A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XV

by Louisa May Alcott

Back again, earlier than before. But not to stay long, thank Heaven! By another month we will be truly at home, my Gladys,” whispered Canaris, as they went up the steps, in the mellow September sunshine.

“I hope so!” she answered, fervently, and paused an instant before entering the door; for, coming from the light and warmth without, it seemed as dark and chilly as the entrance to a tomb.

“You are tired, love? Come and rest before you see a soul.”

With a new sort of tenderness, Canaris led her up to her own little bower, and lingered there to arrange the basket of fresh recruits she had brought for her winter garden: while Gladys lay contentedly on the couch where he placed her, looking about the room as if greeting old friends; but her eyes always came back to him, full of a reposeful happiness which proved that all was well with her.

231“There! now the little fellows sit right comfortably in the moss, and will soon feel at home. I’ll go find Mother Bland, and see what his Serene Highness is about,” said the young man, rising from his work, warm and gay, but in no haste to go, as he had been before.

Gladys remembered that; and when, at last, he left her, she shut her eyes to re-live, in thought, the three blissful months she had spent in teaching him to love her with the love in which self bears no part. Before the happy reverie was half over, the old lady arrived; and, by the time the young one was ready, Canaris came to fetch her.

“My dearest, I am afraid we must give up our plan,” he said, softly, as he led her away: “Helwyze is so changed, I come to tell you, lest it should shock you when you see him. I think it would be cruel to go at once. Can you wait a little longer?”

“If we ought. How is he changed?”

“Just worn away, as a rock is by the beating of the sea, till there seems little left of him except the big eyes and greater sharpness of both tongue and temper. Say nothing about it, and seem not to notice it; else he will freeze you with a look, as he did me when I exclaimed.”

232“Poor man! we will be very patient, very kind; for it must be awful to think of dying with no light beyond,” sighed Gladys, touching the cross at her white throat.

“A Dante without a Beatrice: I am happier than he;” and Canaris laid his cheek against hers with the gesture of a boy, the look of a man who has found the solace which is also his salvation.

Helwyze received them quietly, a little coldly, even; and Gladys reproached herself with too long neglect of what she had assumed as a duty, when she saw how ill he looked, for his summer had not been a blissful one. He had spent it in wishing for her, and in persuading himself that the desire was permissible, since he asked nothing but what she had already given him,—her presence and her friendship. It was her intellect he loved and wanted, not her heart; that she might give her husband wholly, since he understood and cared for affection only: her mind, with all its lovely possibilities, Helwyze coveted, and reasoned himself into the belief that he had a right to enjoy it, conscious all the while that his purpose was a delusion and a snare. Olivia had mourned over the moody taciturnity which made a lonely cranny of the cliffs his favorite resort, 233where he sat, day after day, watching, with an irresistible fascination, the ever-changing sea,—beautiful and bitter as the hidden tide of thought and feeling in his own breast, where lay the image of Gladys, as placid, yet as powerful, as the moon which ruled the ebb and flow of that vaster ocean. Being a fatalist for want of a higher faith, he left all to chance, and came home simply resolved to enjoy what was left him as long and as unobtrusively as possible; since Felix owed him much, and Gladys need never know what she had prayed not to know.

Sitting at the table, as they sat almost a year ago, he watched the two young faces as he had done then, finding each, unlike his own, changed for the better. Gladys was a girl no longer; and the new womanliness which had come to her was of the highest type, for inward beauty lent its imperishable loveliness to features faulty in themselves, and character gave its indescribable charm to the simplest manners. Helwyze saw all this; and perceiving also how much heart had already quickened intellect, began to long for both, and to grudge his pupil to her new master.

Canaris seemed to have lost something of his boyish comeliness, and had taken on a manlier air 234of strength and stability, most becoming, and evidently a source of pardonable pride to him. At his age even three months could work a serious alteration in one so easily affected by all influences; and Helwyze felt a pang of envy as he saw the broad shoulders and vigorous limbs, the wholesome color in the cheeks, and best of all, the serene content of a happy heart.

“What have you been doing to yourself, Felix? Have you discovered the Elixir of Life up there? If so, impart the secret, and let me have a sip,” he said, as Canaris pushed away his plate after satisfying a hearty appetite with the relish of a rustic.

“Gladys did,” he answered, with a nod across the table, which said much. “She would not let me idle about while waiting for ideas: she just set me to work. I dug acres, it seemed to me, and amazed the gardener with my exploits. Liked it, too; for she was overseer, and would not let me off till I had done my task and earned my wages. A wonderfully pleasant life, and I am the better for it, in spite of my sunburn and blisters;” and Canaris stretched out a pair of sinewy brown hands with an air of satisfaction which made Gladys laugh so blithely it was evident that their summer had been full of 235the innocent jollity of youth, fine weather, and congenial pastime.

