her asp, terrified; the maids stared, uncertain whether it was acting or insanity; and Helwyze sprung up aghast, fearing that he had dared too much. But Canaris, seeing only the wild, woful eyes fixed on his, the hands wrung as if in pain, forgot every thing but Gladys, and rushed between the curtains, exclaiming in real terror,—

“Don’t look so! don’t sing so! my God, she is dying!”

Not dying, only slipping fast into the unconscious stage of the hasheesh dream, whose coming none can foretell but those accustomed to its use. Pale and quiet she lay in her husband’s arms, with half-open eyes and fluttering breath, smiling up at him so strangely that he was bewildered as well as panic-stricken. Olivia forgot her Cleopatra to order air and water; the 199maids flew for salts and wine; Helwyze with difficulty hid his momentary dismay; while Canaris, almost beside himself, could only hang over the couch where lay “the lily-maid,” looking as if already dead, and drifting down to Camelot.

“Gladys, do you know me?” he cried, as a little color came to her lips after the fiery draught Olivia energetically administered.

The eyes opened wider, the smile grew brighter, and she lifted her hand to bring him nearer, for he seemed immeasurably distant.

“Felix! Let me be still, quite still; I want to sleep. Good-night, good-night.”

She thought she kissed him; then his face receded, vanished, and, as she floated buoyantly away upon the first of the many oceans to be crossed in her mysterious quest, a far-off voice seemed to say, solemnly, as if in a last farewell,—

“Hush! let her sleep in peace.”

It was Helwyze; and, having felt her pulse, he assured them all that she was only over-excited, must rest an hour or two, and would soon be quite herself again. So the brief panic ended quietly; and, having lowered the lights, spread Guinevere’s velvet mantle over her, and re-assured themselves that she was sleeping calmly, 200the women went to restore order to ante-room and hall, Canaris sat down to watch beside Gladys, and Helwyze betook himself to the library.

“Is she still sleeping?” he asked, with unconcealable anxiety, when Olivia joined him there.

“Like a baby. What a high-strung little thing it is. If she had strength to bear the training, she would make a cantatrice to be proud of, Jasper.”

“Ah, but she never would! Fancy that modest creature on a stage for all the world to gape at. She was happiest in the nun’s gown to-night, though simply ravishing as Vivien. The pretty, bare feet were most effective; but how did you persuade her to it?”

“I had no sandals as a compromise: I therefore insisted that the part must be so dressed or undressed, and she submitted. People usually do, when I command.”

“She was on her mettle: I could see that; and well she might be, with you for a rival. I give you my word, Olivia, if I did not know you were nearly forty, I should swear it was a lie; for ‘age cannot wither nor custom stale’ my handsome Cleopatra. We ought to have had 201that, by the by: it used to be your best bit. I could not be your Antony, but Felix might: he adores costuming, and would do it capitally.”

“Not old enough. Ah! what happy times those were;” and Olivia sighed sincerely, yet dramatically, for she knew she was looking wonderfully well, thrown down upon a couch, with her purple skirts sweeping about her, and two fine arms banded with gold clasped over her dark head.

Helwyze had flattered with a purpose. Canaris was in the way, Gladys might betray herself, and all was not safe yet; though in one respect the experiment had succeeded admirably, for he still tingled with the excitement of the evening. Now he wanted help, not sentiment, and, ignoring the sigh, said, carelessly,—

“If all obey when you insist, just make Felix go home with you. The drive will do him good, for he is as nervous as a woman, and I shall have him fidgeting about all night, unless he forgets his fright.”

“But Gladys?”

“She will be the better for a quiet nap, and ready, by the time he returns, to laugh at her heroics. He will only disturb her if he sits there, like a mourner at a death-bed.”

202“That sounds sensible and friendly, and you do it very well, Jasper; but I am impressed that something is amiss. What is it? Better tell me; I shall surely find it out, and will not work in the dark. I see mischief in your eyes, and you cannot deceive me.”

Olivia spoke half in jest; but she had so often seen his face without a mask, that it was difficult to wear one in her presence. He frowned, hesitated, then fearing she would refuse the favor if he withheld the secret, he leaned towards her and answered in a whisper,—

“I gave Gladys hasheesh, and do not care to have Felix know it.”

“Jasper, how dared you?”

“She was restless, suffering for sleep. I know what that is, and out of pity gave her the merest taste. Upon my honor, no more than a child might safely take. She did not know what it was, and I thought she would only feel its soothing charm. She would, if it had not been for this masquerading. I did not count on that, and it was too much for her.”

“Will she not suffer from the after-effects?”

“Not a whit, if she is let alone. An hour hence she will be deliciously drowsy, and to-morrow none the worse. I had no idea it would affect her so powerfully; but I do not regret it, for it showed what the woman is capable of.”

“At your old tricks. You will never learn to let your fellow-creatures alone, till something terrible stops you. You were always prying into things, even as a boy, when I caught butterflies for you to look at.”

“I never killed them: only brushed off a trifle of the gloss by my touch, and let them go again, none the worse, except for the loss of a few invisible feathers.”

“Ah! but that delicate plumage is the glory of the insect; robbed of that, its beauty is marred. No one but their Maker can search hearts without harming them. I wonder how it will fare with yours when He looks for its perfection?”

Olivia spoke with a sudden seriousness, a yearning look, which jarred on nerves already somewhat unstrung, and Helwyze answered, in a mocking tone that silenced her effectually,—

“I am desperately curious to know. If I can come and tell you, I will: such pious interest deserves that attention.”

