A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XVII

by Louisa May Alcott


“Yes, sir.”

“What time is it?”

“Past two, sir.”

“What news? I see bad tidings of some sort in that lugubrious face of yours; out with it!”

“The little boy arrived at dawn, sir,” answered old Stern, with a paternal air.

“What little boy?”

“Canaris, Jr., sir,” simpered the valet, venturing to be jocose.

“The deuce he did! Precipitate, like his father. Where is Felix?”

“With her, sir. In a state of mind, as well he may be, letting that delicate young thing sit up to keep him company over his poetry stuff,” muttered Stern, busying himself with the shutters.

“Sit up! when? where? what are you maundering about, man?” and Helwyze himself sat up among the pillows, looking unusually wide-awake.

“Last night, sir, in the study. Mr. Felix made me go for a wink of sleep, and when I came back, about one, there sat Mrs. Canaris as white as her gown, and him looking as wild as a hawk. Something was amiss, I could see plain enough, but it wasn’t my place to ask questions; so I just made bold to suggest that it was late for her to be up, and he took her away, looking dazed-like. That’s all I know, sir, till I found the women in a great flustration this morning.”

“And I slept through it all?”

“Yes, sir; so soundly, I was a bit anxious till you waked. I found the glass empty and the bottle smashed, and I was afraid you might have taken too much of that choral while half-asleep.”

“No fear; nothing kills me. Now get me up;” and Helwyze made his toilet with a speed and energy which caused Stern to consider “choral” a wonderful discovery.

A pretence of breakfast; then Helwyze sat down to wait for further tidings,—externally quite calm, internally tormented by a great anxiety, till Olivia came in, full of cheering news and sanguine expectations.

269“Gladys is asleep, with baby on her arm, and Felix adoring in the background. Poor boy! he cannot bear much, and is quite bowed down with remorse for something he has done. Do you know what?”

As she spoke, Olivia stooped to pick up a book half-hidden by the fringe of a low chair. It lay face downward, and, in smoothing the crumpled leaves before closing it, she caught sight of a black and blotted name. So did Helwyze; a look of intelligence flashed over his face, and, taking the volume quickly, he answered, with his finger on the title-page,—

“Yes, now I know, and so may you; for if one woman is in the secret, it will soon be out. Felix wrote that, and it is true.”

“I thought so! One woman has known it for a long time; nevertheless, the secret was kept for your sake;” and Olivia’s dark face sparkled with malicious merriment, as she saw the expression of mingled annoyance, pride, and pleasure in his.

“My compliments and thanks: you are the eighth wonder of the world. But what led you to suspect this little fraud of ours?”

“I did not, till the last book came; then I was struck here and there by certain peculiar phrases, certain tender epithets, which I think no one ever heard from your lips but me. These, in the hero’s mouth, made me sure that you had helped Canaris, if not done the whole yourself, and his odd manner at times confirmed my suspicion.”

“You have a good memory: I forgot that.”

“I have had so few such words from you that it is easy to remember them,” murmured Olivia, reproachfully.

It seemed to touch him; for just then he felt deserted, well knowing that he had lost both Felix and Gladys; but Olivia never would desert him, no matter what discovery was made, or who might fall away. He thanked her for her devotion, with the first ray of hope given for years, as he said, in the tone so seldom heard,—

“You shall have more henceforth; for you are a staunch friend, and now I have no other.”

“Dear Jasper, you shall never find me wanting. I will be true to the death!” she cried, blooming suddenly into her best and brightest beauty, with the delight of this rare moment. Then, fearing to express too much, she wisely turned again to Felix, asking curiously, “But why did you let this young daw deck himself out in your plumes? It enrages me, to think 271of his receiving the praise and honor due to you.”

He told her briefly, adding, with more than his accustomed bitterness,—

“What did I want with praise and honor? To be gaped and gossiped about would have driven me mad. It pleased that vain boy as much as fooling the public amused me. A whim, and, being a dishonest one, we shall both have to pay for it, I suppose.”

“What will he do?”

“He has told Gladys, to begin with; and, if it had been possible, would have taken some decisive step to-day. He can do nothing sagely and quietly: there must be a dramatic dénouement to every chapter of his life. I think he has one now.” Helwyze laughed, as he struck back the leaves of the book he still held, and looked at the dashing signature of his own name.

“He wrote that, then?” asked Olivia.

