A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XIV

by Louisa May Alcott

It seemed as if some angel had Gladys in especial charge, bringing light out of darkness, joy out of sorrow, good out of evil; for no harm came to her,—only a great peace, which transfigured her face till it was as spiritually beautiful, as that of some young Madonna.

Waking late the next day she remembered little of the past night’s events, and cared to remember little, having clearer and calmer thoughts to dwell upon, happier dreams to enjoy.

She suspected Helwyze of imprudent kindness, but uttered no reproach, quite unconscious of how much she had to forgive; thereby innocently adding to both the relief and the remorse he felt. The doubt and dread which had risen to the surface at his command, seemed to sink again into the depths; and hope and love, to still the troubled waters where her life-boat rode at anchor for a time.

Canaris, as if tired of playing truant, was ready now to be forgiven; more conscious than 211ever before that this young wife was a possession to be proud of, since, when she chose, she could eclipse even Olivia. The jealousy which could so inspire her flattered his man’s vanity, and made her love more precious; for not yet had he learned all its depth, nor how to be worthy of it. The reverence he had always felt increased fourfold, but the affection began to burn with a stronger flame; and Canaris, for the first time, tasted the pure happiness of loving another better than himself. Glad to feel, yet ashamed to own, a sentiment whose sincerity made it very sweet, he kept it to himself, and showed no sign, except a new and most becoming humility of manner when with Gladys, as if silently asking pardon for many shortcomings. With Helwyze he was cold and distant, evidently dreading to have him discover the change he had foretold, and feeling as if his knowledge of it would profane the first really sacred emotion the young man had known since his mother died.

Anxious for some screen behind which to hide the novel, yet most pleasurable, sensations which beset him, he found Olivia a useful friend, and still kept up some semblance of the admiration, out of which all dangerous ardor was fast fading. She saw this at once, and did not regret it: for she had a generous nature, which an all-absorbing and unhappy passion had not entirely spoiled.

Obedience to Helwyze was her delight; but, knowing him better than any other human being could, she was troubled by his increasing interest in Gladys, more especially since discovering that the girl possessed the originality, fire, and energy which were more attractive to him than her youth, gentleness, or grace. Jealousy was stronger than the desire to obey; and, calling it compassion, Olivia resolved to be magnanimous, and spare Gladys further pain, letting Canaris return to his allegiance, as he seemed inclined to do, unhindered by any act of hers.

“The poor child is so young, so utterly unable to cope with me, it is doubly cruel to torment her, just to gratify a whim of Jasper’s. Better make my peace handsomely, and be her friend, than rob her of the only treasure she possesses, since I do not covet it,” she thought, driving through the May-day sunshine, to carry Jasper the earliest sprays of white and rosy hawthorn from the villa garden, whither she had been to set all in order for the summer.

Helwyze was not yet visible; and, full of her new design, Olivia hastened up to find Gladys, 213meaning by some friendly word, some unmistakable but most delicate hint, to reassure her regarding the errant young husband, whom she had not yet learned to hold.

There was no answer to her hasty tap, and Olivia went in to seek yet further. Half-way across the larger apartment she paused abruptly, and stood looking straight before her, with a face which passed rapidly from its first expression of good-will to one of surprise, then softened, till tears stood in the brilliant eyes, and some sudden memory or thought made that usually proud countenance both sad and tender.

Gladys sat alone in her little room, her work lying on her knee, her arms folded, her head bent, singing to herself as she rocked to and fro, lost in some reverie that made her lips smile faintly, and her voice very low. She often sat so now, but Olivia had never seen her thus; and, seeing, divined at once the hope which lifted her above all sorrow, the help sent by Heaven, when most she needed it. For the song Gladys sang was a lullaby, the look she wore was that which comes to a woman’s face when she rocks her first-born on her knee, and above her head was a new picture, an angel, with the Lily of Annunciation in its hand.

The one precious memory of Olivia’s stormy life was the little daughter, who for a sweet, short year was all in all to her, and whose small grave was yearly covered with the first spring flowers. Fresh from this secret pilgrimage, the woman’s nature was at its noblest now; and seeing that other woman, so young, so lonely, yet so blest, her heart yearned over her,—

“All her worser self slipped from her
Like a robe,”—
and, hurrying in, she said, impulsively,—

“O child, I wish you had a mother!”

Gladys looked up, unstartled from the calm in which she dwelt. Olivia’s face explained her words, and she answered them with the only reproach much pain had wrung from her,—

“You might have been one to me.”

“It is not too late! What shall I do to prove my sincerity?” cried Olivia, stricken with remorse.

