A Village Ophelia and Other Stories
by Anne Reeve Aldrich
Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse

"'How could I endure such sights?' Oh! well, one gets hardened to anything, you know, and to tell the truth, I was in search of a new sensation, and I found it. I watched with as much fascination as the savages—no, more—for it was new to me and old to them. Oh! come, Lewis, you needn't draw off your chair; and that reproving, Sunday-school expression is rather refreshing from a man who upholds vivisection. I tell you candidly that there is nothing on earth comparable to the fearful, curious combination of pleasure and horror with which one watches torture one is powerless to stop. It is morbid, and probably loathsome. No. It is not morbid, after all; it is natural, and not a diseased state of mind. Have you never seen a sweet little child, with a face like an angel, pull the wings from a butterfly, or half kill a pet animal, and laugh joyfully when it writhed about? I have. The natural man loves bloodshed, and loves to hurt men and creatures. It is bred in the bone with all of us, only, as far as the body is concerned, this love is an almost impotent factor in modern civilization, for we have deified the soul and intellect to such an extent, that it is them we seek to goad and wound, when the lust of cruelty oppresses us, since they have grown to be considered the more important part; and we know, too, that the embittered soul avenges itself upon its own body, so that we strike the subtler blow. What we call teasing, is the most diluted form of the appetite. Well, this is wide of the mark, I suppose. At any rate, my dusky friends, presumably having no sensitive souls to attack, did their very best with their enemies' bodies, and as I was saying, theirs was no mean accomplishment in that line.

"I am not going to wound your susceptibilities by describing some of the functions which I have witnessed under that blazing sun. I will only tell you that during one especial occasion of rejoicing, a feast was given after a victory over a neighboring tribe, when the bound captives were piled together in black, shining heaps, that had a constant vermicular movement, each human pile guarded by a soldier. The chief at whose right hand I sat, being filled with joy, as well as rather too much drink, began boasting to me of the glories of his tribe, of his possessions, of the valor of his warriors, and above all of the great wisdom and learning of his medicine-man, who was beyond all wizards, and upon whom witchcraft was powerless, and who prepared a poison for such of the chief's enemies as it was not expedient to openly destroy; and this poison, he explained to me, was of a secret and mysterious nature, and unknown to any other tribe.

"My curiosity was somewhat aroused, and I questioned him, whereupon he told me that the drug, being tasteless, was given in food or drink, and that the victim was seized with a terrible and immeasurable sadness and depth of despair, in which life appeared too horrible to endure, and which the unfortunate always ended by seizing a weapon of some sort and killing himself; and the chief, being of an inquiring mind, had caused the poison to be administered to a man who was carefully guarded and allowed no weapon.

"'And what did he do?' I queried, for the chief assured me that the drug itself did not produce death, but only caused an irresistible desire for it.

"The chief did not reply in words, but with a meaning smile, pointed to a vein on his black wrist, and set his sharp, pointed teeth against it, in a way that was a reply.

"I was anxious to see for myself, naturally, suspecting some hocus-pocus, so I ventured to be respectfully dubious.

"The chief was in an amiable mood; he bade me visit his tent with my servant at moon-rise, and he would prove that this was no lie, but the truth.

"When we went out, it was about eleven o'clock, and the surrounding jungle was full of the horrible noises of an African night; the wail of the small lemur, that sounds like the death-moan of a child; the more distant roar of the lion in the black depths of the forest, too thick for the moonlight to ever penetrate; the giant trees of the bombax around the encampment, wreathed with llianes and parasitical poison vines that cast fantastic shadows on the ground, white with the perfectly white moonlight of the tropics, that reminds one of the electric light in its purity of ray and the blackness of the shadows that contrast with it.

"Noiselessly my black servant and I proceeded to the chief's enclosure. His slaves permitted us to pass, by his orders, and we found ourselves in his tent, where he sat in grave silence on a pile of skins, the flare of a torch revealing fitfully the ugly face of the medicine-man, crouched with due humility on the earthen floor at his master's feet. After an exchange of compliments, his highness informed me that he had ordered one of his female slaves to be brought, that the poison had already been administered without her knowledge, and he also briefly remarked, as a proof of his clemency, that it was fortunate for her that the white man had doubted the drink, as otherwise she would have been given over to torture, since she had proved unfaithful to her lord, the chief having bestowed her on one of his sentries, whom she had betrayed with a soldier.

"As he spoke sounds were heard outside, and, between two guards, the unfortunate woman was dragged into the tent. It was not lawful for her to address the chief, so she stood, panting, dishevelled, but silent, in the yellow torchlight. Her hair was nearly straight and hung in tangles on her beautiful shoulders; without so much as a girdle for covering, she felt no shame, but only looked about with rolling, terrified eyes, the picture of a snared animal.

"No one spoke. She stood swaying from side to side, her beautiful figure pliant as grass.

"Finally, with a long moan, she threw herself at the chief's feet. He regarded her impassively, and she gathered herself into a sitting posture, rocking to and fro, her head buried in her arms."

"And you made no remonstrance?" I said.

"The poison had already been administered, my dear Lewis," said Hilyard. "And beside, it was in the interest of science. It really seemed a shame to pick out such a beautiful creature; they are so rare in those tribes," he continued, regretfully.

