A Modern Mephistopheles: Chapter XVIII

by Louisa May Alcott

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come. Is this one?” was the vague feeling, rather than thought, of which Helwyze was dimly conscious, as he lay in what seemed a grave, so cold, so dead he felt; so powerless and pent, in what he fancied was his coffin. He remembered the slow rising of a tide of helplessness which chilled his blood and benumbed his brain, till the last idea to be distinguished was, “I am dying: shall I meet Gladys?” then came oblivion, and now, what was this?

Something was alive still—something which strove to see, move, speak, yet could not, till the mist, which obscured every sense, should clear away. A murmur was in the air, growing clearer every instant, as it rose and fell, like the muffled sound of waves upon a distant shore. Presently he recognized human voices, and the words they uttered,—words which had no meaning, till, like an electric shock, intelligence returned, bringing with it a great fear.

Olivia was mourning over him, and he felt her tears upon his face; but it was not this which stung him to sudden life,—it was another voice, saying, low, but with a terrible distinctness,—

“There is no hope. He may remain so for some years; but sooner or later the brain will share the paralysis of the body, and leave our poor friend in a state I grieve to think of.”

“No!” burst from Helwyze, with an effort which seemed to dispel the trance which held his faculties. Stir he could not, but speak he did, and opened wide the eyes which had been closed for hours. With the unutterable relief of one roused from a nightmare he recognized his own room, Olivia’s tender face bent over him, and his physician holding a hand that had no feeling in it.

“Not dead yet;” he muttered, with a feeble sort of exultation, adding, with as feeble a despair and doubt, “but she is. Did I dream that?”

“Alas, no!” and Olivia wiped away her own tears from the forehead which began to work with the rush of returning memory and thought.

“What does this numbness mean? Why are you here?” he asked, as his eye went from one face to the other.

“Dear Jasper, it means that you are ill. Stern found you unconscious in your chair last night. You are much better now, but it alarmed us, for we thought you dead,” replied Olivia, knowing that he would have the truth at any cost.

“I remember thinking it was death, and being glad of it. Why did you bring me back? I had no wish to come.”

She forgave the ingratitude, and went on chafing the cold hand so tenderly, that Helwyze reproached no more, but, turning to the physician, demanded, with a trace of the old imperiousness coming back into his feeble voice,—

“Is this to be the end of it?”

“I fear so, Mr. Helwyze. You will not suffer any more, let that comfort you.”

“My body may not, but my mind will suffer horribly. Good heavens, man, do you call this death in life a comfortable end? How long have I got to lie here watching my wits go?”

“It is impossible to say.”

“But certain, sooner or later?”

“There is a chance,—your brain has been overworked: it must have rest,” began the doctor, trying to soften the hard facts, since his patient would have them.

“Rest! kill me at once, then; annihilation 280would be far better than such rest as that. I will not lie here waiting for imbecility,—put an end to this, or let me!” cried Helwyze, struggling to lift his powerless right hand; and, finding it impossible, he looked about him with an impotent desperation which wrung Olivia’s heart, and alarmed the physician, although he had long foreseen this climax.

Both vainly tried to soothe and console; but after that one despairing appeal Helwyze turned his face to the wall, and lay so for hours. Asleep, they hoped, but in reality tasting the first bitterness of the punishment sent upon him as an expiation for the sin of misusing one of Heaven’s best gifts. No words could describe the terror such a fate had for him, since intellect had been his god, and he already felt it tottering to its fall. On what should he lean, if that were taken? where see any ray of hope to make the present endurable? where find any resignation to lighten the gloom of such a future?

Restless mind and lawless will, now imprisoned in a helpless body, preyed on each other like wild creatures caged, finding it impossible to escape, and as impossible to submit. Death would not have daunted him, pain he had learned to endure; but this slow decay of his most precious 281possession he could not bear, and suffered a new martyrdom infinitely sharper than the old.

How time went he never knew; for, although merciful unconsciousness was denied him, his thoughts, like avenging Furies, drove him from one bitter memory to another, probing his soul as he had probed others, and tormenting him with an almost supernatural activity of brain before its long rest began. Ages seemed to pass, while he took no heed of what went on about him. People came and went, faces bent over him, hands ministered to him, and voices whispered in the room. He knew all this, without the desire to do so, longing only to forget and be forgotten, with an increasing irritation, which slowly brought him back from that inner world of wordless pain to the outer one, which must be faced, and in some fashion endured.