“Heaven forbid!” ejaculated Olivia, with a shiver.

“Then I will not. I have been such a poor ghost here, I suspect I shall be glad to rest eternally when I once fall asleep, if I can.”

204Weary was his voice, weary his attitude, as, leaning an elbow on either knee, he propped his chin upon his hands, and sat brooding for a moment with his eyes upon the ground, asking himself for the thousandth time the great question which only hope and faith can answer truly.

Olivia rose. “You are tired; so am I. Good-night, Jasper, and pleasant dreams. But remember, no more tampering with Gladys, or I must tell her husband.”

“I have had my lesson. Take Felix with you, and I will send Mrs. Bland to sit with her till he comes back. Good-night, my cousin; thanks for a glimpse of the old times.” Such words, uttered with a pressure of the hand, conquered Olivia’s last scruple, and she went away to prefer her request in a form which made it impossible for Canaris to refuse. Gladys still slept quietly. The distance was not long, the fresh air grateful, Olivia her kindest self, and he obeyed, believing that the motherly old woman would take his place as soon as certain housewifely duties permitted.

Then Helwyze did an evil thing,—a thing few men could or would have done. He deliberately violated the sanctity of a human soul, robbing it alike of its most secret and most precious 205thoughts. Hasheesh had lulled the senses which guarded the treasure; now the magnetism of a potent will forced the reluctant lips to give up the key.

Like a thief he stole to Gladys’ side, took in his the dimpled hands whose very childishness should have pleaded for her, and fixed his eyes upon the face before him, untouched by its helpless innocence, its unnatural expression. The half-open eyes were heavy as dew-drunken violets, the sweet red mouth was set, the agitated bosom still rose and fell, like a troubled sea subsiding after storm.

So sitting, stern and silent as the fate he believed in, Helwyze concentrated every power upon the accomplishment of the purpose to which he bent his will. He called it psychological curiosity; for not even to himself did he dare confess the true meaning of the impulse which drove him to this act, and dearly did he pay for it.

Soon the passive palms thrilled in his own, the breath came faint and slow, color died, and life seemed to recede from the countenance, leaving a pale effigy of the woman; lately so full of vitality. “It works! it works!” muttered Helwyze, lifting his head at length to wipe the dampness from 206his brow, and send a piercing glance about the shadowy room. Then, kneeling down beside the couch, he put his lips to her ear, whispering in a tone of still command,—

“Gladys, do you hear me?”

Like the echo of a voice, so low, expressionless, and distant was it, the answer came,—

“I hear.”

“Will you answer me?”

“I must.”

“You have a sorrow,—tell it.”

“All is so false. I am unhappy without confidence,” sighed the voice.

“Can you trust no one?”

“No one here, but Felix.”

“Yet he deceives, he does not love you.”

“He will.”

“Is this the hope which sustains you?”


“And you forgive, you love him still?”


“If the hope fails?”

“It will not: I shall have help.”

“What help?”

No answer now, but the shadow of a smile seemed to float across the silent lips as if reflected from a joy too deep and tender for speech to tell.

“Speak! what is this happiness? The hope of freedom?”

“It will come.”


“When you die.”

He caught his breath, and for an instant seemed daunted by the truth he had evoked; for it was terrible, so told, so heard.

“You hate me, then?” he whispered, almost fiercely, in the ear that never shrank from his hot lips.

“I doubt and dread you.”

“Why, Gladys, why? To you I am not cruel.”

“Too kind, alas, too kind!”

“And yet you fear me?”

“God help us. Yes.”

“What is your fear?”

“No, no, I will not tell it!”

Some inward throe of shame or anguish turned the pale face paler, knotted the brow, and locked the lips, as if both soul and body revolted from the thought thus ruthlessly dragged to light. Instinct, the first, last, strongest impulse of human nature, struggled blindly to save the woman from betraying the dread which haunted her heart like a spectre, and burned her lips in the utterance of its name. 208But Helwyze was pitiless, his will indomitable; his eye held, his hand controlled, his voice commanded; and the answer came, so reluctantly, so inaudibly, that he seemed to divine, not hear it.

“What fear?”

“Your love.”

“You see, you know it, then?”

“I do not see, I vaguely feel; I pray God I may never know.”

With the involuntary recoil of a guilty joy, a shame as great, Helwyze dropped the nerveless hands, turned from the mutely accusing face, let the troubled spirit rest, and asked no more. But his punishment began as he stood there, finding the stolen truth a heavier burden than baffled doubt or desire had been; since forbidden knowledge was bitter to the taste, forbidden love possessed no sweetness, and the hidden hope, putting off its well-worn disguise, confronted him in all its ugliness.

An awesome silence filled the room, until he lifted up his eyes, and looked at Gladys with a look which would have wrung her heart could she have seen it. She did not see; for she lay there so still, so white, so dead, he seemed to have scared away the soul he had vexed with his impious questioning.

In remorseful haste, Helwyze busied himself about her, till she woke from that sleep within a sleep, moaned wearily, closed the unseeing eyes, and drifted away into more natural slumber, dream-haunted, but deep and quiet.

Then he stole away as he had come, and, sending the old woman to watch Gladys, shut himself into his own room, to keep a vigil which lasted until dawn; for all the poppies of the East could not have brought oblivion that night.