"Well, we sat there, perfectly mute, for about half an hour, I suppose. The chief was almost as impassive as an Englishman. I have seen the Almehs in Cairo, but I have never seen real poetry of motion—mind more completely expressed by matter—than that woman's body translating the anguish she endured; languor turning to deep weariness, weariness to agony, agony to despair. There was not a note in the gamut of mental suffering that she left unstruck—that savage, whom one would not guess possessed a mind. There came a pause. She looked about with a wild, fixed purpose in her eyes; like a panther she leaped on me with her sinuous body, in a second she had snatched the knife from my belt, and had fallen on the earthen floor, her head almost severed from the trunk by the violence of the blow she had struck at her throat with the keen blade. The chief made a sign to the guards who had brought her in (one of whom, by the way, was her deceived husband) to remove the body, and then he inquired, with some satisfaction, if I believed in the drug.

"I was about to leave on the morrow for the coast, and I begged with all humility for the formula, or what answered for it, of the medicine-man, who shook his head decidedly.

"From a corner of the tent he produced a small wicker cage, in the bottom of which lay coiled a snake of a bright orange yellow color, whose very triangular head showed it to be an especially venomous variety of the naja species.

"Muttering a few words and crooning to it after the manner of snake-charmers, it presently became lethargic, and he seized it by the neck and poured a few drops from an earthen bottle down its throat; then he dropped its tawny coils into its cage again, and placed the cage in front of me. Soon the serpent roused. It glided frantically about its cage; like a trail of molten gold was its color. Suddenly it coiled upon itself in a spiral, and stung itself to death!

"After the most profound praise and flattery, and the present of a little glass medicine dropper which I chanced to have with me, and a small quantity of arsenic, which he tested with very satisfactory results, on a dog, he gave me a portion of the drug, but I'm sorry to say I could not prevail on the old scoundrel to give or sell the secret of its composition," concluded Hilyard regretfully, lifting the phial with tenderness. "I've tried to analyze it myself, and I sent it to a celebrated chemist, but the ingredients completely defy classification, and tests seem powerless to determine anything except that they are purely vegetable," he said, shaking the liquid angrily, and then rising to lock it in his cabinet.

I, too, rose with a shudder, half-believing, half-sceptical, yet none the less with a strong distaste for the memory of the story I had just heard. I left Hilyard arranging the shelf of his cabinet, and opening the long French window I walked out on the lawn.

Under the elm I saw Mrs. Mershon, Amy's aunt, with whom we were all staying. Kate Mershon was idly tossing a tennis-ball into the air, and making ineffectual strokes at it with a racquet, and at Mrs. Mershon's feet sat Amy, reading, the golden sunlight resting tenderly on her head, and bringing out the reddish tones of her hair. We were to be married in a month, and she looked so beautiful in the peace and quiet of the waning day, that I wished we two were alone that I might take her in my yearning arms and raise that exquisite colorless face to my lips. She never seemed so lovely as when contrasted with Kate's mature, sensual beauty, dark and rich as the Creole, and completely devoid of that touch of the pure and heavenly without which no woman's face is perfect to me. Amy was brilliant, full of raillery at times, but in the depths of those great clear eyes, like agates, in the candor of that white face, like a tea-rose, one read the beautiful chastity of soul in whose presence passion becomes mixed with a reverence that sanctifies it.

Later that evening, when the drawing-room was gay with light and music, and Kate was singing one of Judie's least objectionable songs, with a verve and grace of gesture that the prima donna herself need not have despised, Amy and I went out on the moonlit lawn, leaving Hilyard leaning over the piano, and Mrs. Mershon sleeping peacefully in a corner. We strolled up and down the gravelled path in a silence more pregnant than words, and I felt my darling's hands clasped on my arm, and heard her gown sweep the little pebbles along the walk.

Something brought to my mind the conversation with Hilyard, and I half thought to repeat it, but the night seemed too peaceful to sully by telling a tale of such horrors, and beside, I fancied Amy disliked Hilyard, although he had been intimate with the family for years, and in fact, he and Amy had almost grown up together; but he had been travelling for three years, and since his return Amy declared that he had grown cynical and hard, and altogether disagreeable, and as I really liked him, although our ideas on most subjects were radically opposed, I thought I would not connect him, in Amy's mind, with an unpleasant story.

I looked down into the delicate face lifted to mine, and pressed a fervent kiss on the cream-white cheek. There was usually, even in her tenderest moments, a certain virginal shrinking from a caress that was an added charm, but to-night she moved closer to my side, and even touched her lips to mine shyly, an occurrence so rare that I trembled with joy, realizing as never before, that this sweet white flower was all my own. I wanted to kiss her again, and with more fervor, upon the mouth, but for her I had the feeling that I could not guard her, this dear blossom of purest whiteness, too jealously. I would no more have permitted myself, during our betrothal, to give her a very ardent caress, the memory of which, however harmless it might seem to the majority of affianced people, might cause her a troubled thought, than I would have permitted a stranger to kiss my sister. Her maiden shyness was a bloom which I did not wish to brush off. I took her hand in my own as we turned to retrace our steps to the house, and stood looking down at her in the wonderful September moonlight. She seemed a vestal virgin, in her long, clinging dress of white wool, with a scarf thrown about her head and throat.

Within, Kate had finished her selections from opera and bouffe, and out into the soft evening drifted her rich contralto in the yearning strains of the "Blumenlied."

"I long to lay in blessing My hands upon thy hair, Praying that God may preserve thee So pure, so bright, so fair!"

I bent over and touched my lips to Amy's forehead reverently. "God keep you, my snow-flower!" I whispered. And then we went silently in together.

The next day was so fine that Mrs. Mershon decided to drive over to the neighboring town in the afternoon for some shopping, and Hilyard, needing some simple chemicals for an experiment, which he hoped to find there at the chemist's, accompanied her. Kate and Amy and I had intended to go to a friend's for tennis, but at luncheon I received a telegram calling me to the city on urgent business. We were only a half hour's trip out, but I thought I might be detained until too late for dinner, so promising to return as early in the evening as possible, I hurried off.

