A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XVI

by Louisa May Alcott

Neither had heard the door of that inner room open quietly; neither had seen Canaris stand upon the threshold for an instant, then draw back, looking as if he had found another skeleton to hide in the cell where he was laboring at the third act of the tragedy which he was to live, not write.

He had heard the last words Gladys said, he had seen the last look Helwyze wore, and, like a flash of lightning, the truth struck and stunned him. At first he sat staring aghast at the thing he plainly saw, yet hardly comprehended. Then a sort of fury seized and shook him, as he sprang up with hands clenched, eyes ablaze, looking as if about to instantly avenge the deadliest injury one man could do another. But the half savage self-control adversity had taught stood him in good stead now, curbing the first natural but reckless wrath which nerved every fibre of his strong young body with an almost irresistible impulse to kill Helwyze without a word.

The gust of blind passion subsided quickly into a calmer, but not less dangerous, mood; and, fearing to trust himself so near his enemy, Canaris rushed away, to walk fast and far, unconscious where he went, till the autumnal gloaming brought him back, master of himself, he thought.

While he wandered aimlessly about the city, he had been recalling the past with the vivid skill which at such intense moments seems to bring back half-forgotten words, apparently unnoticed actions, and unconscious impressions; as fire causes invisible letters to stand out upon a page where they are traced in sympathetic ink.

Not a doubt of Gladys disturbed the ever-deepening current of a love the more precious for its newness, the more powerful for its ennobling influence. But every instinct of his nature rose in revolt against Helwyze, all the more rebellious and resentful for the long subjection in which he had been held.

A master stronger than the ambition which had been the ruling passion of his life so far asserted its supremacy now, and made it possible for him to pay the price of liberty without further weak delay or unmanly regret.

This he resolved upon, and this he believed he could accomplish safely and soon. But if Helwyze, with far greater skill and self-control, had failed to guide or subdue the conflicting passions let loose among them, how could Canaris hope to do it, or retard by so much as one minute the irresistible consequences of their acts? “The providence of God cannot be hurried,” and His retribution falls at the appointed time, saving, even when it seems to destroy.

Returning resolute but weary, Canaris was relieved to find that a still longer reprieve was granted him; for Olivia was there, and Gladys apparently absorbed in the tender toil women love, making ready for the Christmas gift she hoped to give him. Helwyze sent word that he was suffering one of his bad attacks, and bade them all good-night; so there was nothing to mar the last quiet evening these three were ever to pass together.

When Canaris had seen Olivia to the winter quarters she inhabited near by, he went up to his own room, where Gladys lay, looking like a child who had cried itself to sleep. The sight of the pathetic patience touched with slumber’s peace, in the tear-stained face upon the pillow, wrung his heart, and, stooping, he softly kissed 249the hand upon the coverlet,—the small hand that wore a wedding-ring, now grown too large for it.

“God bless my dearest!” he whispered, with a sob in his throat. “Out of this accursed house she shall go to-morrow, though I leave all but love and liberty behind me.”

Sleepless, impatient, and harassed by thoughts that would not let him rest, he yielded to the uncanny attraction which the library now had for him, and went down again, deluding himself with the idea that he could utilize emotion and work for an hour or two.

The familiar room looked strange to him; and when the door of Helwyze’s apartment opened quietly, he started, although it was only Stern, coming to nap before the comfortable fire. Something in Canaris’s expectant air and attitude made the man answer the question his face seemed to ask.

“Quiet at last, sir. He has had no sleep for many nights, and is fairly worn out.”

“You look so, too. Go and rest a little. I shall be here writing for several hours, and can see to him,” said Canaris, kindly, as the poor old fellow respectfully tried to swallow a portentous gape behind his hand.

“Thank you, Mr. Felix: it would be a comfort just to lose myself. Master is not likely to want any thing; but, if he should call, just step and give him his drops, please. They are all ready. I fixed them myself: he is so careless when he is half-asleep, and, not being used to this new stuff, an overdose might kill him.”