“Help me to give my little child an honest father.”

“I will! show me how.”

Then these two women spent a memorable hour together; for the new tie of motherhood bridged across all differences of age and character, made confession easy, confidence sweet, 215friendship possible. Yet, after all, Gladys was the comforter, Olivia the one who poured out her heart, and found relief in telling the sorrows that had been, the temptations that still beset her, the good that yet remained to answer, when the right chord was touched. She longed to give as much as she received; but when she had owned, with a new sense of shame, that she was merely playing with Canaris for her own amusement (being true to Helwyze even in her falsehood), there seemed no more for her to do, since Gladys asked but one other question, and that she could not answer.

“If he does not love you, and, perhaps, it is as you say,—only a poet’s admiration for beauty,—what is the trouble that keeps us apart? At first I was too blindly happy to perceive it; now tears have cleared my eyes, and I see that he hides something from me,—something which he longs, yet dares not tell.”

“I know: I saw it long ago; but Jasper alone can tell that secret. He holds Felix by it, and I fear the knowledge would be worse than the suspicion. Let it be: time sets all things right, and it is ill thwarting my poor cousin. I have a charming plan for you and Felix; and, when you have him to yourself, you may be able to 216win his confidence, as, I am sure, you have already won his heart.”

Then Olivia told her plan, which was both generous and politic; since it made Gladys truly happy, proved her own sincerity, secured her own peace and that of the men whose lives seemed to become more and more inextricably tangled together.

“Now I shall go to Jasper, and conquer all his opposition; for I know I am right. Dear little creature, what is it about you that makes one feel both humble and strong when one is near you?” asked Olivia, looking down at Gladys with a hand on either shoulder, and genuine wonder in the eyes still soft with unwonted tears.

“God made me truthful, and I try to keep so; that is all,” she answered, simply.

“That is enough. Kiss me, Gladys, and make me better. I am not good enough to be the mother that I might have been to you; but I am a friend; believe that, and trust me, if you can?”

“I do;” and Gladys sealed her confidence with both lips and hand.

“Jasper, I have invited those children to spend the summer at the villa, since you have 217decided for the sea. Gladys is mortally tired of this hot-house life, so is Felix: give them a long holiday, or they will run away together. Mrs. Bland and I will take care of you till they come back.”

Olivia walked in upon Helwyze with this abrupt announcement, well knowing that persuasion would be useless, and vigorous measures surest to win the day. Artful as well as courageous in her assault, she answered in that one speech several objections against her plan, and suggested several strong reasons for it, sure that he would yield the first, and own the latter.

He did, with unexpected readiness; for a motive which she could not fathom prompted his seemingly careless acquiescence. He had no thought of relinquishing his hold on Canaris, since through him alone he held Gladys; but he often longed to escape from both for a time, that he might study and adjust the new power which had come into his life, unbidden, undesired. Surprise and disappointment were almost instantaneously followed by a sense of relief when Olivia spoke; for he saw at once that this project was a wiser one than she knew.

218Before her rapid sentences were ended, the thought had come and gone, the decision was made, and he could answer, in a tone of indifference which both pleased and perplexed her,—

“Amiable woman, with what helpful aspirations are you blest. Seeing your failure with Felix, I have been wondering how I should get rid of him till he recovers from this comically tardy passion for his wife. They can have another and a longer honeymoon up at the villa, if they like: the other was far from romantic, I suspect. Well, why that sphinx-like expression, if you please?” he added, as Olivia stood regarding him from behind the fading hawthorn which she forgot to offer.

“I was wondering if I should ever understand you, Jasper.”

“Doubtful, since I shall never understand myself.”

“You ought, if any man; for you spend your life in studying yourself.”

“And the more I study, the less I know. It is very like a child with a toy ark: I never know what animal may appear first. I put in my hand for a dove, and I get a serpent; I open the door for the sagacious elephant, and out rushes a tiger; I think I have found a favorite 219dog, and it is a wolf, looking ready to devour me. An unsatisfactory toy, better put it away and choose another.”

Helwyze spoke in the half-jesting, half-serious way habitual to him; but though his mouth smiled, his eyes were gloomy, and Olivia hastened to turn his thoughts from a subject in which he took a morbid interest.

“Fanciful, but true. Now, follow your own excellent advice, and find wholesome amusement in helping me pack off the young people, and then ourselves. It is not too early for them to go at once. Canaris can come in and out as you want him for a month longer, then I will have all things ready for you in the old cottage by the sea. You used to be happy there: can you not be so again?”

“If you can give me back my twenty years. May-day is over for both of us; why try to make the dead hawthorn bloom again? Carry out your plan, and let the children be happy.”