On arriving in New York, I found the affair which had threatened to be a prolix one, only demanded a few minutes' attention from me. I strolled into the Club; there chanced to be no one there whom I cared to see; the city was hot and ill-smelling, and I decided I could not do better than surprise Amy by returning earlier than she expected, and accordingly I took the first train out, walking up from the station.

The little villa looked quite deserted as I approached. I wondered if Amy and Kate had gone to the Waddells' without me. I went to the side door, and hearing voices in the library, I went softly into the back drawing-room, with the foolish, boyish thought that I would walk in suddenly and interrupt an exchange of confidences which I should pretend to have overheard. I do not know what impelled me to play such an antiquated, worn-out trick; however, I was just advancing into the room through the wide-open but curtained doorway, when a chance sentence made me pause, struck as by a blow in the face. Through an interstice, left by an ill-adjusted fold of the portiere, I had a glimpse of the room. My betrothed, in one of her favorite white negligees, was stretched on the Turkish divan by the open fireplace, filled now with an enormous bowl of flowers. Her arms were raised above her head, and there was an enigmatic smile on her lips; her face had the sleepy wisdom of the Sphinx. Kate was crouched on the floor by her side, listening eagerly. Now and then she would say: "Oh! how clever you were!" "So he never guessed." "Yes, yes, and then, what did he say then?" urging her on with a feverish greed for details, which my affianced did not disdain to impart lazily, the faint, contemptuous smile always upon the pink lips I had not ventured to kiss with ardor.

I did not know that I was listening, as I stood there, panting for breath, my hand clutched against my throat, lest I should groan in my agony. Phrase by phrase, I heard the whole dreadful story, told, without the shadow of regret or repentance, by the woman in whom I believed as I believed in Heaven, told with cynical laughter instead, and impatient contempt of the innocence, sullied years ago by Hilyard—the friend I trusted and loved. I could draw to-day exactly the pattern of that portiere, the curling leaves of dull crimson, the intricate tracery of gold thread.

"And Lewis?" suggested Kate, at length.

Amy rolled her head restlessly on the pillow. The soft golden hair was loosened from its pins, and fell over the slender shoulders. "Oh! well, one must marry, you know," she said, indifferently.

I moved away silently and unnoticed. I went to brush my hair aside from my wet forehead, and noticed, parenthetically, that my hand was soiled with blood, where my nails had bitten the palm. With the death of love and faith in me had come an immense capacity for cunning, concealment and cruelty, the trinity of power that abides in certain beasts. Came also a dull purpose, growing each moment in strength.

I do not remember that I felt a single throe of expiring love, the love that had filled my heart to the brim. An immeasurable nausea of disgust overcame me, to the exclusion of other ideas, a fixed sense that a thing so dangerous in its angelic disguise, so poisonous and loathsome, must not remain on earth; this jest of Satan must be removed lest it contaminate all with whom it came in contact. Yet did there live any being uncontaminated already? Were not all vile, even as she was vile? My brain reeled. Surely to the eyes of any beholder, she was the incarnation of purity! That which animated me was not a personal sense of grievance so much as the inborn, natural desire one feels to exterminate a pest, to crush a reptile, the more dangerous that it crawls through flowers to kill. As I have said, I felt power for strategy, unknown to my nature before, rising in me. Certain ideas were suggested to me, on which I acted with coolness and promptness. I felt like a minister of God's will, charged with destruction. It no longer remained for me to decide what to do: some power dwelling in me impelled me, against which I could not, even if I would, have struggled.

I went to my room, still unobserved, washed my face and hands, and looking in the mirror, saw my face reflected, calm and placid, unmarked by the last half-hour. I descended the stairs, and came in by the porch.

Amy sprang up from the couch as I entered, gaily humming a tune. It chanced to be the song to which we had listened the night before:

"I fain would lay in blessing,"—

She drew her loose tea-gown about her, and tried to gather up the unfastened masses of golden hair, with a charming blush.

"Lewis!" she exclaimed. "Where did you come from? How you frightened me!"

"Well, you see, after all, I was not detained so long, and I thought if I hurried back, we might go to the Waddells'! I heard nothing of you, so I just ran up to get off the city dust concluding you had gone on without me. In fact, I was starting over there, when I thought you might be in here, so I came back—and found you. But it's rather late to go, don't you think?" said I. I had retreated to the window and stood with my back studiously turned, while my betrothed repaired the ravages made in her toilet by her siesta.

"Yes, indeed," said Kate, "It is too late by far, and so hot! Let us be lazy until dinner. Do you want to read to us while we embroider? I know you do!" and going to the book-case, she brought one of Hamerton's books which I had been reading aloud to them the day before.

Amy had quietly disappeared, and came down in an incredibly short time in a fresh, simple gown, with her work in her hand. I read until dinner, or rather until it was time to dress, and then I laid the book aside, and went up-stairs with the rest. Hilyard and Mrs. Mershon might return at any time. I stole downstairs, and into the room devoted to Hilyard's chemical experiments. Fool! I had forgotten to bring a cup or bottle with me. I looked hurriedly around the bare room, and discovering a broken bottle on a shelf, I took the key of the cabinet from its place and unlocked it.

Yes, there in the corner stood the rough glass bottle, with the metal around it. I removed the stopper, and having no idea of the amount necessary to produce the desired result, poured out several tablespoonfuls, filling up the phial from the faucet at the rough sink in one corner of the room. I replaced the phial, locked the cabinet, and concealing the broken bottle in my dressing-gown, lest I should meet one of the servants, I retraced my steps to my own room. I was not wholly credulous of its marvellous properties, although Hilyard was not given to boasting or lying—except to women—but I believed it at least to be a poison, and I believed that it defied analysis, as he said.