“Yes, here, at midnight, while I lay asleep and let him tell the tale as he liked to Gladys. No wonder it startled her, so tragically given. The sequel may be more tragic yet: I seem to feel it in the air.”

“What shall you do?” asked Olivia, more anxiously than before; for Helwyze looked up with as sinister an expression as if he knew how desperate an enemy had stood over him last night, and when his own turn came, would be less merciful.

“Do? Nothing. They will go; I shall stay; tongues will wag, and I shall be tormented. I shall seem the gainer, he the loser; but it will not be so.”

Involuntarily his eye went to the little chair where Gladys would sit no longer, and darkened as if some light had gone out which used to cheer and comfort him. Olivia saw it, and could not restrain the question that broke from her lips,—

“You do love her, Jasper?”

“I shall miss her; but you shall take her place.”

Calm and a little scornful was his face, his voice quite steady, and a smile was shed upon her with the last welcome words. But Olivia was not deceived: the calmness was unnatural, the voice too steady, the smile too sudden; and her heart sank as she thanked him, without another question. For a while they sat together playing well their parts, then she went away to Gladys, and he was left to several hours of solitary musing.

273Had he been a better man, he would not have sinned; had he been a worse one, he could not have suffered; being what he was, he did both, and, having no one else to study now, looked deeply into himself, and was dismayed at what he saw. For the new love, purer, yet more hopeless than the old, shone like a star above an abyss, showing him whither he had wandered in the dark.

Sunset came, filling the room with its soft splendor; and he watched the red rays linger longest in Gladys’s corner. Her little basket stood as she left it, her books lay orderly, her desk was shut, a dead flower drooped from the slender vase, and across the couch trailed a soft white shawl she had been wont to wear. Helwyze did not approach the spot, but stood afar off looking at these small familiar things with the melancholy fortitude of one inured to loss and pain. Regret rather than remorse possessed him as he thought, drearily,—

“A year to-morrow since she came. How shall I exist without her? Where will her new home be?”

An answer was soon given to the last question; for, while his fancy still hovered about that nook, and the gentle presence which had vanished as the sunshine was fast vanishing, Canaris came in wearing such an expression of despair, that Helwyze recoiled, leaving half-uttered a playful inquiry about “the little son.”

“I have no son.”


“Dead. I have murdered both.”

“But Gladys?”

“Dying; she asks for you,—come!” No need of that hoarse command; Helwyze was gone at the first word, swiftly through room and hall, up the stairs he had not mounted for months, straight to that chamber-door. There a hand clutched his shoulder, a breathless voice said, “Here I am first;” and Canaris passed in before him, motioning away a group of tearful women as he went.

Helwyze lingered, pale and panting, till they were gone; then he looked and listened, as if turned to stone, for in the heart of the hush lay Gladys, talking softly to the dead baby on her arm. Not mourning over it, but yearning with maternal haste to follow and cherish the creature of her love.

“Only a day old; so young to go away alone. Even in heaven you will want your mother, darling, and she will come. Sleep, my baby, I will be with you when you wake.”

A stifled sound of anguish recalled the happy soul, already half-way home, and Gladys turned her quiet eyes to her husband bending over her.

“Dear, will he come?” she whispered.

“He is here.”

He was; and, standing on either side the bed, the two men seemed unconscious of each other, intent only upon her. Feebly she drew the white cover over the little cold thing in her bosom, as if too sacred for any eyes but hers to see, then lifted up her hand with a beseeching glance from one haggard face to the other. They understood; each gave the hand she asked, and, holding them together with the last effort of failing strength, she said, clear and low,—

“Forgive each other for my sake.”

Neither spoke, having no words, but by a mute gesture answered as she wished. Something brighter than a smile rested on her face, and, as if satisfied, she turned again to Canaris, seeming to forget all else in the tender farewell she gave him.

“Remember, love, remember we shall be waiting for you. The new home will not be home to us until you come.”

As her detaining touch was lifted, the two hands fell apart, never to meet again. Canaris 276knelt down to lay his head beside hers on the pillow, to catch the last accents of the beloved voice, sweet even now. Helwyze, forgotten by them both, drew back into the shadow of the deep red curtains, still studying with an awful curiosity the great mystery of death, asking, even while his heart grew cold within him,—

“Will the faith she trusted sustain her now?”

It did; for, leaning on the bosom of Infinite Love, like a confiding child in its father’s arms, without a doubt or fear to mar her peace, a murmur or lament to make the parting harder, Gladys went to her own place.