Giving these directions, Stern departed with alacrity, and left Canaris to his watch. He had often done as much before, but never with such a sense of satisfaction as now; and though he carefully abstained from giving himself a reason for the act, no sooner had the valet gone than he went to look in upon Helwyze, longing to call out commandingly, “Wake, and hear me!”

But the helplessness of the man disarmed him, the peaceful expression of the sharp, white features mutely reproached him, the recollection of what he would awaken to made Canaris ashamed to exult over a defeated enemy; and he turned away, with an almost compassionate glance at the straight, still figure, clearly defined against the dusky background of the darkened room.

“He looks as if he were dead.”

Canaris did not speak aloud, but it seemed as if a voice echoed the words with a suggestive 251emphasis, that made him pause as he approached the study-table, conscious of a quick thrill of comprehension tingling through him like an answer. Why he covered both ears with a sudden gesture, he could not tell, nor why he hastily seated himself, caught up the first book at hand and began to read without knowing what he read. Only for an instant, however, then the words grew clear before him, and his eyes rested on this line,—

“σύ θην ἃ χρῄζεις, ταῦτ’ ἐπιγλωσσᾷ Διός.”[1] He dropped the book, as if it had burnt him, and looked over his shoulder, almost expecting to see the dark thought lurking in his mind take shape before him. Empty, dim, and quiet was the lofty room; but a troubled spirit and distempered imagination peopled it with such vivid and tormenting phantoms of the past, the present and the future, that he scarcely knew whether he was awake or dreaming, as he sat there alone, waiting for midnight, and the spectre of an uncommitted deed.

His wandering eye fell on a leaf of paper, lying half-shrivelled by the heat of the red fire. 252This recalled the hour when, in the act of burning that first manuscript, Helwyze had saved him, and all that followed shortly after.

Not a pleasant memory, it seemed; for his face darkened, and his glance turned to a purple-covered volume, left on the low chair where Gladys usually sat, and often read in that beloved book. A still more bitter recollection bowed his head at sight of it, till some newer, sharper thought seemed to pierce him with a sudden stab, and he laid his clenched hand on the pile of papers before him, as if taking an oath more binding than the one made there nearly three years ago.

He had been reading Shakespeare lately, for one may copy the great masters; and now, as he tried with feverish energy to work upon his play, the grim or gracious models he had been studying seemed to rise and live before him. But one and all were made subject to the strong passions which ruled him; jealousy, ambition, revenge, and love wore their appropriate guise, acted their appropriate parts, and made him one with them. Othello would only show himself as stabbing the perfidious Iago; Macbeth always grasped at the air-drawn dagger; Hamlet was continually completing his fateful task; and Romeo whispered, with the little vial at his lips,—

“Oh, true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick.” Canaris tried to chase away these troubled spirits; but they would not down, and, yielding to them, he let his mind wander as it would, till he had “supped full of horrors,” feeling as if in the grasp of a nightmare which led him, conscious, but powerless, toward some catastrophe forefelt, rather than foreseen. How long this lasted he never knew; for nothing broke the silence growing momently more terrible as he listened to the stealthy tread of the temptation coming nearer and nearer, till it appeared in the likeness of himself, while a voice said, in the ordinary tone which so often makes dreams grotesque at their most painful climax,—

“Master is so careless when half-asleep; and, not being used to this new stuff, an overdose might kill him.”

As if these words were the summons for which he had been waiting, Canaris rose up suddenly and went into that other room, too entirely absorbed by the hurrying emotions which swept him away to see what looked like a new phantom coming in. It might have been the shade of 254young Juliet, gentle Desdemona, poor Ophelia, or, better still the eidolen of Margaret wandering, pale and pensive, through the baleful darkness of this Walpurgis Nacht.

He did not see it; he saw nothing but the glass upon the table where the dim light burned, the little vial with its colorless contents, and Helwyze stirring in his bed, as if about to wake and speak. Conscious only of the purpose which now wholly dominated him, Canaris, without either haste or hesitation, took the bottle, uncorked, and held it over the glass half-filled with water. But before a single drop could fall a cold hand touched his own, and, with a start that crushed the vial in his grasp, he found himself eye to eye with Gladys.

Guilt was frozen upon his face, terror upon hers; but neither spoke, for a third voice muttered drowsily, “Stern, give me more; don’t rouse me.”

Canaris could not stir; Gladys whispered, with white lips, and her hand upon the cup,—“Dare I give it?”

He could only answer by a sign, and cowered into the shadow, while she put the draught to Helwyze’s lips, fearing to let him waken now. He drank drowsily, yet seemed half-conscious of 255her presence; for he looked up with sleep-drunken eyes, and murmured, as if to the familiar figure of a dream,—

“Mine asleep, his awake,” then whispering brokenly about “Felix, Vivien, and daring any thing,” he was gone again into the lethargy which alone could bring forgetfulness.

Gladys feared her husband would hear the almost inaudible words; but he had vanished, and when she glided out to join him, carefully closing the door behind her, a glance showed that her fear was true.

Relieved, yet not repentant, he stood there looking at a red stain on his hand with such a desperate expression that Gladys could only cling to him, saying, in a terror-stricken whisper,—

“Felix, for God’s sake, come away! What are you doing here?”

“Going mad, I think,” he answered, under his breath; but added, lifting up his hand with an ominous gesture, “I would have done it if you had not stopped me. It would be better for us all if he were dead.”

“Not so; thank Heaven I came in time to save you from the sin of murder!” she said, holding fast the hand as yet unstained by any blood but its own.

“I have committed murder in my heart. Why not profit by the sin, since it is there? I hate that man! I have cause, and you know it.”

“No, no, not all! You shall tell me every thing; but not now, not here.”

“The time has come, and this is the place to tell it. Sit there and listen. I must untie or cut the snarl to-night.”

He pointed to the great chair; and, grateful for any thing that could change or stem the dangerous current of his thoughts, Gladys sank down, feeling as if, after this shock, she was prepared for any discovery or disaster. Canaris stood before her, white and stern, as if he were both judge and culprit; for a sombre wrath still burned in his eye, and his face worked with the mingled shame and contempt warring within him.

“I heard and saw this afternoon, when you two talked together yonder, and I knew then what made you so glad to go away, so loath to come back. You have had a secret as well as I.”

“I was never sure until to-day. Do not speak of that: it is enough to know it, and forget it if we can. Tell your secret: it has burdened you so long, you will be glad to end it. He would have done so, but I would not let him.”

“I thought it would be hard to tell you, yet now my fault looks so small and innocent beside his, I can confess without much shame or fear.”

But it was not easy; for he had gone so far into a deeper, darker world that night, it was difficult to come to lesser sins and lighter thoughts. As he hesitated for a word, his eye fell upon the purple-covered book, and he saw a way to shorten his confession. Catching up a pen, he bent over the volume an instant, then handed it to Gladys, open at the title-page. She knew it,—the dear romance, worn with much reading,—and looked wonderingly at the black mark drawn through the name, “Felix Canaris,” and the words, “Jasper Helwyze,” written boldly below.

“What does it mean?” she asked, refusing to believe the discovery which the expression of his averted face confirmed.

“That I am a living lie. He wrote that book.”


“Every line.”

“But not the other?” she said; clinging to a last hope, as every thing seemed falling about her.

“All, except half a dozen of the songs.”

Down dropped the book between them,—now a thing of little worth,—and, trying to conceal 258from him the contempt which even love could not repress, Gladys hid her face, with one reproach, the bitterest she could have uttered,—

“O my husband! did you give up honor, liberty, and peace for so poor a thing as that?”