I took from my drawer a pocket flask of sherry, and emptying all but a wine glass, I added the drug, first tasting and inhaling it, to make sure it had neither perceptible flavor nor odor. Then I locked the flask in my dressing-case as the dinner-bell rang.

We were a merry party that night. Mrs. Mershon went to sleep as usual in the easy-chair in the corner, but Hilyard was gayer than I had seen him for weeks. A capital mimic, he gave us some of his afternoon's experiences in the little country town, occasionally rousing Mrs. Mershon with a start by saying, "Isn't that so, Aunt?" and she, with a corroborative nod and smile, would doze off again. Cards were suggested, but, mindful of my hand, its palm still empurpled and scarified, I suggested that Kate sing for us instead, and we kept her at the piano until she insisted that Amy should take her place.

Amy was tired, she declared, and indeed, the rose-white face did look paler than its wont, but she went to the piano and sang Gounod's "Ave Maria," and two or three airs from Mozart. She always sang sacred music. Then she sank into a chair, looking utterly fatigued.

"There, Amy," I exclaimed, "I have just the thing for you. I went into Lafitte's to-day to order some claret down, and he insisted on filling a flask with some priceless sherry for me. I'll bring you a glass." Amy protested, "indeed she did not need it, she should be better to-morrow," with a languid glance from those clear eyes; but I ran up to my room, and returned with the flask.

"Just my clumsiness," I said, ruefully looking at the flask, "I uncorked it, to see if it were really all he said, and I've spilled nearly the whole of it."

"Oh! come now, Lewis," laughed Hilyard, "Is that the best story you can invent?"

I laughed too, as I brought a glass, and poured out all that remained. Hilyard, I had managed, should hold the glass, and as I assumed to examine the flask, he carried the wine to Amy. Not that I wished, in case of future inquiries, to implicate him, but I felt a melodramatic desire that he should give his poison to Amy with his own hand: the wish to seethe the kid in its mother's milk.

I watched her slowly drain the glass, without one pang that I had given her death to drink. I experienced an atrocious satisfaction in feeling that no chance whim had deterred her from consuming it all. I took the flask to my room again, saying that I had forgotten a letter from my mother, which I wished Amy to read, as it contained a tender message for her.

As I stood alone in my room a fear overcame me that I had been a credulous fool. Suppose the whole story of the drug were a fabrication, what a farce were this! Who ever heard of a poison with so strange an effect? True, but who had ever heard of chloroform a century ago? Let it go that he was a discoverer, and I the first to profit by it. I would take this ground, at least until it was disproved; time enough then to devise other means.

Amy's room was next to mine; on the other side slept—and soundly, too, I would wager—her aunt. Indeed, our rooms connected by a door, always locked and without a key, of course. By a sudden impulse I took out my bunch of keys. Fortune favored me; an old key, that of my room at College, not only fitted perfectly, but opened it as softly as one could wish, and the door itself never creaked. Locking it again, I went into Amy's room through the hall. A low light was burning. I looked about anxiously. Would she find the necessary means at hand without arousing the household? It must be. Suicide must be quite apparent, and the instrument must be suggested by its presence, without any search.

Among the trinkets in the large tray on her bureau, lay a tiny dagger with a sheath. I remembered the day Hilyard gave it to her. The rainy day when we were all looking over his Eastern curiosities, and she had admired it, and he had insisted on her accepting it. The handle was of carved jade, representing a lizard whose eyes were superb rubies, and a band of uncut rubies ran around the place where the little curved blade began. Ah! that was it! The very stones made one dream of drops of blood. I laid it carelessly on the bureau, at the edge of the tray. If she noticed its displacement, she would think the maid had been looking at it, and the very fact of her picking it up and laying it among her other trinkets would bring it to her thoughts when she awoke, with mind set on death. His poison, his dagger—what fitness! Heaven itself was helping me, and approving my ridding earth of this Lamia whose blood ran evil.

When I gave Amy the letter, she took it languidly, saying she would read it in her room; she was going to bed; the wine had made her drowsy; and the others, too, declaring themselves worn with the great heat of the day, we bade each other good-night, and the house was soon silent.

I undressed on going to my room, since, in case of certain events, it would be to my interest to appear to have just risen from bed, and I even lay down, wrapped in my dressing-gown, and put out my light. I almost wondered that I felt no greater resentment and rage at Hilyard, yet my sense of justice precluded it. As well blame the tree around which the poison vine creeps and clings. I looked deeper than would the world, which doubtless, judging from the surface, would have condemned him rather than her, had all been known. She of the Madonna face and the angel smile, anything but wronged? Never! The world would have acquitted her triumphantly had she committed all the sins of the Borgias. For myself, alas! I had heard her own lips condemn her, when, led by wanton recklessness, or the occult sense of sympathy, she had talked to her cousin this afternoon. Hilyard? Yes, it had chanced to be Hilyard, but she, and not he, was most to blame. Hers was not a sin wept over and expiated by remorse and tears; it was the soul, the essence of being, that was corrupt to the very core in her. Had madness seized me when I listened? I know not. I know I lay calmly and quietly, certain only that it was well she was to die, certain that, if this failed, she must die in another way before night came again, pitying neither her nor myself in the apathy which held me, believing myself only the instrument of some mighty power which was directing me, and against whose will I could not rebel, if I wished.