They were very happy; for the prospect of entire freedom was so delicious, that Gladys had some difficulty in concealing her delight, while Canaris openly rejoiced when told of Olivia’s offer. All dinner-time he was talking of it; and afterward, under pretence of showing her a new 220plant, he took his wife into the conservatory, that he might continue planning how they should spend this unexpected holiday.

Helwyze saw them wandering arm in arm; Canaris talking rapidly, and Gladys listening, with happy laughter, to his whimsical suggestions and projects. Their content displeased the looker-on; but there was something so attractive in the flower-framed picture of beauty, youth, and joy, that he could not turn his eyes away, although the sight aroused strangely conflicting thoughts within him.

He wished them gone, yet dreaded to lose the charm of his confined life, feeling that absence would inevitably become estrangement. Canaris never would be entirely his again; for he was slowly climbing upward into a region where false ambition could not blind, mere pleasure satisfy, nor license take the place of liberty. He had not planned to ruin the youth, but simply to let “the world, the flesh, and the devil” contend against such virtues as they found, while he sat by and watched the struggle.

As Olivia predicted, however, power was a dangerous gift to such a man; and, having come to feel that Canaris belonged to him, body and soul, he was ill-pleased at losing him just when a new interest was added to their lives.

Yet losing him he assuredly was; and something like wonder mingled with his chagrin, for this girl, whom he had expected to mould to his will, exerted over him, as well as Canaris, a soft control which he could neither comprehend nor conquer. Its charm was its unconsciousness, its power was its truth; for it won gently and held firmly the regard it sought. She certainly did possess the gift of surprises; for, although brought there as a plaything, “little Gladys,” without apparent effort, had subjugated haughty Olivia, wayward Felix, ruthless Helwyze; and none rebelled against her. She ruled them by the irresistible influence of a lovely womanhood, which made her daily life a sweeter poem than any they could write.

“Why did I not keep her for myself? If she can do so much for him, what might she not have done for me, had I been wise enough to wait,” thought Helwyze, watching the bright-haired figure that stood looking up to the green roof whence Canaris was gathering passion-flowers.

As if some consciousness of his longing reached her, Gladys turned to look into the softly lighted room beyond, and, seeing its master sit there solitary in the midst of its splendor, she 222obeyed the compassionate impulse which was continually struggling against doubt and dislike.

“It must seem very selfish and ungrateful in us to be so glad. Come, Felix, and amuse him as well as me,” she said, in a tone meant for his ear alone. But Helwyze heard both question and answer.

“I have been court-fool long enough. ’Tis a thankless office, and I am tired of it,” replied Canaris, in the tone of a prisoner asked to go back when the door of his cell stands open.

“I must go, for there is Jean with coffee. Follow, like a good boy, when you have put your posy into a song, which I will set to music by and by, as your reward,” said Gladys, turning reluctantly away.

“You make goodness so beautiful, that it is easy to obey. There is my posy set to music at once, for you are a song without words, cariña;” and Canaris threw the vine about her neck, with a look and a laugh which made it hard for her to go.

Jean not only brought coffee, but the card of a friend for Felix, who went away, promising to return. Gladys carefully prepared the black and fragrant draught which Helwyze loved, and presented it, with a sweet friendliness of mien 223which would have made hemlock palatable, he thought.

“Shall I sing to you till Felix comes to give you something better?” she asked, offering her best, as if anxious to atone for the sin of being happy at the cost of pain to another.

“Talk a little first. There will be time for both before he remembers us again,” answered Helwyze, motioning her to a seat beside him, with the half-imperative, half-courteous, look and gesture habitual to him.

“He will not forget: Felix always keeps his promises to me,” said Gladys, with an air of gentle pride, taking her place, not beside, but opposite, Helwyze, on the couch where Elaine had laid not long ago.

This involuntary act of hers gave a tone to the conversation which followed; for Helwyze, being inwardly perturbed, was seized with a desire to hover about dangerous topics: and, seeing her sit there, so near and yet so far, so willing to serve, yet so completely mistress of herself, longed to ruffle that composure, if only to make her share the disquiet of which she was the cause.

“Always?” he said, lifting his brows with an incredulous expression, as he replied to her assertion.

“I seldom ask any promise of him, but when I do, he always keeps it. You doubt that?”

“I do.”

“When you know him as well as I, you will believe it.”

“I flatter myself that I know him better; and, judging from the past, should call him both fickle and, in some things, false, even to you.”