It cut him to the soul: for now he saw how high a price he had paid for an empty name; how mean and poor his ambition looked; how truly he deserved to be despised for that of which he had striven to be proud. Gladys had so rejoiced over him as a poet, that it was the hardest task of all to put off his borrowed singing-robes, and show himself an ordinary man. He forgot that there was any other tribunal than this, as he stood waiting for his sentence, oppressed with the fear that out of her almost stern sense of honor she might condemn him to the loss of the respect and confidence which he had lately learned to value as much as happiness and love.

“You must despise me; but if you knew”—he humbly began, unable to bear the silence longer.

“Tell me, then. I will not judge until I know;” and Gladys, just, even in her sorrow, looked up with an expression which said plainer than words, “For better, for worse; this is the worse, but I love you still.”

That made it possible for him to go on, fast and low, not stopping to choose phrases, but pouring out the little story of his temptation and fall, with a sense of intense relief that he was done with slavery for ever.

“Neither of us coolly planned this thing; it came about so simply and naturally, it seemed a mere accident.—And yet, who can tell what he might have planned, seeing how weak I was, how ready to be tempted.—It happened in that second month, when I promised to stay; he to help me with my book. It was all mine then; but when we came to look at it, there was not enough to fill even the most modest volume; for I had burnt many, and must recall them, or write more. I tried honestly, but the power was not in me, and I fell into despair again; for the desire to be known was the breath of my life.”

“You will be, if not in this way, in some other; for power of some sort is in you. Believe it, and wait for it to show itself,” said Gladys, anxious to add patience and courage to the new humility and sincerity, which could not fail to ennoble and strengthen him in time.

“Bless you for that!” he answered, gratefully, and hurried on. “It came about in this wise: one day my master—he was then, but is no 260longer, thank God!—sat reading over a mass of old papers, before destroying them. Here he came upon verses written in the diaries kept years ago, and threw them to me, ‘to laugh over,’ as he said. I did not laugh: I was filled with envy and admiration, and begged him to publish them. He scorned the idea, and bade me put them in the fire. I begged to keep them, and then,—Gladys, I swear to you I cannot tell whether I read the project in his face, or whether my own evil genius put it into my head,—then I said, audaciously, though hardly dreaming he would consent, ‘You do not care for fame, and throw these away as worthless: I long for it, and see more power in these than in any I can hope to write for years, perhaps; let me add them to mine, and see what will come of it.’ ‘Put your own name to them, if you do, and take the consequences,’ he answered, in that brusque way of his, which seems so careless, yet is so often premeditated. I assented, as I would have done to any thing that promised a quick trial of my talent; for in my secret soul I thought some of my songs better than his metaphysical verses, which impressed, rather than charmed me. The small imposture seemed to amuse him; I had few scruples then, and we 261did it, with much private jesting about Beaumont and Fletcher, literary frauds, and borrowed plumage. You know the rest. The book succeeded, but he saved it; and the critics left me small consolation, for my songs were ignored as youthful ditties, his poems won all the praise, and I was pronounced a second Shelley.”

“But he? Did he claim no share of the glory? Was he content to let you have it all?” questioned Gladys, trying to understand a thing so foreign to her nature that it seemed incredible.

“Yes; I offered to come down from my high place, as soon as I realized how little right I had to it. But he forbade me, saying, what I was fool enough to believe, that my talent only needed time and culture, and the sunshine of success to ripen it; that notoriety would be a burden to him, since he had neither health to sustain nor spirits to enjoy it; that in me he would live his youth over again, and, in return for such help as he could give, I should be a son to him. That touched and won me; now I can see in it a trap to catch and hold me, that he might amuse himself with my folly, play the generous patron, and twist my life to suit his ends. He likes curious and costly toys; he had one then, and has not paid for it yet.”

“This other book? Tell me of that, and speak low, or he may hear us,” whispered Gladys, trembling lest fire and powder should meet.

With a motion of his foot Canaris sent the book that lay between them spinning across the hearth-rug out of sight, and answered, with a short, exultant laugh,—

“Ah! there the fowler was taken in his own snare. I did not see it then, and found it hard to understand why he should exert himself to please you by helping me. I thought it was a mere freak of literary rivalry; and, when I taxed him with it, he owned that, though he cared nothing for the world’s praise, it was pleasant to know that his powers were still unimpaired, and be able to laugh in his sleeve at the deluded critics. That was like him, and it deceived me till to-day. Now I know that he begrudged me your admiration, wanted your tears and smiles for himself, and did not hesitate to steal them. The night he so adroitly read his work for mine, he tempted me through you. I had resolved to deserve the love and honor you gave me; and again I tried, and again I failed, for my romance was a poor, pale thing to his. He had read it; and, taking the same plot, made it what you 263know, writing as only such a man could write, when a strong motive stimulated him to do his best.”

“But why did you submit? Why stand silent and let him do so false a thing?” cried poor Gladys, wondering when the end of the tangle would come.

“At first his coolness staggered me; then I was curious to hear, then held even, against my will, by admiration of the thing—and you. I meant to speak out, I longed to do it; but it was very hard, while you were praising me so eloquently. The words were on my lips, when in his face I saw a look that sealed them. He meant that I should utter the self-accusation which would lower me for ever and raise him in your regard. I could not bear it. There was no time to think, only to feel, and I vowed to make you happy, at all costs. I hardly thought he would submit; but he did, and I believed that it was through surprise at being outwitted for the moment, or pity towards you. It was neither: he fancied I had discovered his secret, and he dared not defy me then.”

“But when I was gone? You were so late that night: I heard your voices, sharp and angry, as I went away.”

“Yes; that was my hour, and I enjoyed it. He had often twitted me with the hold he had on my name and fame, and I bore it; for, till I loved you, they were the dearest things I owned. That night I told him he should not speak; that you should enjoy your pride in me, even at his expense, and I refused to release him from his bond, as he had, more than once, refused to release me: for we had sworn never to confess till both agreed to it. Good heavens! how low he must have thought I had fallen, if I could consent to buy your happiness at the cost of my honor! He did think it: that made him yield; that is the cause of the contempt he has not cared to hide from me since then; and that adds a double edge to my hatred now. I was to be knave as well as fool; and while I blinded myself with his reflected light, he would have filched my one jewel from me. Gladys, save me, keep me, or I shall do something desperate yet!”

Beside himself with humiliation, remorse, and wrath, Canaris flung himself down before her, as if only by clinging to that frail spar could he ride out the storm in which he was lost without compass or rudder.

Then Gladys showed him that such love as 265hers could not fail, but, like an altar-fire, glowed the stronger for every costly sacrifice thrown therein. Lifting up the discrowned head, she laid it on her bosom with a sweet motherliness which comforted more than her tender words.

“My poor Felix! you have suffered enough for this deceit; I forgive it, and keep my reproaches for the false friend who led you astray.”

“It was so paltry, weak, and selfish. You must despise me,” he said, wistfully, still thinking more of his own pain than hers.

“I do despise the sin, not the dear sinner who repents and is an honest man again.”

“But a beggar.”

“We have each other. Hush! stand up; some one is coming.”

Canaris had barely time to spring to his feet, when Stern came in, and was about to pass on in silence, though much amazed to see Gladys there at that hour, when the expression of the young man’s face made him forget decorum and stop short, exclaiming, anxiously,—

“Mr. Felix, what’s the matter? Is master worse?”

“Safe and asleep. Mrs. Canaris came to see what I was about.”

“Then, sir, if I may make so bold, the sooner she gets to bed again the better. It is far too late for her to be down here; the poor young lady looks half-dead,” Stern whispered, with the freedom of an old servant.

“You are right. Come, love;” and without another word Canaris led her away, leaving Stern to shake his gray head as he looked after them.

Gladys was utterly exhausted; and in the hall she faltered, saying, with a patient sigh, as she looked up the long stairway, “Dear, wait a little; it is so far,—my strength is all gone.”

Canaris caught her in his arms and carried her away, asking himself, with a remorseful pang that rent his heart,—

“Is this the murder I have committed?”