For some time I could hear my betrothed moving about in her room; then all was quiet, and she had doubtless lain down to sleep. By the moonlight that filled my room I consulted my watch after a little while, feeling that I had lost all sense of time, and found that it was half past twelve, and that we had been upstairs over an hour. I concluded it would hardly be safe to open the door yet; she might not be asleep. For another half hour I lay patiently waiting. My mind was not excited, and I reviewed rather the trifling events of my few hours in the city than what had transpired since.

At last I rose, and in the dead quiet I moved softly to the connecting door. I knew that it was concealed in Amy's room by a heavy portiere, and as it opened on my side, I had only to hide myself behind the curtain's folds—as once before on that previous day, alas!—and, unguessed by her, watch her at my ease.

The key moved gently in the lock; the lock yielded; a moment more and I had pulled a tiny fold of the curtain aside, and commanded a full view of the silent room. It was flooded with moonlight, and as light as day. The bed was curtained, after the English fashion, but I fancied I could hear a slight rustle of the coverings, as though one were roused, and stirring restlessly. So light was the room that I could discern the articles on the bureau and dressing-table. A branch of a great elm, which grew at the side of the house, stretched across one window, and its leaves, dancing in the night-breeze, made an ever-changing pattern in shadow on the carpet. Did ever accepted lover keep such a tryst as mine before? And she, just waking from her first sleep behind the delicate white curtains of that bed, her tryst was with death, not with love.

From the grove back of the house came a whip-poor-will's plaintive song, pulsing in a tide of melody on the moonlit air. Was it a moan from the bed, half-coherent and hopeless in cadence? Heaven grant that she waken no one until it is too late, I thought fervently. I heard her step from the bed. Once I would have hidden my eyes as devoutly as the pagan blinded himself lest he should see Artemis, on whom it was desecration to look, but now I hesitated no more to gaze on her than on any other beautiful hateful thing which I should crush. Her loveliness stirred neither my senses nor my compassion; both were forever dead, I knew, to woman. Full in the stream of moonlight she stood, the soft, white folds of her nightdress enveloping her from the throat to the small feet they half hid. Her eyes were wide open, she was awake.

She remained for some moments by the window, meditating, apparently. She talked to herself rapidly and in low undertones. What would I have given to be able to hear all she thus said! Her expression was one of deep mental agony, and I began to feel a growing confidence. How can words express the hideousness of the change of countenance, the indescribable horror and distress of a creature that is being pressed closer and closer toward a yawning gulf of blackness from which there is no escape? How relate the outward signs of an inward terror at which we can but vaguely guess? Would that I could have penetrated to the depths of that soul for one instant to realize completely the bitterness of the dregs it was draining! She advanced to the middle of the room; she stretched out both arms with a gesture of horror and despair. A long, convulsive shudder shook her from head to foot. Her eyes filled with the unearthly fear of one who sees walls closing in on her, of one bound, who sees flames creeping closer and closer. In one instant I could see her pass the line dividing mere mental anguish from insanity; the unmistakable light of madness shone in her glance. With a cry of delight she seized the little dagger. She was rushing down the corridor like the wind. Should I follow her? I hesitated a moment. I heard a long, low cry of mental agony; all the sounds of a house aroused from slumber by some dreadful calamity.

Had she gone to Hilyard's room, to die on his threshold? It was silent once more, except for the exclamations from the different bed-chambers, and the hurrying sounds of footsteps down the corridor. Then I, too, following the rest of the household, entered the room of death. Amy sat curled up on the side of the bed, laughing like a pleased child at the red stream that trickled from Hilyard's breast among the light bed coverings, and dripped slowly to the floor.

* * * * *

Although I am never gay any more, I am not unhappy, for I am more than satisfied with the effect of Hilyard's African drug. It is true that it did not fulfill with accuracy all that he claimed for it; perhaps I gave an overdose, or too little. If that is the case, he suffered for not having been more exact. He should have mentioned, in telling his little story, the amount necessary. However, as I say, I have no reason to find fault with its results in this case.

In looking over the effects of the deceased for Mrs. Mershon, I concluded that I should probably meet with no occasion to use the little glass phial again, and as the drug seemed to be rather uncertain in its ultimate effect, I decided, after some reflection, to throw it away, and accordingly I emptied it out of the laboratory window on the flower-bed beneath. I half expected to see the rose-bushes wither under it, but it only shone slimily on the leaves for a while, and then was washed off by a timely shower.

My friends have not tormented me with condolences, for as one of them wrote me, the grief that had befallen me was beyond the reach of human consolation. There are few indeed who lose a friend by death, and a betrothed wife by madness, in one terrible night. My fidelity, it is said, is most pathetic, to her who is hopelessly lost to me, for though years have passed by, I am still so devoted to her memory, that no other woman has claimed a moment of my attention. And my sister who is rather sentimental in her expressions, declares that the love I had for Amy drained my nature dry. I think she is possibly right.


The room was filled with a blue haze of tobacco smoke, and I had made all of it, for Callender, it seemed to me, had foresworn most of his old habits. He used not once to lie back languidly in a lounging-chair, neither smoking, nor talking, nor drinking punch, when a chum came to see him. Indeed, after the first effervescence of our meeting, natural after a separation of four years, had subsided, I found such a different Tom Callender from the one who had wrung my hand in parting on the deck of the Marius, that I had indulged in sundry speculations, and I studied him attentively beneath half-closed lids, as I apparently watched the white rings from my cigar melt into the air.