Up sprung the color to Gladys’s cheek, and her eyes shone with sudden fire, but her voice was low and quiet, as she answered quickly,—

“One is apt to look for what one wishes to find: I seek fidelity and truth, and I shall not be disappointed. Felix may wander, but he will come back to me: I have learned how to hold him now.”

“Then you are wiser than I. Pray impart the secret;” and, putting down his cup, Helwyze regarded her intently, for he saw that the spirit of the woman was roused to defend her wifely rights.

“Nay, I owe it to you; and, since it has prevailed against your enchantress, I should thank you for it.”

The delicate emphasis on the words, “your enchantress,” enlightened him to the fact that 225Gladys divined, in part at least, the cause of Olivia’s return. He did not deny, but simply answered, with a curious contrast between the carelessness of the first half of his reply, with the vivid interest of the latter,—

“Olivia has atoned for her sins handsomely. But what do you owe me? I have taught you nothing. I dare not try.”

“I did not know my own power till you showed it to me; unintentionally, I believe, and unconsciously, I used it to such purpose that Felix felt pride in the wife whom he had thought a child before. I mean the night I sang and acted yonder, and did both well, thanks to you.”

“I comprehend, and hope to be forgiven, since I gave you help or pleasure,” he answered, with no sign of either confusion or regret, though the thought shot through his mind, “Can she remember what came after?”

“Questionable help, and painful pleasure, yet it was a memorable hour and a useful one; so I pardon you, since after the troubled delusion comes a happy reality.”

There was a double meaning in her words, and a double reproach in the glance which went from the spot where she had played her part, to the garland still about her neck.

226“Your yoke is a light one, and you wear it gracefully. Long may it be so.”

Helwyze thought to slip away thus from the subject; for those accusing eyes were hard to meet. But Gladys seemed moved to speak with more than her usual candor, as if anxious to leave no doubts behind her; and, sitting in the self-same place, uttered words which moved him even more than those which she had whispered in her tormented sleep.

“No, my yoke is not light;” she said, in that grave, sweet voice of hers, looking down at the mystic purple blossom on her breast, with the symbols of a divine passion at its heart. “I put it on too ignorantly, too confidingly, and at times the duties, the responsibilities, which I assumed with it weigh heavily. I am just learning how beautiful they are, how sacred they should be, and trying to prove worthy of them. I know that Felix did not love as I loved, when he married me,—from pity, I believe. No one told me this: I felt, I guessed it, and would have given him back his liberty, if, after patient trial, I had found that I could not make him happy.”

“Can you?”

“Yes, thank God! not only happy, but good; 227and henceforth duty is delight, for I can teach him to love as I love, and he is glad to learn of me.”

Months before, when the girl Gladys had betrayed her maiden tenderness, she had glowed like the dawn, and found no language but her blushes; now the woman sat there steadfast and passion-pale, owning her love with the eloquence of fervent speech; both pleading and commanding, in the name of wifehood and motherhood, for the right to claim the man she had won at such cost.

“And if you fail?”

“I shall not fail, unless you come between us. I have won Olivia’s promise not to tempt Felix’s errant fancy with her beauty. Can I not win yours to abstain from troubling his soul with still more harmful trials? It is to ask this that I speak now, and I believe I shall not speak in vain.”


Helwyze bent and looked into her face as he uttered that one word below his breath. He dared do no more; for there was that about her, perilously frank and lovely though she was, which held in check his lawless spirit, and made it reverence, even while it rebelled against her power over him.

228She neither shrank nor turned aside, but studied earnestly that unmoved countenance which hid a world of wild emotion so successfully, that even her eyes saw no token of it, except the deepening line between the brows.

“Because I am bold enough to think I know you better even than Olivia does; that you are not cold and cruel, and, having given me the right to live for Felix, you will not disturb our peace; that, if I look into your soul, as I looked into my husband’s, I shall find there what I seek,—justice as well as generosity.”

“You shall!”

“I knew you would not disappoint me. For this promise I am more grateful than words can express, since it takes away all fear for Felix, and shows me that I was right in appealing to the heart which you try to kill. Ah! be your best self always, and so make life a blessing, not the curse you often call it,” she added, giving him a smile like sunshine, a cordial glance which was more than he could bear.

“With you I am. Stay, and show me how to do it,” he began, stretching both hands towards her with an almost desperate urgency in voice and gesture.

But Gladys neither saw nor heard; for at 229that moment Felix came through the hall singing one of the few perfect love songs in the world,—

“Che farò senza Eurydice.” “See, he does keep his promise to me: I knew he would come back!” she cried delightedly, and hurried to meet him, leaving Helwyze nothing but the passion-flowers to fill his empty hands.