STORIES BY FOREIGN AUTHORS
THE TALL WOMAN .. .. .. .. .. .. by Pedro Antonio De Alarcon THE WHITE BUTTERFLY. .. .. .. .. by Jose Selgas THE ORGANIST.. .. .. .. .. .. .. by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer MOORS AND CHRISTIANS .. .. .. .. by Pedro Antonio De Alarcon BREAD CAST UPON THE WATERS .. .. by Fernan Caballero
THE TALL WOMAN by Pedro Antonio De Alarcon From "Modern Ghosts" translated by Rollo Ogden.
THE TALL WOMAN
"How little we really know, my friends; how little we really know."
The speaker was Gabriel, a distinguished civil engineer of the mountain corps. He was seated under a pine tree, near a spring, on the crest of the Guadarrama. It was only about a league and a half distant from the palace of the Escurial, on the boundary line of the provinces of Madrid and Segovia. I know the place, spring, pine tree and all, but I have forgotten its name.
"Let us sit down," went on Gabriel, "as that is the correct thing to do, and as our programme calls for a rest here—here in this pleasant and classic spot, famous for the digestive properties of that spring, and for the many lambs here devoured by our noted teachers, Don Miguel Bosch, Don Maximo Laguna, Don Augustin Pascual, and other illustrious naturalists. Sit down, and I will tell you a strange and wonderful story in proof of my thesis, which is, though you call me an obscurantist for it, that supernatural events still occur on this terraqueous globe. I mean events which you cannot get into terms of reason, or science, or philosophy—as those 'words, words, words,' in Hamlet's phrase, are understood (or are not understood) to-day."
Gabriel was addressing his animated remarks to five persons of different ages. None of them was young, though only one was well along in years. Three of them were, like Gabriel, engineers, the fourth was a painter, and the fifth was a litterateur in a small way. In company with the speaker, who was the youngest, we had all ridden up on hired mules from the Real Sitio de San Lorenzo to spend the day botanizing among the beautiful pine groves of Pequerinos, chasing butterflies with gauze nets, catching rare beetles under the bark of the decayed pines, and eating a cold lunch out of a hamper which we had paid for on shares.
This took place in 1875. It was the height of the summer. I do not remember whether it was Saint James's day or Saint Louis's; I am inclined to think it was Saint Louis's. Whichever it was, we enjoyed a delicious coolness at that height, and the heart and brain, as well as the stomach, were there in much better working order than usual.
When the six friends were seated, Gabriel continued as follows:
"I do not think you will accuse me of being a visionary. Luckily or unluckily, I am, if you will allow me to say so, a man of the modern world. I have no superstition about me, and am as much of a Positivist as the best of them, although I include among the positive data of nature all the mysterious faculties and feelings of the soul. Well, then, apropos of supernatural, or extra-natural, phenomena, listen to what I have seen and heard, although I was not the real hero of the very strange story I am going to relate, and then tell me what explanation of an earthly, physical, or natural sort, however you may name it, can be given of so wonderful an occurrence.
"The case was as follows. But wait! Pour me out a drop, for the skin-bottle must have got cooled off by this time in that bubbling, crystalline spring, located by Providence on this piny crest for the express purpose of cooling a botanist's wine."
Well, gentlemen, I do not know whether you ever heard of an engineer of the roads corps named Telesforo X—-; he died in 1860."
"No; I haven't."
"But I have."
"So have I. He was a young fellow from Andalusia, with a black moustache; he was to have married the Marquis of Moreda's daughter, but he died of jaundice."
"The very one," said Gabriel. "Well, then, my friend Telesforo, six months before his death, was still a most promising young man, as they say nowadays. He was good-looking, well-built, energetic, and had the glory of being the first one in his class to be promoted. He had already gained distinction in the practice of his profession through some fine pieces of work. Several different companies were competing for his services, and many marriageable women were also competing for him. But Telesforo, as you said, was faithful to poor Joaquina Moreda.
"As you know, it turned out that she died suddenly at the baths of Santa Agueda, at the end of the summer of 1859. I was in Pau when I received the sad news of her death, which affected me very much on account of my close friendship with Telesforo. With her I had spoken only once, in the house of her aunt, the wife of General Lopez, and I certainly thought her bluish pallor a symptom of bad health. But, however that may be, she had a distinguished manner and a great deal of grace, and was, besides, the only daughter of a title, and a title that carried some comfortable thousands with it; so I felt sure my good mathematician would be inconsolable. Consequently, as soon as I was back in Madrid, fifteen or twenty days after his loss, I went to see them very early one morning. He lived in elegant batchelor quarters in Lobo Street—I do not remember the number, but it was near the Carrera de San Jeronimo.
"The young engineer was very melancholy, although calm and apparently master of his grief. He was already at work, even at that hour, laboring with his assistants over some railroad plans or other. He was dressed in deep mourning.
"He greeted me with a long and close embrace, without so much as sighing. Then he gave some directions to his assistants about the work in hand, and afterwards led me to his private office at the farther end of the house. As we were on our way there he said, in a sorrowful tone and without glancing at me:
"'I am very glad you have come. Several times I have found myself wishing you were here. A very strange thing has happened to me. Only a friend such as you are can hear of it without thinking me either a fool or crazy. I want to get an opinion about it as calm and cool as science itself.
"'Sit down,' he went on when we had reached his office, 'and do not imagine that I am going to afflict you with a description of the sorrow I am suffering—a sorrow which will last as long as I live. Why should I? You can easily picture it to yourself, little as you know of trouble. And as for being comforted, I do not wish to be, either now, or later, or ever! What I am going to speak to you about, with the requisite deliberation, going back to the very beginning of the thing, is a horrible and mysterious occurrence, which was an infernal omen of my calamity, and which has distressed me in a frightful manner.'
"'Go on,' I replied, sitting down. The fact was, I almost repented having entered the house as I saw the expression of abject fear on my friend's face.
"'Listen, then,' said he, wiping the perspiration from his forehead."
"'I DO not know whether it is due to some inborn fatality of imagination, or to having heard some story or other of the kind with which children are so rashly allowed to be frightened, but the fact is, that since my earliest years nothing has caused me so much horror and alarm as a woman alone, in the street, at a late hour of the night. The effect is the same whether I actually encounter her, or simply have an image of her in my mind.
"'You can testify that I was never a coward. I fought a duel once, when I had to, like any other man. Just after I had left the School of Engineers, my workmen in Despenaperros revolted, and I fought them with stick and pistol until I made them submit. All my life long, in Jaen, in Madrid, and elsewhere, I have walked the streets at all hours, alone and unarmed, and if I have chanced to run upon suspicious-looking persons, thieves, or mere sneaking beggars, they have had to get out of my way or take to their heels. But if the person turned out to be a solitary woman, standing still or walking, and I was also alone, with no one in sight in any direction—then (laugh if you want to, but believe me) I would be all covered over with goose-flesh; vague fears would assail me; I would think about beings of the other world, about imaginary existences, and about all the superstitious stories which would make me laugh under other circumstances. I would quicken my pace, or else turn back, and would not get over my fright in the least until safe in my own house.
"'Once there I would fall a-laughing, and would be ashamed of my crazy fears. The only comfort I had was that nobody knew anything about it. Then I would dispassionately remind myself that I did not believe in goblins, witches, or ghosts, and that I had no reason whatever to be afraid of that wretched woman driven from her home at such an hour by poverty, or some crime, or accident, to whom I might better have offered help, if she needed it, or given alms. Nevertheless, the pitiable scene would be gone over again as often as a similar thing occurred—and remember that I was twenty-four years old, that I had experienced a great many adventures by night, and yet that I had never had the slightest difficulty of any sort with such solitary women in the streets after midnight! But nothing of what I have so far told you ever came to have any importance, since that irrational fear always left me as soon as I reached home, or saw any one else in the street, and I would scarcely recall it a few minutes afterwards, any more than one would recall a stupid mistake which had no result of any consequence.
"'Things were going on so, when, nearly three years ago (unhappily, I have good reason for knowing the date, it was the night of November 15-16, 1857), I was coming home at three in the morning. As you remember, I was living then in that little house in Jardines Street, near Montera Street. I had just come, at that late hour, a bitter, cold wind blowing at the time, out of a sort of a gambling-house—I tell you this, although I know it will surprise you. You know that I am not a gambler. I went into the place, deceived by an alleged friend. But the fact was, that as people began to drop in about midnight, coming from receptions or the theatre, the play began to be very heavy, and one saw the gleam of gold in plenty. Then came bank-bills and notes of hand. Little by little I was carried away by the feverish and seductive passion, and lost all the money I had. I even went away missing a second sum, for which I had left my note behind me. In short, I ruined myself completely; and but for the legacy that came to me afterwards, together with the good jobs I have had, my situation would have been extremely critical and painful.
"So I was going home, I say, at so late an hour that night, numb with the cold, hungry, ashamed, and disgusted as you can imagine, thinking about my sick old father more than about myself. I should have to write to him for money, and this would astonish as much as it would grieve him, since he thought me in very easy circumstances. Just before reaching my street, where it crosses Peligros Street, as I was walking in front of a newly-built house, I perceived something in its doorway. It was a tall, large woman, standing stiff and motionless, as if made of wood. She seemed to be about sixty years old. Her wild and malignant eyes, unshaded by eyelashes, were fixed on mine like two daggers. Her toothless mouth made a horrible grimace at me, meant to be a smile.