Where, precisely, was the change? It was hard to say. The long, thin figure was nerveless in its poses; the slender brown hand that had had a characteristic vigor, lying listlessly open on the arm of his chair, no longer looked capable of a tense, muscular grasp of life; the slightly elongated oval of the face, with its complexion and hair like the Japanese, was scarcely more hollowed or lined than before, but it had lost that expression of expectation, which is one of the distinctive marks of youth in the face. He had been politely attentive to my experiences in Rio Janeiro, with which I have no doubt I bored him unutterably, but when I asked about old friends, or social life, he lapsed into the indifference of the man for whom such things no longer exist: reminiscence did not interest him. I asked him about the plays now on at the leading theatres—he had not seen them; about the new prima donna—he had not heard her. Finally I broke a long silence by picking up a book from the table at my side. "Worth reading?" I asked, nibbling at it here and there. (It was a novel, with "Thirty-fifth thousand" in larger letters than the title on the top of its yellow cover.) As I spoke, a peculiar name, the name of a character on the leaf I was just turning, brought suddenly to my mind one of the few women I had known who bore it.

"By the way, Callender," I said animatedly, striking down the page that had recalled her with my finger, "What has become of your little blue-stocking friend? Don't you know—her book was just out when I sailed,—'On Mount Latmos,'—'On Latmos Top,'—what was it?"

A dark flush burnt its way up to the black, straight hair.

"She is—dead," Callender replied, with a hopeless pause before the hopeless word.

"Dead!" I echoed, unable to associate the idea of death with the incarnation of life that I remembered.

Callender did not reply. He rose, with the slight limp so familiar to me in the past, but which I noticed now as if I had never seen it before, and went to a desk at the far end of the spacious room. I smoked on meditatively. It was odd, I thought, that chance had guided me straight as an arrow, to the cause of the change in my friend. One might have known, though, that he, the misogynist of our class, would have come to grief, sooner or later, over a woman. They always end by that.

I heard him unlocking a drawer, turning over some papers, and presently he limped back to his chair, bringing a heavy envelope. He took from it a photograph, which he gave to me in silence. Yes, that was she, yet not the same—oh! not the same—as when I had seen her the few times four years ago. These solemn eyes were looking into the eyes of death, and the face, frightfully emaciated, yet so young and brave, sunk in the rich masses of hair. It was too pitiful.

Callender had taken a package of manuscript from the envelope; the long supple fingers were busy among the leaves, and he bent his head to see the numbered pages. At last, having arranged them in order, he leaned back again in his chair, holding the papers tenderly in his hand. There was nothing of the poseur in Callender; his childlike simplicity of manner invested him with a touching dignity even though he owned himself vanquished, where another man would have faced life more bravely, nor have held it entirely worthless because of one narrow grave which shut forever from the light a woman who had never loved him.

"I think you would like to read this," he said at length. "And I would like to have you. To her, it cannot matter. I wanted to marry her, toward the end, so I could take care of her.—She was poor, you know—but she would not consent. She left me this, without any message. I knew her so well, she thought it would be easier for me to forget her; but now I shall never forget her."

He gave me the little package of leaves, whose rough edges showed that they had been hurriedly cut from a binding, and then he fell again into his old lethargic attitude. I am not an imaginative man, but a faint odor from the paper brought like a flash to my mind the brilliant, mutinous face, radiant with color and life, that I had seen last across a sea of white shoulders and black coats at a reception a few weeks before I went to South America. The writing was the hurried, illegible hand of an author. I thought grimly that I had probably chanced upon a much weakened and Americanized Marie Bashkirtseff, for though I had only been home a few weeks, it goes without saying that I had read a part at least of the ill-fated young Russian's dairy. Yet in the presence of the grief-stricken face, outlined against the dark leather chair-back, I felt a pang of shame at a thought bordering on levity. There was indeed one likeness: both were the unexpurgated records of hearts laid ruthlessly bare; both were instinct with life: in every line one could feel the warm blood throbbing.

A few of the pages of this journal, which I copy word for word from the manuscript lying before me, I give the reader. Call the dead writer an egotist, if you will: wonder at Callender's love for this self-centred nature; I think she was an artist, and as an artist, her experience is of value to art.


"I have just torn out some pages written a year or so ago. A diary of the introspective type is doubtless a pandering to egotism, but I have always detested that affectation which ignores the fact that each person is to him or herself the most interesting soul—yes, and body—in the universe, and now there is nothing of such infinite importance to me as this. I fear I shall never write again. All thought or plan, in prose or verse, seems dead in me: broken images and pictures that are wildly disconnected float through my tired mind. I have driven myself all day. I have been seated at my desk, with my pen in my hand, looking blankly at the paper. No words, no words! Just before my first book went to press, I overworked. I was in a fever; poems, similes, ran through my excited hours. I could not write fast enough. In that mental debauch I believe that I squandered the energy of years, and now I can conceive no more. If I could only sleep, perhaps I could write. Oh! long, long nights, crowded with the fearful acceleration of trival thoughts crushed one upon another, crowding so fast. 'My God,' I pray, 'Let me sleep, only sleep,' and conquered by this abject need, this weariness unutterable, I am fain to believe that this gift, common to the brute and slave, is better than anything my mind can gain for me, and there is nothing so entirely desirable in all the world as a few hours' oblivion.