“Adam and Eve in Eden, with all the modern improvements. Not even a tree of knowledge or a serpent to disturb you!”

“Oh, yes, we had them both; but we only ate the good fruit, and the snake did not tempt me!” cried Gladys, anxious to defend her Paradise even from playful mockery.

“He did me. I longed to kill him, but my Eve owed him no grudge, and would not permit me to do it; so the old enemy sunned himself in peace, and went into winter quarters a reformed reptile, I am sure.”

Canaris did not look up as he spoke, but Helwyze asked hastily,—

“I hope you harvested a few fresh ideas for winter work? We ought to have something to show after so laborious a summer.”

“I have: I am going to write a novel or a play. I cannot decide which; but rather lean toward the latter, and, being particularly happy, feel inclined to write a tragedy;” and something beside the daring of an ambitious author sparkled in the eyes Canaris fixed upon his patron. It looked too much like the expression of a bondman about to become a freeman to 236suit Helwyze; but he replied, as imperturbably as ever,—

“Try the tragedy, by all means: the novel would be beyond you.”

“Why, if you please?” demanded Canaris, loftily.

“Because you have neither patience nor experience enough to do it well. Goethe says: ‘In the novel it is sentiments and events that are exhibited; in the drama it is characters and deeds. The novel goes slowly forward, the drama must hasten. In the novel, some degree of scope may be allowed to chance; but it must be led and guided by the sentiments of the personages. Fate, on the other hand, which, by means of outward, unconnected circumstances, carries forward men, without their own concurrence, to an unforeseen catastrophe, can only have place in the drama. Chance may produce pathetic situations, but not tragic ones.’”

Helwyze paused there abruptly; for the memory which served him so well outran his tongue, and recalled the closing sentence of the quotation,—words which he had no mind to utter then and there,—“Fate ought always to be terrible; and it is in the highest sense tragic, when it brings into a ruinous concatenation the guilty man and the guiltless with him.”

“Then you think I could write a play?” asked Canaris, with affected carelessness.

“I think you could act one, better than imagine or write it.”

“What, I?”

“Yes, you; because you are dramatic by nature, and it is easier for you to express yourself in gesture and tone, than by written or spoken language. You were born for an actor, are fitted for it in every way, and I advise you to try it. It would pay better than poetry; and that stream may run dry.”

Gladys looked indignant at what she thought bad advice and distasteful pleasantry; but Canaris seemed struck and charmed with the new idea, protesting that he would first write, then act, his play, and prove himself a universal genius.

No more was said just then; but long afterward the conversation came back to him like an inspiration, and was the seed of a purpose which, through patient effort, bore fruit in a brilliant and successful career: for Canaris, like many another man, did not know his own strength or weakness yet, neither the true gift nor the power of evil which lay unsuspected within him.

238So the old life began again, at least in outward seeming; but it was impossible for it to last long. The air was too full of the electricity of suppressed and conflicting emotions to be wholesome; former relations could not be resumed, because sincerity had gone out of them; and the quiet, which reigned for a time, was only the lull before the storm.

Gladys soon felt this, but tried to think it was owing to the contrast between the free, happy days she had enjoyed so much, and uttered no complaint; for Felix was busy with his play, sanguine as ever, inspired now by a nobler ambition than before, and happy in his work.

Helwyze had flattered himself that he could be content with the harmless shadow, since he could not possess the sweet substance of a love whose seeming purity was its most delusive danger. But he soon discovered “how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes;” and, even while he made no effort to rob Canaris of his treasure, he hated him for possessing it, finding the hatred all the more poignant, because it was his own hand which had forced Felix to seize and secure it. He had thought to hold and hide this new secret; but it held him, and would not be hidden, for it was 239stronger than even his strong will, and ruled him with a power which at times filled him with a sort of terror. Having allowed it to grow, and taken it to his bosom, he could not cast it out again, and it became a torment, not the comfort he had hoped to find it. His daily affliction was to see how much the young pair were to each other, to read in their faces a hundred happy hopes and confidences in which he had no part, and to remember the confession wrung from the lips dearest to him, that his death would bring to them their much-desired freedom.

At times he was minded to say “Go,” but the thought of the utter blank her absence would leave behind daunted him. Often an almost uncontrollable desire to tell her that which would mar her trust in her husband tempted him; for, having yielded to a greater temptation, all lesser ones seemed innocent beside it; and, worse than all, the old morbid longing for some excitement, painful even, if it could not be pleasurable, goaded him to the utterance of half truths, which irritated Canaris and perplexed Gladys, till she could no longer doubt the cause of this strange mood. It seemed as if her innocent hand gave the touch which set the 240avalanche slipping swiftly but silently to its destructive fall.

One day when Helwyze was pacing to and fro in the library, driven by the inward storm which no outward sign betrayed, except his excessive pallor and unusual restlessness, she looked up from her book, asking compassionately,—

“Are you suffering, sir?”


“Can I do nothing?”


She went on reading, as if glad to be left in peace; for distrust, as well as pity, looked out from her frank eyes, and there was no longer any pleasure in the duties she performed for Canaris’s sake.

But Helwyze, jealous even of the book which seemed to absorb her, soon paused again, to ask, in a calmer tone,—

“What interests you?”

“‘The Scarlet Letter.’”

The hands loosely clasped behind him were locked more closely by an involuntary gesture, as if the words made him wince; otherwise unmoved, he asked again, with the curiosity he often showed about her opinions of all she read,—

241“What do you think of Hester?”

“I admire her courage; for she repented, and did not hide her sin with a lie.”

“Then you must despise Dimmesdale?”

“I ought, perhaps; but I cannot help pitying his weakness, while I detest his deceit: he loved so much.”

“So did Roger;” and Helwyze drew nearer, with the peculiar flicker in his eyes, as of a light kindled suddenly behind a carefully drawn curtain.

“At first; then his love turned to hate, and he committed the unpardonable sin,” answered Gladys, much moved by that weird and wonderful picture of guilt and its atonement.

“The unpardonable sin!” echoed Helwyze, struck by her words and manner.

“Hawthorne somewhere describes it as ‘the want of love and reverence for the human soul, which makes a man pry into its mysterious depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold, philosophical curiosity. This would be the separation of the intellect from the heart: and this, perhaps, would be as unpardonable a sin as to doubt God, whom we cannot harm; for in doing this we must inevitably do great wrong both to ourselves and others.’”

As she spoke, fast and earnestly, Gladys felt herself upon the brink of a much-desired, but much-dreaded, explanation; for Canaris, while owning to her that there was a secret, would not tell it till Helwyze freed him from his promise. She thought that he delayed to ask this absolution till she was fitter to bear the truth, whatever it might be; and she had resolved to spare her husband the pain of an avowal, by demanding it herself of Helwyze. The moment seemed to have come, and both knew it; for he regarded her with the quick, piercing look which read her purpose before she could put it into words.

“You are right; yet Roger was the wronged one, and the others deserved to suffer.”

“They did; but Hester’s suffering ennobled her, because nobly borne; Dimmesdale’s destroyed him, because he paltered weakly with his conscience. Roger let his wrong turn him from a man into a devil, and deserves the contempt and horror he rouses in us. The keeping of the secret makes the romance; the confession of it is the moral, showing how falsehood can ruin a life, and truth only save it at the last.”

“Never have a secret, Gladys: they are hard masters, whom we hate, yet dare not rebel against.”

243His accent of sad sincerity seemed to clear the way for her, and she spoke out, briefly and bravely,—

“Sir, you dare any thing! Tell me what it is which makes Felix obey you against his will. He owns it, but will not speak till you consent. Tell me, I beseech you!”

“Could you bear it?” he asked, admiring her courage, yet doubtful of the wisdom of purchasing a moment’s satisfaction at such a cost; for, though he could cast down her idol, he dared not set up another in its place.

“Try me!” she cried: “nothing can lessen my love, and doubt afflicts me more than the hardest truth.”

“I fear not: with you love and respect go hand in hand, and some sins you would find very hard to pardon.”

Involuntarily Gladys shrunk a little, and her eye questioned his inscrutable face, as she answered slowly, thinking only of her husband,—

“Something very mean and false would be hard to forgive; but not some youthful fault, some shame borne for others, or even a crime, if a very human emotion, a generous but mistaken motive, led to it.”

“Then this secret is better left untold; for it 244would try you sorely to know that Felix had been guilty of the fault you find harder to forgive than a crime,—deceit. Wait a little, till you are accustomed to the thought, then you shall have the facts; and pity, even while you must despise, him.”

While he spoke, Gladys sat like one nerving herself to receive a blow; but at the last words she suddenly put up her hand as if to arrest it, saying, hurriedly,—

“No! do not tell me; I cannot bear it yet, nor from you. He shall tell me; it will be easier so, and less like treachery. O sir,” she added, in a passionately pleading tone, “use mercifully whatever bitter knowledge you possess! Remember how young he is, how neglected as a boy, how tempted he may have been; and deal generously, honorably with him,—and with me.”

Her voice broke there. She spread her hands before her eyes, and fled out of the room, as if in his face she read a more disastrous confession than any Felix could ever make. Helwyze stood motionless, looking as he looked the night she spoke more frankly but less forcibly: and when she vanished, he stole away to his own room, as he stole then; only now his usually colorless 245cheek burned with a fiery flush, and his hand went involuntarily to his breast, as if, like Dimmesdale, he carried an invisible scarlet letter branded there.