Olivia still sat near him, as if she had not stirred, though it was morning when last he spoke, and now night had come. The familiar room was dim and still, every thing already ordered for his comfort, and the brilliant cousin had transformed herself into a quiet nurse. The rustling silks were replaced by a soft, gray gown; the ornaments all gone; even the fine hair was half-hidden by the little kerchief of lace tied over it. Yet never had Olivia been more beautiful; for now the haughty queen had changed to a sad woman, wearing for her sole ornaments constancy and love. Worn and weary she looked, but a sort of sorrowful content was visible, a jealous tenderness, which plainly told that for her, at least, there was a drop of honey even in the new affliction, since it made him more her own than ever.

“Poor soul! she promised to be faithful to the death; and she will be,—even such a death as this.”

A sigh, that was almost a groan, broke from Helwyze as the thought came, and Olivia was instantly at his side.

“Are you suffering, Jasper? What can I do for you?” she said, with such a passionate desire to serve or cheer, that he could not but answer, gently,—

“I am done with pain: teach me to be patient.”

“Oh, if I could! we must learn that together,” she said, feeling with him how sorely both would need the meek virtue to sustain the life before them.

“Where is Felix?” asked Helwyze, after lying for a while, with his eyes upon the fire, as 283if they would absorb its light and warmth into their melancholy depths.

“Mourning for Gladys,” replied Olivia, fearing to touch the dangerous topic, yet anxious to know how the two men stood toward one another; for something in the manner of the younger, when the elder was mentioned, made her suspect some stronger, sadder tie between them than the one she had already guessed.

“Does he know of this?” and Helwyze struck himself a feeble blow with the one hand which he could use, now lying on his breast.


“What does he say of me?”


“I must see him.”

“You shall. I asked him if he had no word for you, and he answered, with a strange expression, ‘When I have buried my dead I will come, for the last time.’”

“How does he look?” questioned Helwyze, curious to see, even through another’s eyes, the effect of sorrow upon the man whom he had watched so long and closely.

“Sadly broken; but he is young and sanguine: he will soon forget, and be happy again; so do not let a thought of him disturb you, Jasper.”

“It does not: we made our bargain, and held each other to it, till he chose to break it. Let him bear the consequences, as I do.”

“Alas, they fall on him far less heavily than on you! He has all the world before him where to choose, while you have nothing left—but me.”

He did not seem to hear her, and fell into a gloomy reverie, which she dared not break, but sat, patiently beguiling her lonely watch with sad thoughts of the twilight future they were to share together,—a future which might have been so beautiful and happy, had true love earlier made them one.

Another day, another night, then there were sounds about the house which told Helwyze what was passing, without the need of any question. He asked none; but lay silent for the most part, as if careless or unconscious of what went on around him. He missed Olivia for an hour, and when she returned, traces of tears upon her cheeks told him that she had been to say farewell to Gladys. He had not spoken that name even to himself; for now an immeasurable space seemed to lie between him and its gentle owner. She had gone into a world whither he could not follow her. A veil, invisible, yet impenetrable, 285separated them for ever, he believed, and nothing remained to him but a memory that would not die,—a memory so bitter-sweet, so made up of remorse and reverence, love and longing, that it seemed to waken his heart from its long sleep, and kindle in it a spark of the divine fire, whose flame purified while it consumed; for even in his darkness and desolation he was not forgotten.

Late that day Canaris came, looking like a man escaped from a great shipwreck, with nothing left him but his life. Unannounced he entered, and, with the brevity which in moments of strong feeling is more expressive than eloquence, he said,—

“I am going.”

“Where?” asked Helwyze, conscious that any semblance of friendship, any word of sympathy, was impossible between them.

“Out into the world again.”

“What will you do?”

“Any honest work I can find.”

“Let me”—

“No! I will take nothing from you. Poor as I came, I will go,—except the few relics I possess of her.”

A traitorous tremor in the voice which was 286stern with repressed emotion warned Canaris to pause there, while his eye turned to Olivia, as if reminded of some last debt to her. From his breast he drew a little paper, unfolded it, and took out what looked like a massive ring of gold; this he laid before her, saying, with a softened mien and accent,—

“You were very kind,—I have nothing else to offer,—let me give you this, in memory of Gladys.”

Only a tress of sunny hair; but Olivia received the gift as if it were a very precious one, thanking him, not only with wet eyes, but friendly words.

“Dear Felix, for her sake let me help you, if I can. Do not go away so lonely, purposeless, and poor. The world is hard; you will be disheartened, and turn desperate, with no one to love and hope and work for.”

“I must help myself. I am poor; but not purposeless, nor alone. Disheartened I may be: never desperate again; for I have some one to love and hope and work for. She is waiting for me somewhere: I must make myself worthy to follow and find her. I have promised; and, God helping me, I will keep that promise.”

Very humble, yet hopeful, was the voice; and full of a sad courage was the young man’s altered face,—for out of it the gladness and the bloom of youth had gone for ever, leaving the strength of a noble purpose to confront a life which hereafter should be honest, if not happy.

Helwyze had not the infinite patience to work in marble; the power to chisel even his own divided nature into harmony, like the sculptor, who, in the likeness of a suffering saint, hewed his own features out of granite. He could only work in clay, as caprice inspired or circumstance suggested; forgetting that life’s stream of mixed and molten metals would flow over his faulty models, fixing unalterably both beauty and blemish. He had found the youth plastic as clay, had shaped him as he would; till, tiring of the task, he had been ready to destroy his work. But the hand of a greater Master had dropped into the furnace the gold of an enduring love, to brighten the bronze in which suffering and time were to cast the statue of the man. Helwyze saw this now, and a pang of something sharper than remorse wrung from him the reluctant words,—

“Take, as my last gift, the fame which has cost you so much. I will never claim it: to me it is an added affliction, to you it may be a help. Keep it, I implore you, and give me the pardon she asked of you.”

But Canaris turned on him with the air of one who cries, “Get thee behind me!” and answered with enough of the old vehemence to prove that grief had not yet subdued the passionate spirit which had been his undoing,—

“It is no longer in your power to tempt me, or in mine to be tempted, by my bosom sin. Forsythe knows the truth, and the world already wonders. I will earn a better fame for myself: keep this, and enjoy it, if you can. Pardon I cannot promise yet; but I give you my pity, ‘for her sake.’”

With that—the bitterest word he could have uttered—Canaris was gone, leaving Helwyze to writhe under the double burden imposed by one more just than generous. Olivia durst not speak; and, in the silence, both listened to the hasty footsteps that passed from room to room, till a door closed loudly, and they knew that Canaris had set forth upon that long pilgrimage which was in time to lead him up to Gladys.

Helwyze spoke first, exclaiming, with a dreary laugh,—

“So much for playing Providence! You were right, and I was rash to try it. Goethe could 289make his Satan as he liked; but Fate was stronger than I, and so comes ignominious failure. Margaret dies, and Faust suffers, but Mephistopheles cannot go with him on his new wanderings. Still, it holds—it holds even to the last! My end comes too soon; yet it is true. In loving the angel I lose the soul I had nearly won; the roses turn to flakes of fire, and the poor devil is left lamenting.”

Olivia thought him wandering, and listened in alarm; for his thoughts seemed blown to and fro, like leaves in a fitful gust, and she had no clew to them. Presently, he broke out again, still haunted by the real tragedy in which he had borne a part; still following Canaris, whose freedom was like the thought of water to parched Tantalus.

“He will do it! he will do it! When or how, who shall say? but, soon or late, she will save him, since he believes in such salvation. Would that I did!”

Perhaps the despairing wish was the seed of a future hope, which might blossom into belief. Olivia trusted so, and tried to murmur some comfortable, though vague, assurance of a love and pity greater even than hers. He did not hear her; for his eyes were fixed, with an expression of agonized yearning, upon the sky, serene and beautiful, but infinitely distant, inexorably dumb; and, when he spoke, his words had in them both his punishment and her own,—

“Life before was Purgatory, now it is Hell; because I loved her, and I have no hope to follow and find her again.”