What a dream came to me this Autumn! The doctor had given me an opiate. At first it had no effect. I tossed as restlessly as before on my hard bed, sighing vainly for the sleep that refused to come. The noises in the street vexed me. The light from an opposite window disturbed my tired eyes. At last, I slept. Oh! the glow, the radiance unspeakable of that dream! I was in a long, low room. A fire leaped on the hearth, as though it bore a charmed life. Upon the floor was laid a crimson carpet. There were great piles of crimson mattresses and cushions about the room, the ceiling was covered with a canopy of red silk, drawn to a centre, whence depended a lantern, filling the room with a soft rosy twilight. The mantel was a bank of blood-red roses, and they also bloomed and died a fragant death in great bowls set here and there about the floor. And in the centre of this glowing, amorous room was a great couch of red cushions, and I saw myself there, in the scented warmth, one elbow plunged in the cushions, with a certain expectation in my face. It was very quiet. Far down an echoing, distant corridor I heard footsteps, and I smiled and pushed the roses about with my foot, for I was waiting, and I knew that soft foot-fall drawing nearer, nearer. My heart filled the silence with its beating. I looked about the room. Was it ready? Yes, all was ready. The very flowers were waiting to be crushed by his careless feet. The fire had died to a steady ardent glow. How close the steps were drawing! A moment more—

I opened my eyes suddenly. I heard a door shut loudly, the sounds of boots and clothing flung hurriedly down came through the thin partition, and I knew that the lodger in the next room had tramped heavily up the stairs, and was hastening to throw his clumsy body on the bed.

Elsie was breathing softly by my side, and my incredulous, disappointed eyes saw only the reflection on the ceiling, like two great tears of light, and I slept no more until the morning.

I read this, and it sounds coherent. Perhaps I have been needlessly alarmed, perhaps the fear that is so terrible that I have not written it lest it seems to grow real, is only a foolish fear. I must write, I must make myself a name. To bring him that, in lieu of dower, would be something; but poor, unknown, and of an obscure birth.—Will I not have earned a short lease of happiness, if I achieve fame for his sake?

I will barter all for one week,—no, one day—of happiness. I do not wish to grow old, to outlive my illusions. Only a short respite from cares and sorrow, a brief time of flowers, and music, and love, and laughter, and ecstatic tears, and intense emotion. I can so well understand the slave in the glorious "Un nuit de Cleopatre," who resolved a life-time into twelve hours, and having no more left to desire, drank death as calmly as it were a draught of wine.

January, 9, 18—.

"Elsie, my poor little sister, is ill. Only a childish ailment, but I have not written for three days, and she has lain, feeble and languid, in my arms, and I have told her stories. We have moved again, and here, thank God! the furniture, and the carpets and the paper do not swear at each other so violently. I say, thank God! with due reverence. I am truly and devoutly grateful for the release from that sense of unrest caused by the twisted red and green arabesques on the floor. Here all is sombre. The walls are a dull shade, the carpet neutral, the furniture the faded brocatelle dedicate to boarding-houses; but it is not so bad. The golden light lies along the floor, and is reflected on my 'Birth of Venus' on the wall. Above my desk is a small shelf of my best-loved books,—loved now; perhaps I shall destroy them next year, having absorbed all their nutriment, even as now, 'I burn all I used to worship. I worship all I used to burn.' Under the bookrack is a copy of Severn's last sketch of Keats, the vanquished, dying head of the slain poet, more brutally killed than the world counts. The eyes are closed and sunken; the mouth, once so prone to kiss, droops pitifully at the corners; the beautiful temples are hollow. Underneath I have written the words of de Vigny, the words as true as death, if as bitter: 'Hope is the greatest of all our follies.' I need no other curb to my mad dreams than this.

"It has been cold, so cold to-day. I left Elsie asleep, and went to the office of the —— Magazine with an article I wrote a month or so ago. The truth is, Elsie should have a doctor, and I have no money to pay him. I was almost sure Mr. —— would take this. He was out, and I waited a long time in vain, and finally walked back in the wind and blowing dust, chilled to the heart. I wished to write in the afternoon, but I was so beaten with the weather that I threw myself on the bed by Elsie to try to collect my thoughts. It was no use. I found my eyes and mind wandering vaguely about the room. I was staring at the paper frieze of garlanded roses, and the ugly, dingy paper below it of a hideous lilac. What fiend ever suggested to my landlady the combination of crimson roses and purplish paper? How I hate my environments! Poverty and sybaritism go as ill together as roses and purple paper, but I have always been too much given up to the gratification of the eyes and of the senses. How well I remember in my first girlhood, how I used to fill bowls with roses, lilacs and heliotrope, in the country June, and putting beneath my cheek a little pillow, whose crimson silk gave me delight, shut my eyes in my rough, unfinished little room, and the vales of Persia and the scented glades of the tropics were mine to wander through. Yes, a dreamer's Paradise, for I was only sixteen then, and untroubled by any thoughts of Love; yet sometimes Its shadow would enter and vaguely perplex me, a strange shape, waiting always beyond, in the midst of my glowing gardens, and I sighed with a prescient pain. How have I known Love since those days? As yet it has brought me but two things—Sorrow and Expectation. In that fragmentary love-time that was mine, I well remember one evening after he left me, that I threw myself on the floor, and kissing the place where his dear foot had been set, I prayed, still prostrate, the prayer I have so often prayed since. I begged of God to let me barter for seven perfect days of love, all the years that He had, perhaps, allotted to me. But my hot lips plead in vain against the dusty floor, and it was to be that instead; he was to leave me while love was still incomplete. But I know we shall meet again, and I wait. He loved me, and does not that make waiting easy?

"My book must, it shall succeed. It shall wipe out the stain on my birth, it shall be enough to the world that I am what I am. To-night I shall write half the night. No, there is Elsie. To-morrow, then, all day. I shall not move from the desk. Oh! I have pierced my heart, to write with its blood. It is an ink that ought to survive through the centuries. Yet if it achieve my purpose for me, I care not if it is forgotten in ten years.

"February 12, 18—.

"I have seen him to-day, the only man I have ever loved. He loves me no more. It is ended. What did I say? I do not remember. I knew it all, the moment he entered the room. When he went, I said: 'We shall never meet again, I think. Kiss me on the lips once, as in the old days.'