"The very terror or delirium of fear which instantly overcame me gave me somehow a most acute perception, so that I could distinguish at a glance, in the two seconds it took me to pass by that repugnant vision, the slightest details of her face and dress. Let me see if I can put together my impressions in the way and form in which I received them, as they were engraved ineffaceably on my brain in the light of the street-lamp which shone luridly over that ghastly scene. But I am exciting myself too much, though there is reason enough for it, as you will see further on. Don't be concerned, however, for the state of my mind. I am not yet crazy!
"'The first thing which struck me in that WOMAN, as I will call her, was her extreme height and the breadth of her bony shoulders. Then, the roundness and fixity of her dry, owl-eyes, the enormous size of her protruding nose, and the great dark cavern of her mouth. Finally, her dress, like that of a young woman of Avapies—the new little cotton handkerchief which she wore on her head, tied under her chin, and a diminutive fan which she carried open in her hand, and with which, in affected modesty, she was covering the middle of her waist.
"'Nothing could be at the same time more ridiculous and more awful, more laughable and more taunting, than that little fan in those huge hands. It seemed like a make-believe sceptre in the hands of such an old, hideous, and bony giantess! A like effect was produced by the showy percale handkerchief adorning her face by the side of that cut-water nose, hooked and masculine; for a moment I was led to believe (or I was very glad to) that it was a man in disguise.
"'But her cynical glance and harsh smile were of a hag, of a witch, an enchantress, a Fate, a—I know not what! There was something about her to justify fully the aversion and fright which I had been caused all my life long by women walking alone in the streets at night. One would have said that I had had a presentiment of that encounter from my cradle. One would have said that I was frightened by it instinctively, as every living being fears and divines, and scents and recognizes, its natural enemy before ever being injured by it, before ever having seen it, and solely on hearing its tread.
"'I did not dash away in a run when I saw my life's sphinx. I restrained my impulse to do so, less out of shame and manly pride than out of fear lest my very fright should reveal to her who I was, or should give her wings to follow me, to overtake me—I do not know what. Panic like that dreams of dangers which have neither form nor name.
"'My house was at the opposite end of the long and narrow street, in which I was alone, entirely alone with that mysterious phantom whom I thought able to annihilate me with a word. How should I ever get home? Oh, how anxiously I looked towards that distant Montera street, broad and well lighted, where there are policemen to be found at all hours! I decided, finally, to get the better of my weakness; to dissemble and hide that wretched fear; not to hasten my pace, but to keep on advancing slowly, even at the cost of years of health or life, and in this way, little by little, to go on getting nearer to my house, exerting myself to the utmost not to fall fainting on the ground before I reached it.
"'I was walking along in this way—I must have taken about twenty steps after leaving behind me the doorway where the woman with the fan was hidden, when suddenly a horrible idea came to me—horrible, yet very natural nevertheless—the idea that I would look back to see if my enemy was following me. One thing or the other I thought, with the rapidity of a flash of lightning: either my alarm has some foundation or it is madness; if it has any foundation, this woman will have started after me, will be overtaking me, and there is no hope for me on earth. But if it is madness, a mere supposition, a panic fright like any other, I will convince myself of it in the present instance, and for every case that may occur hereafter, by seeing that that poor old woman has stayed in that doorway to protect herself from the cold, or to wait till the door is opened; and thereupon I can go on to my house in perfect tranquillity, and I shall have cured myself of a fancy that causes me great mortification.
"'This reasoning gone through with, I made an extraordinary effort and turned my head. Ah, Gabriel!—Gabriel! how fearful it was! The tall woman had followed me with silent tread, was right over me, almost touching me with her fan, almost leaning her head on my shoulder.
"'Why was she doing it?—why, my Gabriel? Was she a thief? Was she really a man in disguise? Was she some malicious old hag who had seen that I was afraid of her? Was she a spectre conjured up by my very cowardice? Was she a mocking phantasm of human self-deception?
"'I could never tell you all I thought in a single moment. If the truth must be told, I gave a scream and flew away like a child of four years who thinks he sees the Black Man. I did not stop running until I got out into Montera Street. Once there, my fear left me like magic. This in spite of the fact that that street also was deserted. Then I turned my head to look back to Jardines Street. I could see down its whole length. It was lighted well enough for me to see the tall woman, if she had drawn back in any direction, and, by Heaven! I could not see her, standing still, walking, or in any way! However, I was very careful not to go back into that street again. The wretch, I said to myself, has slunk into some other doorway. But she can't move without my seeing her.
"'Just then I saw a policeman coming up Caballero de Gracia Street, and I shouted to him without stirring from my place. I told him that there was a man dressed as a woman in Jardines Street. I directed him to go round by the way of Peligros and Aduana Streets, while I would remain where I was, and in that way the fellow, who was probably a thief or murderer, could not escape us. The policeman did as I said. He went through Aduana Street, and as soon as I saw his lantern coming along Jardines Street I also went up it resolutely.
"'We soon met at about the middle of the block, without either of us having encountered a soul, although we had examined door after door.
"'"He has got into some house," said the policeman.
"'"That must be so," I replied, opening my door with the fixed purpose of moving to some other street the next day.
"'A few moments later I was in my room; I always carried my latchkey, so as not to have to disturb my good Jose. Nevertheless, he was waiting for me that night. My misfortunes of the 15th and 16th of November were not yet ended.
"'"What has happened?" I asked him, in surprise.
"'"Major Falcon was here," he replied, with evident agitation, "waiting for you from eleven till half-past two, and he told me that, if you came home to sleep, you had better not undress, as he would be back at daybreak."
"'Those words left me trembling with grief and alarm, as if they had predicted my own death to me. I knew that my beloved father, at his home in Jean, had been suffering frequent and dangerous attacks of his chronic disease. I had written to my brothers that, if there should be a sudden and fatal termination of the sickness, they were to telegraph Major Falcon, who would inform me in some suitable way. I had not the slightest doubt, therefore, that my father had died.
"'I sat down in an arm-chair to wait for the morning and my friend, and, with them, the news of my great misfortune. God only knows what I suffered in those two cruel hours of waiting. All the while, three distinct ideas were inseparably joined in my mind; though they seemed unlike, they took pains, as it were, to keep in a dreadful group. They were: my losses at play, my meeting with the tall woman, and the death of my revered father.
"'Precisely at six Major Falcon came into my room, and looked at me in silence. I threw myself into his arms, weeping bitterly, and he exclaimed, caressing me:
"'"Yes, my dear fellow, weep, weep."'"
"My friend Telesforo," Gabriel went on, after having drained another glass of wine, "also rested a moment when he reached this point, and then he proceeded as follows:
"'If my story ended here, perhaps you would not find anything extraordinary or supernatural in it. You would say to me the same thing that men of good judgment said to me at that time: that every one who has a lively imagination is subject to some impulse of fear or other; that mine came from belated, solitary women, and that the old creature of Jardines Street was only some homeless waif who was going to beg of me when I screamed and ran.
"'For my part, I tried to believe that it was so. I even came to believe it at the end of several months. Still, I would have given years of my life to be sure that I was not again to encounter the tall woman. But, to-day, I would give every drop of my blood to be able to meet her again.'
"'To kill her on the spot.'
"'I do not understand you.'
"'You will understand me when I tell you that I did meet her again, three weeks ago, a few hours before I had the fatal news of my poor Joaquina's death.'
"'Tell me about it, tell me about it!'
"'There is little more to tell. It was five o'clock in the morning. It was not yet fully light, though the dawn was visible from the streets looking towards the east. The street-lamps had just been put out, and the policemen had withdrawn. As I was going through Prado Street, so as to get to the other end of Lobo Street, the dreadful woman crossed in front of me. She did not look at me, and I thought she had not seen me.
"'She wore the same dress and carried the same fan as three years before. My trepidation and alarm were greater than ever. I ran rapidly across Prado Street as soon as she had passed, although I did not take my eyes off her, so as to make sure that she did not look back, and, when I had reached the other end of Lobo Street, I panted as if I had just swum an impetuous stream. Then I pressed on with fresh speed towards home, filled now with gladness rather than fear, for I thought that the hateful witch had been conquered and shorn of her power, from the very fact that I had been so near her and yet that she had not seen me.
"'But soon, and when I had almost reached this house, a rush of fear swept over me, in the thought that the crafty old hag had seen and recognized me, that she had made a pretence of not knowing me so as to let me get into Lobo Street, where it was still rather dark, and where she might set upon me in safety, that she would follow me, that she was already over me.
"'Upon this, I looked around—and there she was! There at my shoulder, almost touching me with her clothes, gazing at me with her horrible little eyes, displaying the gloomy cavern of her mouth, fanning herself in a mocking manner, as if to make fun of my childish alarm.
"'I passed from dread to the most furious anger, to savage and desperate rage. I dashed at the heavy old creature. I flung her against the wall. I put my hand to her throat. I felt of her face, her breast, the straggling locks of her gray hair until I was thoroughly convinced that she was a human being—a woman.
"'Meanwhile she had uttered a howl which was hoarse and piercing at the same time. It seemed false and feigned to me, like the hypocritical expression of a fear which she did not really feel. Immediately afterwards she exclaimed, making believe cry, though she was not crying, but looking at me with her hyena eyes:
"'"Why have you picked a quarrel with me?"
"'This remark increased my fright and weakened my wrath.
"'"Then you remember," I cried, "that you have seen me somewhere else."
"'"I should say so, my dear," she replied, mockingly. "Saint Eugene's night, in Jardines Street, three years ago."
"'My very marrow was chilled.
"'"But who are you?" I asked, without letting go of her. "Why do you follow me? What business have you with me?"
"'"I am a poor weak woman," she answered, with a devilish leer. "You hate me, and you are afraid of me without any reason. If not, tell me, good sir, why you were so frightened the first time you saw me."
"'"Because I have loathed you ever since I was born. Because you are the evil spirit of my life."
"'"It seems, then, that you have known me for a long time. Well, look, my son, so have I known you."
"'"You have known me? How long?"
"'"Since before you were born! And when I saw you pass by me, three years ago, I said to myself, THAT'S THE ONE."
"'"But what am I to you? What are you to me?"
"'"The devil!" replied the hag, spitting full in my face, freeing herself from my grasp, and running away with amazing swiftness. She held her skirts higher than her knees, and her feet did not make the slightest noise as they touched the ground.
"'It was madness to try to catch her. Besides, people were already passing through the Carrera de San Jeronimo, and in Prado Street, too. It was broad daylight. The tall woman kept on running, or flying, as far as Huertas Street, which was now lighted up by the sun. There she stopped to look back at me. She waved her closed fan at me once or twice, threateningly, and then disappeared around a corner.
"'Wait a little longer, Gabriel. Do not yet pronounce judgment in this case, where my life and soul are concerned. Listen to me two minutes longer.
"'When I entered my house I met Colonel Falcon, who had just come to tell me that my Joaquina, my betrothed, all my hope and happiness and joy on earth, had died the day before in Santa Agueda. The unfortunate father had telegraphed Falcon to tell me—me, who should have divined it an hour before, when I met the evil spirit of my life! Don't you understand, now, that I must kill that born enemy of my happiness, that vile old hag, who is the living mockery of my destiny?
"'But why do I say kill? Is she a woman? Is she a human being? Why have I had a presentiment of her ever since I was born? Why did she recognize me when she first saw me? Why do I never see her except when some great calamity has befallen me? Is she Satan? Is she Death? Is she Life? Is she Antichrist? Who is she? What is she?'"
"I will spare you, my dear friends," continued Gabriel, "the arguments and remarks which I used to see if I could not calm Telesforo, for they are the same, precisely the same, which you are preparing now to advance to prove that there is nothing supernatural or superhuman in my story. You will even go further; you will say that my friend was half crazy; that he always was so; that, at least, he suffered from that moral disease which some call 'panic terror,' and others 'emotional insanity'; that, even granting the truth of what I have related about the tall woman, it must all be referred to chance coincidences of dates and events; and, finally, that the poor old creature could also have been crazy, or a thief, or a beggar, or a procuress—as the hero of my story said to himself in a lucid interval."
"A very proper supposition," exclaimed Gabriel's comrades; "that is just what we were going to say."
"Well, listen a few minutes longer, and you will see that I was mistaken at the time, as you are mistaken now. The one who unfortunately made no mistake was Telesforo. It is much easier to speak the word 'insanity' than to find an explanation for some things that happen on the earth."
"I am going to; and this time, as it is the last, I will pick up the thread of my story without first drinking a glass of wine."
"A few days after that conversation with Telesforo I was sent to the province of Albacete in my capacity as engineer of the mountain corps. Not many weeks had passed before I learned, from a contractor for public works, that my unhappy friend had been attacked by a dreadful form of jaundice; it had turned him entirely green, and he reclined in an arm-chair without working or wishing to see anybody, weeping night and day in the most inconsolable and bitter grief. The doctors had given up hope of his getting well.
"This made me understand why he had not answered my letters. I had to resort to Colonel Falcon as a source of news of him, and all the while the reports kept getting more unfavorable and gloomy.
"After an absence of five months I returned to Madrid the same day that the telegraph brought the news of the battle of Tetuan. I remember it as if it were yesterday. That night I bought the indispensable Correspondencia de Espana, and the first thing I read in it was the notice of Telesforo's death. His friends were invited to the funeral the following morning.
"You will be sure that I was present. As we arrived at the San Luis cemetery, whither I rode in one of the carriages nearest the hearse, my attention was called to a peasant woman. She was old and very tall. She was laughing sacrilegiously as she saw them taking out the coffin. Then she placed herself in front of the pall-bearers in a triumphant attitude and pointed out to them with a very small fan the passage-way they were to take to reach the open and waiting grave.
"At the first glance I perceived, with amazement and alarm, that she was Telesforo's implacable enemy. She was just as he had described her to me—with her enormous nose, her devilish eyes, her awful mouth, her percale handkerchief, and that diminutive fan which seemed in her hands the sceptre of indecency and mockery.
"She immediately observed that I was looking at her, and fixed her gaze upon me in a peculiar manner, as if recognizing me, as if letting me know that she recognized me, as if acquainted with the fact that the dead man had told me about the scenes in Jardines Street and Lobo Street, as if defying me, as if declaring me the inheritor of the hate which she had cherished for my unfortunate friend.
"I confess that at the time my fright was greater than my wonder at those new COINCIDENCES and ACCIDENTS. It seemed evident to me that some supernatural relation, antecedent to earthly life, had existed between the mysterious old woman and Telesforo. But for the time being my sole concern was about my own life, my own soul, my own happiness—all of which would be exposed to the greatest peril if I should really inherit such a curse.
"The tall woman began to laugh. She pointed at me contemptuously with the fan, as if she had read my thoughts and were publicly exposing my cowardice. I had to lean on a friend's arm to keep myself from falling. Then she made a pitying or disdainful gesture, turned on her heels, and went into the cemetery. Her head was turned towards me. She fanned herself and nodded to me at the same time. She sidled along among the graves with an indescribable, infernal coquetry, until at last she disappeared for ever in that labyrinth of tombs.
"I say for ever, since fifteen years have passed and I have never seen her again. If she was a human being she must have died before this; if she was not, I rest in the conviction that she despised me too much to meddle with me.
"Now, then, bring on your theories! Give me your opinion about these strange events. Do you still regard them as entirely natural?"
THE WHITE BUTTERFLY By Jose Selgas Translated by Mary J. Serrano.
THE WHITE BUTTERFLY
Berta has just completed her seventeenth year. Blissful age in which Love first whispers his tender secrets to a maiden's heart! But cruel Love, who for every secret he reveals draws forth a sigh! But here is Berta, and beside her is a mirror, toward which she turns her eyes; she looks at herself in it for a moment and sighs, and then she smiles. And good reason she has to smile, for the mirror reveals to her the loveliest face imaginable; whatever disquiet Love may have awakened in her heart, the image which she sees in the mirror is enchanting enough to dispel it.
And why should it not? Let us see. "What has her heart told her?" "It has told her that it is sad." "Sad! and why?" "Oh, for a very simple reason! Because it thrills in response to a new, strange feeling, never known before. It fancies—curious caprice!—that it has changed owners." "And why is that?" "The fact is, that it has learned, it knows not where, that men are ungrateful and inconstant, and this is the reason why Berta sighs." "Ah! And what does the mirror tell her to console her?" "Why, the mirror tells her that she is beautiful." "Yes?" "Yes; that her eyes are dark and lustrous, her eyebrows magnificent, her cheeks fresh and rosy." "And what then?" "It is plain; her heart is filled with hope, and therefore it is that Berta smiles."
This is the condition of mind in which we find her. Up to the present she has passed her life without thinking of anything more serious than the innocent pranks of childhood; she was a child up to the age of seventeen, but a boisterous, gay, restless, daring, mischievous child; she turned the house upside down, and in the same way she would have been capable of turning the world upside down; she had neither fears nor duties; she played like a crazy thing and slept like a fool. For her mother had died before Berta was old enough to know her; and although her mother's portrait hung at the head of her bed, this image, at once sweet and serious, was not sufficient to restrain the thoughtless impetuosity of the girl. She was, besides, an only daughter, and her father, of whom we shall give some account later, adored her. In addition to all this, her nurse, who acted as housekeeper in the house, was at the same time the accomplice and the apologist of her pranks, for the truth is she loved her like the apple of her eye.
Less than this might have sufficed to turn an angel into an imp, and indeed much less would have sufficed in Berta's case, for the natural vivacity of her disposition inclined her to all kinds of pranks. Opposition irritated her to such a degree as to set her crying. But what tears! Suddenly, in the midst of her sobs, she would burst out laughing, for her soul was all gayety, spontaneous, contagious gayety, the gayety of the birds when day is breaking.
But this gayety could not last for ever; and, willing or unwilling, the moment had to come some time when Berta would quiet down; for it was not natural that she should remain all her life a madcap; and this moment at last arrived; and all at once the girl's boisterous gayety began to calm down, to cloud over, like a storm that is gathering, like a sky that is darkening.
The nurse is the first to observe this change in Berta, and although the girl's pranks had driven her to her wits' end, seeing her silent, thoughtful, pensive, that is to say, quiet, she is overjoyed. The girl is now a woman. Profound mystery! She has left off the giddiness of childhood to take on the sedateness of youth. Poor woman! she does not know that a young girl is a thousand times more crazy than a child. But the fact is that Berta does not seem the same girl. And the change has taken place of a sudden, from one day to another, in the twinkling of an eye, so to say.
And sedateness becomes her well, very well. She seems taller, more—more everything; nothing better could be asked of her; but since she has become sensible the house is silent. The songs, the tumult, all the boisterousness of the past have disappeared. The good nurse, who is enchanted to see her so quiet, so silent, so sedate, yet misses the noisy gayety that formerly filled the house; and if the choice had been given to her, she would hardly have known which to prefer.
In this way the days pass calm and tranquil. Berta, who had always been so early a riser, does not now rise very early. Does she sleep more? That is what no one knows, but if she sleeps more she certainly eats less; and not only this, but from time to time, and without any apparent cause, heart-breaking sighs escape her.
The nurse, who idolizes her, and who would do anything in the world to please or to serve her, observes it all but says nothing. She says nothing, but she thinks the more. That is to say, that at every sigh she hears she draws down her mouth, screws up her eye, and says to herself: "Hm! there it is again."
Of course she would not remain silent for long; for she was not a woman to hold her tongue easily. Besides, Berta's sedateness was now getting to be a fixed fact, and the nurse was at the end of her patience; for as she was accustomed to say, "A loaf that is put into the oven twisted will not come out of it straight."
And if she succeeded in keeping silence for a few days, it was only because she was waiting for Berta herself to speak and tell her what was on her mind; but Berta gave no sign that she understood her; her heart remained closed to the nurse, notwithstanding all her efforts to open it. The key had been lost, and none of those that hung at the housekeeper's girdle fitted it. It would be necessary to force the lock.
One day the nurse left off temporizing and took the bull by the horns. She entered Berta's room, where she found her engaged in fastening a flaming red carnation in her dark hair.
"There! that's what I like to see," she said. "That's right, now. What a beautiful pink! It is as red as fire. And pinks of that color don't grow in your flower-beds!"
Berta cast down her eyes.
"You think I can't see what is going on before my eyes," she continued, "when you know that nothing can escape me. Yes, yes. I should like to see the girl that could hoodwink me! But why don't you say something? Have you lost your tongue?"
Berta turned as red as a poppy.
"Bah!" cried the nurse. "That pink must have flown over from the terrace in front of your windows. I can see the plant from here; there were four pinks on it yesterday, and to-day there are only three. The neighbor, eh? What folly! There is neither sense nor reason in that."
This time Berta turned pale, and looked fixedly at her nurse, as if she had not taken in the sense of her words.
"I don't mean," resumed the nurse, "that you ought to take the veil, or that the neighbor is a man to be looked down upon either; but you are worthy of a king, and there is no sort of sense in this. A few signals from window to window; a few sidelong glances, and then—what? Nothing. You will forget each other. It will be out of sight out of mind with both of you."
Berta shook her head.
"You say it will not be so?" asked the nurse.
"I say it will not," answered Berta.
"And why not? Let us hear why not? What security have you—"
Berta did not allow her to finish.
"Our vows," she said.
"Vows!" cried the nurse, crossing herself. "Is that where we are!—Vows!" she repeated, scornfully; "pretty things they are—words that the wind carries away."
Some memory of her own youth must have come to her mind at this moment, for she sighed and then went on:
"And would they by chance be the first vows in the world to be broken? To-day it is all very well; there is no one else for you to see but the neighbor; but to-morrow?"
"Never," replied Berta.
"Worse and worse," returned the nurse; "for in that case he will be the first to tire of you, and then hold him if you can. To-day he may be as sweet as honey to you, but to-morrow it will be another story. What are you going to say? That he is young, and handsome? Silly, silly girl. Is he any the less a man for that? Do you want to know what men are?"
Berta, going up to her nurse, put her hand over her mouth and answered quickly:
"No, I don't want to know."
The nurse left Berta's room, holding her hands to her head and saying to herself:
"Mad, stark, staring mad!"
We know already that Berta has a father, and now we are going to learn that this father, without being in any way an extraordinary being, is yet no common man. To look at him, one would take him to be over sixty; but appearances are in this case deceitful, for he is not yet forty-nine. In the same city in which he dwells live some who were companions of his childhood, and they are still young; but Berta's father became a widower shortly after his marriage, and the loss of his wife put an end to his youth. He settled his affairs, gave up his business, realized a part of his property and retired from the world. That is to say, that he devoted himself to the care of his daughter, in whom he beheld the living image of the wife he had lost. Why should he wish to be young any longer? He grew aged then long before he had grown old.
Berta—Berta. In this name all his thoughts were centred, and in his thoughts there was much of sweetness and much of bitterness, for there is not in the circle of human happiness a cup of honey that has not its drop of gall.
To see him now walking up and down his room, looking now at the ceiling, now at the floor, biting his nails and striking his forehead, one would think the heavens were about to fall down and crush him or the earth to open up under his feet.
Suddenly he struck his forehead with his open palm, and crossing over to the door of the room, he raised the curtain, put out his head, and opened his lips to say something; but the words remained unuttered, and he stood with his mouth wide open, gazing with amazement at the nurse who, without observing the movement of the curtain, was approaching the door, gesticulating violently; it was evident that she had something extraordinary on her mind.
Berta's father drew aside; the nurse entered the room, and the two remained face to face, looking at each other as if they had never seen each other before."
"What is the matter, Nurse Juana?" asked Berta's father. "I never saw you look like that before."
"Well, you look no better youself. Any one would say, to see you, that you had just risen from the grave."
Berta's father slowly arched his eyebrows, heaved a profound sigh, and sinking into a chair, as if weighed down by the burden of existence, he asked again:
"What is the matter?"
"The matter is," answered the nurse, "that the devil has got into this house."
"It is possible," he answered; "and if you add that it is not an hour since he left this room, you will not be far wrong."
"The Lord have mercy on us!" exclaimed the nurse: "the devil here!"
"Yes, Nurse Juana, the devil in person."
"And you saw him?"
"I saw him."
"What a horrible visitor!" exclaimed Juana, crossing herself.
"No," said Berta's father, "he is not horrible; he took the appearance of a handsome young man who has all the air of a terrible rake."
"And how did this demon come in?"
"By the door, Juana, by the door."
"What a man!" cried the nurse in dismay.
Berta's father was very kind-hearted, and he had a very good opinion of mankind; thus it was that he shook his head despondently as he replied:
"A man!—A man would not be so cruel to me. To take Berta from me is to take my life. It is to assassinate me without allowing me a chance to defend myself; and that is the most horrible part of it—they will be married, and Berta will be united for life to the murderer of her father."
The nurse folded her arms and there was a moment of sorrowful silence.
Suddenly she said:
"Ah!—Berta will refuse."
A bitter smile crossed the lips of the unhappy father.
"You think she will not?" said the nurse. "Now, we shall see."
And she turned to go for Berta, but at the same moment the curtain was raised and Berta entered the room.
The red carnation glowed in her black hair like fire in the darkness; her eyes shone with a strange light, and in the fearless expression of her countenance was to be divined the strength of an unalterable resolution.
She looked alternately at her father and at her nurse, and then in a trembling voice she said:
"I know all. It may be to my life-long happiness; it may be to my eternal misery; but that man is the master of my heart."
She smiled first at her father and then at her nurse; and left the room with the same tranquillity with which she had entered it.
The nurse and the father remained standing where she left them, motionless, dumb, astounded.
The devil then had succeeded in gaining an entrance into Berta's house in the manner in which we have seen; and not only had he gained an entrance into it, but he had taken possession of it as if it had always been his own. He was hardly out of it before he was back again. He spent in it several of his mornings, many of his afternoons, and all his evenings; and there was no way of escaping his assiduous visits, for Berta was always there to receive him. And it was not easy to be angry with him, either; for he possessed the charm of an irresistible gayety, and one had not only to be resigned but to show pleasure at his constant presence. Besides, neither Berta's father nor the housekeeper dared to treat him coldly; they felt compelled, by what irresistible spell they knew not, to receive him with all honor and with a smiling countenance.
This is the case when they are under the influence of his presence: but when he is absent, the father and the nurse treat him without any ceremony whatever. The two get together in secret and in whispers revenge themselves upon him by picking him to pieces. In these secret backbitings they give vent to the aversion with which he inspires them; and the father and the nurse between them leave him without a single good quality.
And it is not without reason that they berate him, for since he took the house by storm nothing is done in it but what pleases him; he it is who rules it, he it is who orders everything. For Berta thinks that all he does is right, and there is no help for it but to bow in silence to her will.
But they are not satisfied with berating him; they also conspire against him. What means shall they take to overthrow the power of this unlawful ruler?—for in the eyes of the housekeeper he is a usurper, and in those of Berta's father, a tyrant;—turn him out of the house? This is the one thought of the conspirators. But how? This is the difficulty which confronts them.
Two means entirely opposed to each other occur to them—to fly from him or to make a stand against him. To fly is the plan of Berta's father; it is the resource which is most consistent with his pacific character. To fly far from him, far away, to the ends of the earth.
But to this the housekeeper answers:
"Fly from him! What nonsense! Where could we go, that he would not follow us? No; such folly is not to be thought of. What we ought to do is to take a firm stand and defend ourselves against him."
"Defend ourselves against him!" exclaimed Berta's father. "With what weapons? With what strength?"
"Neither strength nor weapons are required," replied the nurse. "Some day you bar the door against him, and then he may knock in vain. Satan turns away from closed doors."
"Nurse Juana, that is folly," replied Berta's father; "if he does not come in by the door he will come in by the window, or down the chimney."
Juana bit her lips reflectively, for what she had never been able to explain satisfactorily to herself was how he had succeeded in entering the house for the first time, for the door was always kept closed; it was necessary to knock to have it opened; and it was never opened unless under the inspection of the housekeeper; she always wanted to know who came in and who went out, and in this she was very particular. How then had he been able to come in without being seen or heard?
Her first inquiries on this mysterious point were addressed to Berta—and Berta answered simply that he had entered without knocking because the door was open. This the nurse found impossible to believe.
She remained thoughtful, then, for this demon of a man, it seemed, could in truth enter the house even if the door were barred.
The conspirators did not get beyond these two courses of action: to fly or to defend themselves. To fly was impossible, and to defend themselves was impracticable. Berta's father and the housekeeper discussed these two points daily without seeing light on any side. And must they resign themselves to living under the diabolical yoke of that man? Both found themselves in a situation that would be difficult to describe. They lived in constant trepidation, fearing they knew not what.
And who, then, is this man who rules them with his presence and who has made himself master of Berta's heart? His name is Adrian Baker, he lives alone, and he possesses a large fortune. This is all that is known about him.
For the rest, he is young, tall, graceful in figure, with hair like gold and a complexion as fair as snow; ardent and impassioned in speech, and with steadfast, searching, and melancholy eyes, blue as the blue of deep waters.
His manners could not be more natural, affectionate, and simple than they are. He enters the house and runs up the stairs, two steps at a time. Nothing stops him. If he meets Berta's father, he rushes to him and embraces him, and the good man trembles from head to foot in the pressure of those affectionate embraces. If it is the housekeeper who comes to meet him, he lays his hand affectionately on her shoulder, and he always has some pleasant remark to make, some cunning flattery which awakens in the nurse a strange emotion. She feels as if the sap of youth were, of a sudden, flowing through her veins.
There is no way of escaping the magic of his words, the spell of his voice, the charm of his presence. Juana has observed that when he looks at Berta his eyes shine with a light like that which the eyes of cats emit in the dark; she has observed also that Berta turns pale under the power of his glance, and that she bows her head under it as if yielding to the influence of an irresistible will.
She has observed still more: she has observed that this mysterious man at times sits lost in thought, his chin resting on his hand and a frown on his brows, as if he saw some dreadful vision before him, and that presently, as if awakening from a dream, he talks and smiles and laughs as before. Berta's father has observed, on his side, that he knows something about everything, understands something of everything, has an explanation for everything, comprehends and divines everything, as if he possessed the secret of all things. And these observations they communicate to each other, filled with wonder and amazement.
Sometimes, sitting beside Berta, he amuses himself winding the linen floss or the silks with which she is embroidering, or in cutting fantastic figures out of any scrap of paper that may be at hand. Then he is like a child. At other times he speaks of the world and of men, of foreign countries and of remote ages, with so much gravity and judgment that he seems like an old man who has retired from the world laden with wisdom and experience.
But when he seats himself at the piano, then one can only yield one's self unresistingly to the caprices of his will. The keys, touched by his fingers, produce melodies so sparkling, so joyous, that the soul is filled with gayety; but suddenly he changes to another key and the piano moans and sighs like a human voice, and the heart is moved and the eyes fill with tears. But this is not all; for, when one least expects it, thunder low and deep seems to roll through the instrument; and strains are heard, now near, now distant, that thrill the heart, and tones that fill the soul with terror; through the vibrating chords all the spirits of the other world seem to be speaking in an unknown tongue.
It is all very well for the housekeeper to regard Adrian Baker as the devil in person, or as a man possessed by the devil, or at least as an extraordinary being, who possesses the diabolical secret of some wonder-working philtre. It is all very well for Berta's father to see in him a masterful mind and an eccentric nature. And who knows—he has sometimes heard of mysterious fluids, of subtle forces which attract arid repel, of dominating influences, of marvels of magnetism; and although he has never given a great deal of thought to any of those matters, he thinks about them since he has felt himself dominated by this singular personage, and Adrian Baker has become, in fact, his fixed idea, his absorbing thought, his unceasing preoccupation, his constant monomania. Berta's father and the housekeeper may very well attribute to him marvellous powers, suggested by their own excited imaginations; but we must not share in those hallucinations, nor are we to conclude from them that Adrian Baker is outside the common law to which ordinary mortals are subject.
This is evident; but, still, who is Adrian Baker?
We shall present here all the information that we have been able to gather about him, and let each one draw from it the conclusion he pleases.
It is not yet quite two years since one of the carriages which transport passengers from the railway station to the city which is the scene of our story, drove rapidly from the station; the energy with which the coachman whipped up his horses showed the haste or the importance of the travellers it carried.
This carriage entered the city and stopped before the door of the best hotel of the place; there the solitary traveller it carried alighted from it, and this traveller was Adrian Baker. He was enveloped in a travelling great-coat lined with costly fur. The eagerness with which the waiters of the hotel hastened to meet him showed that they had discovered in the new guest a mine of tips. The coachman took his leave of him, hat in hand, and as he turned away looked around at the bystanders, displaying to them a gold coin in his left eye.
Nothing more was needed to cause the luggage of the guest to be whisked off to the most sumptuous room in the hotel. Seven cities of Greece disputed with one another the honor of having been the birthplace of Homer; more than seven waiters disputed with one another the honor of carrying Adrian Baker's valise. He was like a king entering his palace.
For several days he was to be seen alone and on foot, traversing the streets and visiting the most noteworthy buildings; then, alone also, but in a carriage, he was to be seen viewing the wildest and most picturesque spots in the neighborhood, with the attention of an artist, a philosopher, or a poet.
He was affable and easy in his manners; and he soon had many friends who talked admiringly of his eccentricities, of his riches, and of his learning; so that he was for some time the lion of the day, and therefore the favorite subject of every conversation. To win his friendship would have been for the men a triumph; and to win his heart would have been for the haughtiest woman more than a triumph; but Adrian Baker kept his inmost heart closed alike to friendship and to love; so that only three things were known about him—that he was young, that he was rich, and that he had travelled over half the world.
He was supposed to be an Englishman, a German, or an American; in the first place, because he was fair, and in the second place, because, although he spoke Spanish as if it were his native tongue, a certain foreign flavor was to be noticed in his accent, which each one interpreted according to his fancy.
For the rest, he seemed pleased with the beauty of the sky and the gayety of the landscape, and although he had told no one whether he intended to remain there long or not, the fact was that he did not go away. Doubtless he grew tired of the life at the hotel, for one day he suddenly bought a fine house and established himself in it like a prince. This edifice, venerable from its antiquity, had the grandiose aspect of a palace, and one of its angles fronted Berta's house.
This is all that was known about Adrian Baker. We now know, therefore, that the mysterious Adrian Baker was neither more nor less than Berta's neighbor himself.
One night, returning from his daily visit to Berta, he entered the house, crossed the hall, and shut himself up in his own apartments. Shortly afterwards the great door of the palace, creaking harshly on its hinges, was closed; the lights were extinguished one by one, and everything remained in profound silence. Adrian Baker, however, was not asleep.
At the further end of the room, which was lighted by the soft light of a lamp, he sat with his elbows resting on a mahogany table and his face buried in his hands, seemingly lost in thought. And his thoughts could not be of a pleasant nature, for the stern frown upon his brow showed that some storm was raging behind that forehead smooth as a child's and pale as death. The light of the lamp, reflected from his golden hair, seemed to envelop his head in fantastic lights and shadows.
After many moments of immobility and silence, he struck the table violently with the palm of his hand, exclaiming:
"Accursed riches! Odious learning! Cruel experience!"
Then he rose to his feet, and striding up and down the room like a madman, he cried in smothered accents:
"Faith! Faith! Doubt is killing me!"
A moment later he shook his beautiful head and burst into a terrible laugh.
"Very well," he said. "The proof is a terrible one, but I require this proof. I must descend into the tomb to obtain it: well, then, I will descend into the tomb. I must consult the sombre oracle of death concerning the mysteries of life: well, then, I will consult it."
At this moment the glass chimney of the lamp burst, falling to the floor in a thousand fragments; the lurid flame sent forth a black smoke that filled the room with shadows which crept along the walls, mingled together on the ceiling, and crossed one another on the floor; the furniture seemed to be moving, the ceiling sinking down, and the walls receding.
In the midst of this demon dance of lights and shadows, the flame of the lamp went out, as if in obedience to an invisible breath, and in the darkness that followed all was silence.
Something extraordinary must have occurred in Berta's house, for the nurse seemed to have been seized by a sudden fit of restlessness that would not let her sit still for a moment. She went to and fro, upstairs and down, out and in, with the mechanical movement of an automaton. It was a sort of nervous attack that had in a moment increased twofold the housekeeper's domestic activity. Suddenly she would stand still, and placing her forefinger on her upper lip she would remain motionless, as if she were seeking in her mind the explanation of some mystery or the key to some riddle, gesticulating with expressive eloquence, and, so to say, thinking in gestures.
But the cause of the agitation which we observe in her could not be a very alarming one, for in the midst of it all there was apparent something like joy, a secret joy which in spite of herself was perceptible through her restlessness and her gesticulations. In our poor human nature, joy and sorrow often manifest themselves by the same symptoms; and a piece of good news will agitate us in the same way as a piece of bad news.
Be this as it may, what is certain is that the housekeeper seemed to be excited by some secret thought which she turned over and over in her mind, and that she was waiting for something with impatience, for from time to time she stood still, stretched out her neck, and listened.
Suddenly the door-bell rang twice; slowly, deliberately, producing on the nurse the effect of an electric shock. She threw down some house-linen which she had in her hands, overturned a chair or two that stood in her way, and tore a curtain that opposed her progress, leaving devastation and destruction in her wake, like a storm.
She pulled the cord which opened the door, and she pulled it so violently that the door sprang wide open, giving admittance to Berta's father, who entered slowly, leaning on his cane like a man whose vitality is beginning to fail. As he entered, he raised his eyes with a look of melancholy discouragement, and at the head of the stairs he saw the housekeeper, who seemed to be trying to tell him something, gesticulating violently and waving her arms like the apparatus of a semaphore. The good man did not understand a word of this telegraphic language, and he stopped at the foot of the stairs, endeavoring to comprehend the meaning of the signs which the housekeeper was excitedly making above his head. But, naturally, he was not very skilful in this kind of investigation, and his not very vivid imagination was at this moment paralyzed. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders with a sort of resigned and patient desperation, as if to say, "What are you trying to tell me?" The housekeeper folded her arms and shook her head three times; this meant: "Stupid! stupid! stupid!" The good man bent his head under the triple accusation, and proceeded to ascend the stairs. At the head Nurse Juana was waiting for him, and without further ceremony she took him by the hand and drew him into his room; and there, after assuring herself that no one was within hearing, she put her mouth close to the ear of Berta's father, and in a mysterious voice, and with an air of profound mystery, she said to him:
"He is going away!"
"He is going away!" repeated Berta's father, exhaling a profound sigh.
"Yes," she added; "we are going to be free."
"Free!" repeated the good man, shaking his head with an air of incredulity. Then he asked:
"And where is he going?"
"He is going very far away," answered the nurse. "That is certain. He is going very far away, to some place, I don't know where, at the other end of the earth. It is a sudden journey."
The good man sighed again despondently; Nurse Juana looked at him with amazement, saying:
"Any one would suppose that I had just given you a piece of bad news. Can that man have bewitched you to the extent—"
"Yes," he interrupted, "for if he goes he will not go alone; he will take Berta with him, and then what is to become of us?"
"Nothing of the kind," replied Juana. "He will go alone—entirely alone."
"Worse and worse," said the father, "for then, what is to become of Berta?"
"Nothing," said the nurse. "Out of sight, out of mind. The absent are forgotten; the dead are buried. That is the way of the world. Berta knows all about it; she told me herself, and she is as calm and as cool as possible. Bah, she won't need any cordial to keep her up when she is bidding him good-bye."
As she uttered the last word she turned her head and she could not restrain the cry that rose to her lips as she saw Adrian Baker, who had just entered—Adrian Baker, in person, paler than ever, dressed in a handsome travelling suit. His eyes shone with a strange lustre, and a smile, half sad, half mocking, curved his lips.
He begged a thousand pardons for the surprise which he had caused them, and said that unforeseen circumstances obliged him to undertake a sudden journey to New York, where he was urgently called by affairs of the greatest importance, but that he would return soon.
"I am going away," he ended, "but I leave my heart here and I will come back for it."
Saying this, he embraced Berta's father so affectionately that the worthy man was deeply moved, and Nurse Juana, dominated by the voice and the presence of this singular man, felt a tear or two spring to her eyes, which she hastened to wipe away with the corner of her apron.
Adrian Baker laid his hand on her shoulder, a hand which the nurse felt tremble, and she trembled herself as she heard him say:
"That is the way of the world, eh? Well, we shall see."
Then he left the room, and the father and the nurse followed him mechanically.
Berta came out to meet them, and her hand sought Adrian Baker's, and both hands remained clasped for a long time.
"You will come back soon?" asked Berta, in soft and trembling accents.
"Soon," he answered.
"When?" she asked.
"Soon," repeated Baker. "If you wait for me your heart will announce my return to you."
"I will wait for ever for you," said Berta, in a choking voice, but without a tear in her eyes.
Their hands unclasped, Adrian Baker hurried to the stairs, ran down precipitately, and shortly afterward they heard the rolling of the carriage which bore him away.
Bertha gave her father a gentle smile and then ran to shut herself up in her room.
As the noise of the carriage wheels died away in the distance, like a dying peal of thunder, the housekeeper crossed herself, and said:
"He is gone; now we can breathe freely."
Apparently Nurse Juana knew the human heart well, or at least Berta's heart, for three months had passed since Adrian Baker had sailed for New York, and not once had she been able to surprise a tear in the eyes of the girl to whom she had taken the place of a mother. Berta apparently felt no grief at his absence.
It is true that during these three months of absence a letter had been received from New York, in which Adrian Baker said to Berta all that is said in such cases; it was a simple, tender and earnest letter, that did not seem to have been written three thousand miles away; on the other side of the great ocean in which the most ardent and the most profound passions are wrecked. It is true that this letter was answered by return of mail, and that it traversed the stormy solitudes of the sea full of promises and hopes.
It is also true that Berta put away Adrian Baker's letter carefully, treasuring it as one treasures a relic. It is true that she passed whole hours seated at her piano running her fingers up and down the keys, playing Adrian Baker's favorite airs, which he himself had taught her. But except this, Berta lived like other girls; she had an excellent appetite and she slept the tranquil sleep of a happy heart. She spent the usual time at her toilet table and she took pleasure in making herself beautiful. Some of the asperities of her character had become softened; she spoke with all her natural vivacity, and, finally, she never mentioned Adrian Baker's name.
Her father and her nurse observed all this and deduced as a consequence that the traveller had left no trace in Berta's heart. Only one fear troubled them,—the fear that he would return.
In this way another month passed, and the memory of Adrian Baker began to wear away; if his name was sometimes mentioned, it was as one evokes the memory of a dream.
The dream, however, at times assumed the aspect of an impending reality. He might return, and beyond a doubt he had not intended to remain away for ever; his last farewell had not been an eternal one. If he himself was on the other side of the ocean, three thousand miles away, that is, in New York, at the other end of the earth, more, in the other world, his house was there, opposite them, open, kept by his servants with the same luxury and the same pomp as before he had gone away; his house that seemed like an enchanted palace waiting for its owner; and the order and care with which everything was conducted in it indicated that the servants did not wish to be surprised by the sudden appearance of their master; that is to say, that Adrian Baker might return at any moment. The plants on the terrace spread their branches as full of life as if they were tended by the hands of Adrian Baker himself.
Berta's father and the housekeeper saw in this house a constant menace; it came to be for them the shadow, so to say, of Adrian Baker; but for all that, time passed and the traveller did not return.
Spring came, and nature bloomed again with all the richness of vegetation which she displays in southern climes; and it is in the heart of the South that the scene of our story is laid. Everything put on its fairest and most smiling aspect, and the soul felt the vague happiness of a hope that is about to be realized.
Berta shared in this beautiful awakening of nature, and it might be said that her every beauty had acquired a new charm; her eyes seemed larger, her glance gentler, calmer, more profound; her cheeks fresher, softer, and rosier; and her smile more tender, innocent, and enchanting. Her figure had acquired a majestic ease, which gave to her movements voluptuousness and firmness. It seemed as if youth had made a supreme effort, and in giving the last touch to her beauty had obtained a masterpiece. She was in the full splendor of her loveliness.
In exchange, Adrian Baker's palace one morning appeared as gloomy as a sepulchre; the drawn blinds and the closed hall-door gave it the aspect of a deserted house; profound silence reigned within it, and yet the palace of Adrian Baker was still inhabited.
In the hall the figure of the porter appeared like a shade; he was dressed entirely in black, and all the other servants of the house were also clad in mourning, and in their faces were to be observed signs of sadness.
What had happened?
What had happened was simply that Adrian Baker had died in New York of an acute attack of pneumonia. The news had spread through the city with the rapidity with which bad news spreads, and it had also penetrated into Berta's house. At first it seemed incredible that Adrian Baker should have died, as if the life of this man were not subject to the contingencies to which the lives of other mortals are subject. But the tidings had been confirmed and they must be believed. Besides, the aspect of the palace bore testimony to the authenticity of the news. In that house hung with black the very stones seemed to mourn. The news had come in a black-bordered letter dated in New York and signed by the head of the house of Wilson and Company, with which Adrian Baker had large sums deposited.
Berta's father and the housekeeper looked at each other with amazement, and repeated, one after the other:
"He is dead!"
"He is dead!"
Berta, pale as death itself, surprised them as they uttered these words, and in a sepulchral voice she said:
"Yes, he has died in New York, but he lives in my heart."
And turning from them she fled to her room and seated herself at the window from which she could see the terrace of the palace. The flowers, agitated gently by the breezes of spring, leaned toward Berta as if sending her a melancholy greeting. She gazed at them without a tear in her eyes. The extreme pallor of her face and the slight trembling of her lips alone revealed the grief that afflicted her soul.
Suddenly the flight of a white butterfly circling in the air attracted her gaze. She followed it absently with her eyes, and the butterfly, as if drawn by Berta's gaze, tracing capricious circles, left the terrace, flew swiftly to Berta's window and entered the room.
With an involuntary movement Berta extended her hands to catch it, but the butterfly darted between them, and circled swiftly and silently about her head, forming around her brow a sort of aureole, which appeared and disappeared like a succession of lightning flashes. The wings of the butterfly glowed above Bertha's head with a light like the first splendors of the dawn. Then it passed before her eyes, she saw it hovering over the flowers on the terrace, and then it disappeared from her gaze as if it had vanished into air. Her eyes sought it with indescribable eagerness, but in vain; she saw it no more.
She clasped her hands and two large tears rose to her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
On the following day the housekeeper, entering Berta's room, saw a shadow outlined against the wall above the head of her bed. This shadow, as the nurse looked, took the form of a human head.
It was the head of Adrian Baker, the same head, with its pale forehead, its compelling glance, and its smile, at once sweet, sad, and mocking.
The housekeeper, out of her wits with terror, crossed herself as if she had seen a diabolical vision and hurried out of the room.
Adrian Baker's death has wrought terrible ravages in Berta. She does not distress those around her by ceaseless sighs and tears; she does not continually proclaim in words the depth of her sorrow; on the contrary, she hides her grief in her own breast, devours her tears in secret, chokes back her sighs and utters no unavailing complaints; Adrian Baker's name is never heard from her lips.
It might be thought that she had consoled herself easily, if in her eyes there did not lie the shadow of a deep grief, if the pallor of her cheeks did not cover her youthful beauty like a funeral pall, if her hollow voice did not reveal the profound loneliness of her heart. At times she smiles at her father, but in her smiles there is an inexpressible bitterness. She can be seen fading away, like the flame of an expiring lamp. Like a miser she hides her grief in the bottom of her heart, as if she feared that it might be taken from her.
Her father and her nurse see her growing thin, they see her fading away, they see her dying, without being able to stop the ravages of the persistent, voiceless, inconsolable grief that is slowly sapping her youth and her life, and they curse the name of Adrian Baker, and they would at the same time give their lives to bring him back to life; but death does not give up its prey, and only one hope remains to them, the last hope— time.
But time passes, and the memory of Adrian Baker, like a slow poison, is gradually consuming Berta's life.
Everything has been done: she has been surrounded with all the delights of the world; the most eligible suitors have sued for her favor; youth, beauty, and wealth have disputed her affection with one another, but her grief has remained inaccessible; she has been subjected to every proof, but it has not been possible to tear from her soul the demon image of Adrian Baker. Medical skill has been appealed to, and science has exhausted its resources in vain, for Berta's malady is incurable.
The nurse firmly believes that Adrian Baker has bewitched her; he has diffused through her blood a diabolical philtre. Strong love will survive absence, but no love will survive death. Berta, consequently, was bewitched.
Her father has only one thought, expressed in these words: "He has gone away and he is taking her with him; after all, he is taking her with him."
But there is still one other resource to be appealed to—solitude, the fields, nature. Who can tell! the sky, the sun, the air of the country, may revive her; the poetry of nature may awaken in her heart new feelings and new hopes; the murmur of the waters, the song of the birds, the shade of the trees—why not? There is no human sorrow, however great it may be, that does not sink into insignificance before the grandeur of the heavens.
At a little distance from the city Berta's father has a small villa, whose white walls and red roof can be seen through the trees which surround it. There could not be a more picturesque situation. To the right, the mountain; to the left, the plain; in front, the sea, stretching far in the distance, until it blends with the horizon; and that nothing may be wanting to complete the picture, the ruins of an ancient monastery, seated on the slope of the mountain, can be seen from the villa.
Berta offered no resistance, for it was a matter of indifference to her whether she lived in the city or in the country; the only thing she showed any desire about was that the piano should be taken with them, as if she regarded it as a dear friend and her only confidant; and the family removed to the villa and established themselves in it.
Berta herself arranged the room which she was to occupy in the villa. This opened on the garden and served her both as bedroom and dressing-room. Above her bed she hung a beautiful life-size photograph of a head. It was that of Adrian Baker, with his pale, smooth brow, his large blue eyes and his beautiful golden curls—the head of Adrian Baker admirably photographed, and which she herself had shaded.
For the piano no place could be found to please Berta. There was only one common room in the villa, the parlor, which at times also served as a dining-room. She was hesitating between the parlor and her bedroom, when the idea occurred to her to put it in a small pavilion covered with vines and honeysuckles, which stood in a corner of the garden and which was used as a hot-house. The idea seemed to be a happy one, and she smiled as it occurred to her, and the piano was placed in the pavilion, like a bird in its cage.
The journey must have fatigued Berta, for she retired early to her room, where the nurse left her in bed. Did she sleep? We cannot say; but at dawn the songs of the birds that made their nests in the garden caused her to rise. She opened the window-shutters and a flock of birds flew away frightened, to hide themselves in the tops of the trees, gilded by the first rays of the sun. Before long, however, the boldest of them returned to hop before her window, looking at Berta with a certain audacious familiarity as if they recognized in her an old friend. A few grains of wheat and a few crumbs of bread scattered on the window-sill gradually attracted the more timid, who grew at last to be familiar. The slightest movement, indeed, caused them to take flight precipitately; but they soon recovered their lost confidence and they returned again to hop gayly on the iron railing of the window.
Berta watched them, and as she watched them she smiled; and at the end of a few days she had induced them to come in and out with perfect confidence. In her solitary walks through the garden and through the avenue of lime trees which led to the villa, they followed her, flying from tree to tree. She spent a few hours of the morning, every day, in the pavilion, and there the birds came also, mingling their joyous carols with the melancholy strains of the piano; but the mad gayety of the birds was powerless to mitigate the profound sadness of Berta; her one thought was still Adrian—Adrian Baker.
This name, which never escaped her lips, was to be seen written everywhere by Berta's hand, on the garden walls, on the trunks of the trees; and even the vines that covered the pavilion had interlaced their branches in such a manner that "Adrian Baker" could be deciphered in them. This name was to be met everywhere, like the mute echo of an undying memory.
During the morning hours Berta's countenance seemed to be more animated, and her cheeks had even at times a rosy hue; but as the day declined her transient animation faded away, as if the sun of her life too approached its setting.
Seated at her window she contemplated in silence the clouds illumined by the last rays of the setting sun. Juana, who had exhausted in vain all her subjects of conversation, was with her. A sudden brightness hovered over Berta's head for an instant, circled swiftly around it, and then vanished from sight.
"Did you see it?" cried Berta.
"Yes," answered the nurse, "it was a white butterfly that wanted to settle on your head."
"Well?" asked Berta.
"White butterflies," said the nurse, "are a sign of good luck; they always bring good news."
"Yes," answered Berta, pressing her nurse's hand convulsively. "That is my white butterfly, and this time it will not deceive me. Adrian is coming— yes, he is coming for me; that is what it has come to tell me—I was waiting for it."
The nurse gazed at her for a moment with dilated eyes; the setting sun illumined Berta's countenance with a strange light, and the poor woman, unable to support the look which burned in the eyes of the sick girl, bent her head and clasped her hands, saying to herself:
"My God! She has lost her mind!"
The idea that Berta had lost her reason threw the housekeeper into a state of distraction. She would hide herself in the remotest corners of the house to cry by herself. She could not bear alone the burden of so terrible a secret, but to whom could she confide it? How stab the father's heart so cruelly! To tell him that Berta had lost her reason would be to kill him. The good man watched over his daughter with the eyes of love, but love itself made him blind and he did not perceive her madness.
And the housekeeper became every day more and more convinced of the reality of this dreadful misfortune. During the night she stole many times to the sleeping girl's bedside and listened to her calm breathing. No extraordinary change, either in her habits, or her acts, or her words, gave evidence of the wandering of her mind. True; but she was waiting for Adrian Baker and she declared that he would come. It was in vain she tried to persuade her that this was folly, for Berta either grew angry and commanded her to be silent, or smiled with scornful pity at her arguments. Was not this madness?
The housekeeper suddenly lost her appetite and her sleep; and she shunned Berta's father, for she was not sure of being able to keep the secret which she carried in her bosom. The same thought kept revolving in her mind like a mill. It seemed as if Berta's madness was going to cost the nurse also her reason.
One night she lay tossing about, unable to sleep, her imagination filled with dreadful spectres. In the midst of the darkness she saw faces approaching and receding from her, that laughed and wept, that vanished to appear again, and all these faces that danced before her eyes had, notwithstanding their grotesque features, a diabolical likeness to the head of Adrian Baker. The nurse, terrified, shut her eyes, that she might not see them, but notwithstanding she still continued seeing them.
She thought that she was under the influence of a nightmare, and making an effort she sat up in the bed. Suddenly she heard a distant sound of sweet music, a mysterious melody whose notes died away on the breeze.
She listened attentively, and she soon comprehended that the music she heard came from the piano; and she sprang out of bed, crying:
She began to dress herself quickly, groping for her things in the darkness, saying as she did so, in a voice full of anguish:
"Alone, in the pavilion, and at this hour! Child of my heart, you are mad!"
All the visions she had seen disappeared; she saw nothing, she only heard the distant notes of the piano breaking the silence of the night.
Going into the hall she groped her way to Berta's room. She gently pushed in the door, which opened noiselessly, and an indistinct glimmer, like the last gleam of twilight, met her eyes. It was the light of the night-lamp burning softly in its porcelain vase.
Her first glance was at the bed, which, in the indistinct light, presented to her eyes only a shapeless object; but in a moment more she saw that the bed was empty.
She thought of taking the lamp that burned in the corner of the room to light her way and going to the pavilion, but at this moment she felt a breath of cold damp air blowing softly on her face.
She turned her eyes in the direction from which the breeze had come, and observed that the window was wide open and that outside all was profound darkness.
And filled with indescribable amazement, unwilling to believe the evidence of her eyes, she saw what appeared to be a human figure standing motionless in front of the window, its hands clasped and its forehead resting against the window-frame.
A cold perspiration, like that of death, broke out over her; she would have shuddered, but she could not; she attempted to cry out, but her voice died away in her throat; she attempted to fly, but her feet, fastened to the ground, refused to carry her.
With her eyes starting from their sockets, her mouth wide open, and terror depicted on her countenance, she stood as if petrified, without the strength to keep erect or the will to fall.
And in truth she had some reason to be terrified.
Before her stood Berta, leaning motionless against the window, drinking in with rapt attention the notes which at that moment came in a torrent from the piano.
It was not Berta, then, who was breaking the silence of the night with that mysterious music.
What unknown hand, what invisible hand was it that drew those sounds from the chords of the piano in the midst of the silence and the solitude of the night! Was what her eyes saw real! Was what her ears were listening to real! Or was it all the dreadful hallucination of a terrible dream!
And this was not all; for the memory of the terrified nurse recalls with a secret shudder those mysterious melodies which now enchain her ear. Yes; through the piano roll sounds like the rumbling of thunder, and strains are heard, now near, now far, that thrill the heart, and tones that fill the soul with terror; through the vibrating chords all the spirits of the other world seem to be speaking in an unknown tongue.
I do not know how long the housekeeper might have stood silent and motionless, under the influence of the terror which mastered her, if Berta had not observed her.
It caused her neither surprise nor alarm to see her nurse there. Approaching her she took her by the hand, and, shaking her gently, said:
"Do you see?—Do you hear?—It is Adrian—Adrian who has come for me; the white butterfly did not deceive me."
The housekeeper had by this time recovered herself sufficiently to pass her hand over her forehead and to rub her eyes.
"I knew that he would come," continued Berta; "I have been waiting for him every day."
The nurse, as if by a supreme effort, drew a deep breath.
"Do you hear those sighs that come from the piano?" said Berta. "It is he; he is calling me; and since you are here, let us go to meet him."
And taking the lamp in her hand as she spoke, she added:
Nurse Juana followed her like a ghost.
They entered the garden and walked toward the pavilion. The pale light of the lamp illumined Berta's countenance, shedding around it a fantastic light that made the surrounding darkness seem more intense.
The nurse felt herself drawn along by Berta; she walked mechanically; a power stronger than her terror impelled her.
In this way they crossed the garden and reached the door of the pavilion. There Berta stopped, and called softly:
But there was no response to her call.
Then they entered the pavilion.
Juana caught hold of Berta to keep from falling, and closed her eyes.
The light of the lamp illumined the pavilion, whose solitude seemed startled by this unexpected visit; the piano was open and mute.
"No one!" exclaimed Berta, sighing.
"No one," repeated Juana, opening her eyes.
And so it was; the pavilion was empty.
It is beyond a doubt that Berta's piano has the marvellous quality of making its strings sound without the intervention of the human hand. And this being the case, it must be admitted that this marvellous instrument is, in addition, a consummate musician, for it plays with the skill attained only by great artists.
But since Nurse Juana cannot conceive how a piano can play of itself, without a hand moving the keys, she has decided that in this diabolical affair an invisible hand, the ghostly hand of some spirit from the other world, has intervened.
This supposition is not altogether admissible, for it seems to have been sufficiently proved that spirits do not possess hands. But the nurse does not stop for such fine distinctions, and she firmly believes that the spirit of Adrian Baker is wandering about the villa. Condemned perhaps to eternal torment, he takes pleasure in torturing the living even after his death.
And it is indeed a diabolical amusement, for the serenade is repeated nightly; the family are aroused from sleep; they hasten to the pavilion and the piano becomes silent; they enter it and they find no one. They have observed that the airs played by Berta in the morning are repeated by the piano at night.
Juana is assailed by continual terrors; there is no peace in the house. Berta's father is unable to explain the mystery, and his mind is filled with confusion and his heart is a prey to sudden alarms. The light of day dissipates the agitation of their minds, they fancy themselves the victims of vain hallucinations, and, arming themselves with heroic valor, they make plans for unravelling the awesome mystery.
The most courageous among them would hide in the pavilion, and there await in concealment the hour of the strange occurrence; in this way they would discover what fingers drew those sounds from the piano.
Strong in this purpose they awaited the first shades of night; but then the courage of the strongest failed. The air became filled with fearful shadows, the silence with mysterious noises, and no one ventured to leave the house. They spent the nights in vigil and the terror by which all were possessed made them seem interminable.
And for Berta, on the other hand, the days were interminable, and she awaited the nights with eager impatience.
One afternoon she expressed a desire to visit the ruins of the monastery, and she showed so much eagerness in the matter that there was no resource but to accede to her wish. Her father and her nurse resolved to accompany her, and the three set out.
The distance between the villa and the monastery was not great, but the party walked slowly. In the winding path the ruins disappeared suddenly behind a hill, as if the earth had swallowed them; a few steps further on they suddenly reappeared; and the travellers stood before the ruined portico.
From this point the eye could contemplate the ruined walls, the broken partitions, the ceilings fallen in, and between the loose stones the solitary flowers of the ruin. Only the arches which supported the vaulted roof of the chapel had resisted the corroding influence of time.
The nurse would have now willingly returned to the villa, and Berta's father had no desire to go any further, but Berta passed through the ruined portico, and they were obliged to follow her.
She made her way into the chapel, passing under the crumbling arches which threatened at every moment to fall down and crush her, and she emerged at what must have been the centre of the monastery, for the remains of the wall and some broken and unsteady pilasters showed four paths which, uniting at their extremities, formed a square. This must have been the cloister, in the middle were vestiges of a choked-up cistern.
Here Berta sat down on a piece of cornice which was imbedded in the rubbish. She seemed pleased in the midst of this desolation. Her father and the nurse joined her with terror depicted on their countenances; they had heard the noise of footsteps in the chapel; more, Juana had seen a shadow glide away; how or where she did not know, but she was sure that she had seen it.
Berta smiled and said:
"The noise of footsteps and a shadow? Very well; what harm can those footsteps or that shadow do us? They are perhaps the footsteps of Adrian Baker following us; it is his shade that accompanies us. What is there strange in that? Do you not know that I carry him in my heart? Do you not know that I am waiting for him, that I am always waiting for him?"
At the name of Adrian Baker, Berta's father and the nurse shuddered.
"Yes, my child," said the former, "but we are far from the villa, the sun is setting—it is growing late."
"Yes, yes," said Juana, "let us go back."
Berta drew her father affectionately toward her and said:
"Dear father, I am not mad. Juana, I am not mad. Adrian promised me that he would return, and he will return. I am waiting for him. Why should that be madness? I know that I grieve you, and I do not wish to grieve you. I have begged God a thousand times on my knees to tear his image from my heart and his memory from my mind; but God, who sees all things, from whom nothing is hidden, to whom all things are possible, has not wished to do it. Why? He alone knows."
The father's eyes filled with tears, and the nurse hid her face in her hands to keep back the sobs that rose in her throat.
"Yes, it is growing late. But I am very tired. Let us wait a moment."
They had nothing to say in answer to her words, nor could they have said anything, for their voices failed them.
All three remained silent.
Suddenly they looked at one another with indescribable anxiety, for all three had heard a sigh, a human sigh that seemed exhaled by the ruins around them.
Could it have been the wind, moaning as it swept through the sharp points of the broken walls?
Berta rose to her feet, and cried twice in a loud voice:
Her voice was borne away on the breeze, losing itself in the distance. But before the last notes died away, another voice resounded among the ruins, saying:
The sun had just set, and the twilight shadows gathered swiftly, as if they had sprung up from among the ruins, hiding the broken pillars and the crumbling walls.
In one of the angles of the cloister appeared a moving shadow. This shadow advanced slowly until it reached the middle of the court where the remains of the disused cistern were seen. There it stopped, and in a soft clear voice uttered the words:
"It is I, Berta; it is I."
"He!" she cried, extending her arms in the air.
Juana uttered a cry of terror and caught hold of Berta with all the strength left her; the father tried to rise, but, unable to sustain himself, fell on his knees beside his daughter.
It was not possible to reject the evidence of their senses. Whatever might be the hidden cause of the marvel, the dark key of the mystery, the shadow which had just appeared in the angle of the cloister was clearly the authentic image, the vera effigies, the very person of Adrian Baker. The astonished eyes of Berta, of her father, and of the nurse could not refuse to believe it.
His fair curls, his pale brow, the outlines of his figure, his air, his glance, his voice—all were there before the amazed eyes of Berta, her father, and the nurse.
Now, was this a fantastic creation of their troubled senses? Was it a phantom of the brain, or a reality? Did all three suffer at the same time the same hallucination? The fixed thought of all three was Adrian Baker— and the senses often counterfeit the reality of our vain imaginings. The state of their minds, the place, the hour—and then, the air produces sounds that deceive; the light and the darkness mingling together in the mysterious hour of twilight people the solitude with strange visions. And in the midst of those ruins, which began to assume fantastic forms, and which seemed to move, in the gathering shades of twilight, Berta, her father, and the nurse might well believe themselves in the presence of a spectre evoked there by their presence.
But the fact was, that the shadow, instead of vanishing, instead of changing its shape, as happens with chimeras of the brain, assumed before their eyes a more distinct form, more definite outlines, according as he approached the group.
Reaching them, he took gently in his the hands Berta held out to him. His eyes shone with the light of a supreme triumph.