"He looked down at me curiously. He hesitated a moment—then he bent and kissed my mouth. The room whirled about me. Strange sounds were in my ears; for one moment he loved me again. I threw myself in a chair, and buried my face in my hands. I cried out to God in my desperate misery. It was over, and he was gone—he who begged once for a kiss, as a slave might beg for bread!

"And now in all this world are but two good things left me, my Art and little Elsie. Oh! my book, I clung to it in that bitter moment, as the work which should save my reason to live for the child."

"February 18, 18—

"I have written continuously. I drugged myself with writing as if it were chloral, against the stabs of memory that assaulted me. There will be chapters I shall never read, those that I wrote as I sat by my desk the day after the 12th, the cold, gray light pouring in on me, sometimes holding my pen suspended while I was having a mortal struggle with my will, forcing back thoughts, driving my mind to work as though it were a brute. I conquered through the day. My work did not suffer; as I read it over I saw that I had never written better, in spite of certain pains that almost stopped my heart. But at night! ah! if I had had a room to myself, would I have given myself one moment of rest that night? Would I not have written on until I slept from fatigue?

"But that could not be. Elsie moved restlessly; the light disturbed her. For a moment I almost hated her plaintive little voice, God forgive me! and then I undressed and slipped into bed, and so quietly I lay beside her, that she thought I slept. I breathed evenly and lightly—I ought to be able to countefeit sleep by this, I have done it times enough.

"Well, it is of no avail to re-live that night. I thought there was no hope left in me, but I have been cheating myself, it seems, for it fought hard, every inch of the ground, for survival that night, though now I am sure it will never lift its head again.

"And now, as I said, there is nothing left in all earth for me but my sister and my Art. "Poete, prends ton luth."

"May 10, 18—.

"My book is a success, that is, the world calls it a success; but in all the years to come he will never love me again, therefore to me it is a failure, having failed of its purpose, its reason for being. What does he care for the fame it has brought me, since he no longer loves me?

"Had it only come a year ago!

"I went to see Mrs. —— to-day, and I started to hear his voice in the hall, as I sat waiting in the dim drawing-room. He was just going out, having been upstairs, Mrs. —— said, to look at the children's fernery; and I, as I heard that voice, I could have gone out and thrown myself at his feet across the threshold, those cadences so stole into my heart and head, bringing the old madness back. I had one of the sharp attacks of pain at the heart, and Mrs —— sent me home in the carriage. Elsie is in the country, well and strong. I am so glad. These illnesses frighten her sorely. I am perhaps growing thin and weak, but I cannot die, alas! Let the beauty go. I no longer care to preserve it.

"When I reached home, I lay in the twilight for some time on the sofa, not having strength to get up to my room. There is, there can be, no possible help or hope in my trouble, no fruition shall follow the promises Spring time held for me.

"Oh, God! if there be a God! but why do I wish to pray? Have I not prayed before, and not only no answer was vouchsafed, but no sensation of a listening Power, a loving Presence, assuaged my pain. Yet, human or brute, we must make our groans, though futile, when we are in the grasp of a mortal agony.

"June 20, 18—.

"I have been thankless. I have been faithless. Let me bless God's name, for He has heard my prayer at last, and he will let me die—very soon.

"It was so cool in the doctor's office this morning. The vines about the window made lovely shadows on the white curtains and the floor. The light was soft. His round, ruddy German face was almost pale as he stammered out technical terms, in reply to my questions.

"'Oh, Mees!' he said, throwing up his fat hands. 'You ask so mooch! Den, if I frighten you, you faints, you gets worse. No, no, I will not have it!'

"But at last, reassured by my calmness, he told me, as I leaned on the back of his high office chair. A month more, or perhaps two. Not very much pain, he thought. But certain. And I, faithless, have believed the good God did not listen when I prayed!

"Little Elsie is safe and happy with our aunt. Already she seldom talks of me. Yet I have had her, my care, my charge, for almost six years. Children soon forget. There will be a little money for her education, and Aunt wishes to adopt her. There is nothing that I need grieve to leave behind.

"If he had still loved me, if it were circumstance that kept our lives apart, I could send for him then; but to die in arms that held me only out of compassion—glad to relinquish their burden as soon as might be—no, I must go without seeing his face again.

"And to-night I can only feel the great gladness that it is to be. Suppose I knew that there were twenty-five more such years as these! Suppose it should be a mistake, and I had to live!

* * * * *

I looked from these last written words to the photograph. My eyes were blurred, but Tom only leaned back, motionless as before, apathetic as before.

"How long—" I began, tentatively.

"She lived a week after that," Callender replied, in his dry, emotionless voice.

"And the man?"

"He was my brother," replied Callender. "She never saw him again. He married Miss Stockweis about a month after."

I thought of Ralph Callender, cold, correct, slightly bored, as I have always known him, of Miss Stockweis, a dull, purse-proud blonde.

I seized the poor little photograph and raised it reverently to my lips.

"Forgive me, Tom," I said, slightly abashed. (I never could control my impulses.) "The best thing you can do is to thank God for her death. Think of a woman like that—"

"Thank you," said Tom wearily. "Yes, I am glad."

And then I grasped the thin brown hand in my own for a moment, and felt it respond faintly to my clasp.

We sat as quietly as before in the cheerful, smoke-filled room, I puffing slightly at my Ajar, and Tom's sleepless eyes fixed absently on the wall; and then presently I went to the window and watched the dull gray dawn creep over the still sleeping city.

"Well, here's another day," I said with a sigh, turning back to the room. "I must go, old fellow."

There was no reply. Startled, I bent over the chair, and looked in the face, scarcely more ivory-white than before. And then I saw that for Callender there would be no more days.


Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse