Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Santa; or, A woman's tragedy - Part 1



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I had been for two or three months a regular guest at Madame de L——’s weekly concerts. She was a Russian, and assembled at her house the most distinguished foreigners who were in Paris. It was a privilege, therefore, for an undistinguished Englishman to be admitted there. She had known my father, and for the sake of “Auld Lang Syne” was most kind and courteous to me.

Soon after I first went to her house, I was much struck with the appearance of a lady whom I rarely met anywhere else in Paris. She seemed attracted by the music (certainly the best of its kind which could be heard in this Paradise of Artists, even more than of women), for she entered as the first notes of the orchestra sounded, and before the last echoes had died away she was gone.

She was the Countess Rabenfels, the widow, as it was generally supposed, of a former Austrian minister in Rome. I had been presented to her, and we had exchanged a few words, but there was an indescribable something about this lady which was an effectual barrier to all attempts on my part to improve our acquaintance. An indifference scarcely veiled by a kind of negligent politeness, which was, to say the least of it, discouraging. She attracted, and yet repelled. In society, to be above or beyond the ordinary level is not an advantage, and Madame Rabenfels was not popular. I was not surprised at it. Amongst the pretty faces and conventional smiles around, the aspect of this lady was as incongruous as that of a Greek Muse would be among Dresden china shepherdesses.

She was usually plainly but richly dressed. She wore few ornaments, and I noticed that the arrangements of her dress, though graceful, were utterly devoid of all coquetry. Her bright hair, of that tint so familiar to us in Venetian pictures (yellow with a flame through it, like rare, burnished gold), was simply folded back from her broad forehead, and drooped low down on her neck. The dark eyes were deep set, and wide apart, and there was a peculiar slowness in their movements, which gave an air of thoughtfulness, perhaps almost of sternness, to their expression. She was pale, and there were lines on her forehead, and under her eyes, which told of long suffering. But though the upper part of the face looked worn, the mouth, with its beautiful, flexible lips of rich dewy red, and the radiant teeth, which shone luminous as she smiled, was as bright as in the freshest bloom of youth. It was certainly a striking countenance. Larger thoughts, nobler purposes, deeper feelings might be read in it, than in those of the triflers around. This discrepancy was felt by all, and resented by some. All saw there was a difference; the few only acknowledged this difference a distinction.

One evening, I was as usual at Madame de L——’s. I had just entered, and was standing near Madame Rabenfels. She put out her hand to take an ice from the servant, and in so doing, some pressure of the crowd caused him to stumble, and upset the ices and tumblers into her lap. I rescued her from the broken glasses, but her dress seemed considerably damaged. She thanked me with her usual air of grave indifference, and rose to go. I offered her my arm. On reaching the entrance we found her carriage had not yet arrived. I proposed returning to the music-room. It was yet early, the clocks were only just striking twelve. She hesitated, and then with more impulsiveness than I had yet seen in her, said:

“I have an engagement, and must go; but I will draw my hood over my head, and I can easily walk the little distance. Good night,” and she offered to shake hands. I smiled, and told her she must have a strange opinion of me, if she imagined I would not request permission to accompany her.

“Thank you,” she answered gravely; “it is scarcely necessary, for in ten minutes I shall be at home; however, as you will.”

Coldly as the permission was granted, I availed myself of it and walked with her.

It was a beautiful night, and Paris proper, as it might be termed, sparkled in the distance, while the dark trees of the Champs Elysées looked shadowy and gloomy near us. The roll of carriages, and that indescribable noise which surges through the night in a great city like Paris, was very striking, contrasted with the distinct fall of our own footsteps. The silence and the darkness near us, the glitter and the reverberations beyond us, had a mysterious, ominous effect. We seemed walking in some weird and enchanted world, cut off and separated from the real one by those busy echoes, and those bands of light.

“Do you not think,” I remarked, “that those lamps, in their tortuous and undulating lines, look like the convolutions of some huge shining serpent, intent on barring our further progress?”

“More like the bright nails which are disposed in lines and curves on some vast black coffin spread out before us,” she answered, and we both smiled at our somewhat far-fetched and gloomy comparisons.

“I feel almost superstitious,” she continued, “when I look at these silent, shining witnesses of all the deeds of the night. The stars are too far above our sphere for us to claim their sympathy; but these are in the midst of all, and are a part of all, and yet are as completely removed from all, as the stars themselves.”

“Exactly so, and it is one of my pleasures to walk sometimes late at night, or rather early in the morning, here, and watch the distant lights, and wonder what scenes are being acted in the great drama of life before their steadfast, ruthless presence.”

“But here, we are both too near and too far from the great throbbing heart of the fair wicked city for true observation.”

“Why do you think so?”

“There is something so mournful and so depressing in being cut off, as it were, from the joys and sorrows of the multitude,” she answered, sadly, “that we cannot judge fairly when thus separated from them.”

“It is but like the lives of many of us,” I replied. “To some are given the wide sympathies, the broad lights of life; to others the silence and the shade, with only the echoes of one footstep sounding through their darkened existence.”

She paused abruptly. Whether she was satisfied on reflection that I meant no personal allusion in what I said, I know not; but, after a minute or two, she went on in a lighter tone:

“This late walk in evening dress reminds me of such happy days! When a young girl in Rome, I always returned on foot from any little evening gaieties to which I went. My brother, though much older than myself, humoured me in all my whims and fancies. We would hasten through the streets till we entered the little side door which opened upon the great court-yard, and then we raced to see which could reach first, the fountain, that tossed up its sparkles in the moonlight. How many sprays of the fern which hung over it have I held up in token of victory! for I used always to win then.” A lovely smile hovered for a moment over her lips.

“You are a Roman?”

“I am a Colonna,” she answered. There was a simple dignity in her tone which suited her well, and the picture her words had created of the two Italians, one so beautiful, and both in the bloom of youth,—of the sky of Rome with its intense moonlight,—of the fountain garlanded with fern, such as I had often seen in my wanderings in the old city, was charming.

Hitherto my conversations with her had been brief; the general tone of her serious and anti-mundane remarks had excited my profane discontent or my irreverent impatience, but now I was deeply interested. We had reached her house. She thanked me politely, bade me farewell kindly, and the door closed upon her.

I stood for a moment, in deep thought, when I felt my arm touched, and saw my friend Auguste Rochecalme.

“I congratulate you, mon cher.”

Why did these words sting me? I laughed out loud as I answered, “Why, Auguste?”

“You have achieved an intimacy which we all covet.” He laid an insolent stress on the word intimacy.

I was a vile coward to allow such words to be uttered in my presence. Does an evil spirit enter into us at times, that thus, without cause or provocation, we belie our own hearts, and all but sanction the foul trifling words which sully that which ought to be sacred, and is in truth sacred in our own eyes? My companion looked hard at me and went on:

“You escorted Madame Rabenfels from Madame de L——’s. I observed that you left together, and I find you at her door after midnight.”

“You must have done me the honour to watch me pretty closely.”

“I am interested in that lady.”

I winced, and looked at my companion from head to foot as he went on. “I have long admired her, and there is a mystery about her which is piquant. She ought to be a facile conquest, if all be true that I have heard of her. Indeed, I have myself witnessed strange things in her mode of life.”

The exquisite pain these words gave me were the fitting punishment for my disgraceful complicity in his impertinence a few minutes before. He continued: “You and I are such old friends, Seymour, that I don’t mind making you my father confessor. My engagements have sometimes led me at a late hour near one of the worst localities of this very naughty city. Invariably I have seen, myself unseen, this lady leave at about three or later in the morning one of the houses in the Rue du Puits. One day I had the meanness, or what you will, to go to the house, and by a small donation to the porter, heard that a lady visited almost daily, or rather nightly, a young man who lodged in one of the rooms. His name I have forgotten. He was in bad health, and very poor. He had lived there for a few months in the strictest retirement, and with the closest economy. His only visible means of subsistence was authorship, and he wrote almost day and night. Some time ago he met with an accident, was run over or knocked down:—que sais-je?—and was brought home by this lady in a fiacre. She did not leave him for three entire days. Since then she has constantly been to see him, and has arranged everything for his comfort.”

“Surely,” I said, “a woman can be charitable without exposing herself to such injurious comments? She may belong to some religious order.”

“Charity can be exercised by day, or dispensed by a servant. Besides, my informant, who seemed resolved to give me my money’s worth, entered into details. He had heard the man call the lady by her Christian name, and one night, in preparing a room (so he said), which opened upon that occupied by the young man, he had heard voices raised so high that, though he could not understand the words (for they spoke in Italian), he could comprehend by the tones, that the lady was imploring some favour which her companion was angrily refusing. In some occult manner he also discovered that she was in a convulsion of grief, and had thrown herself on her knees. I dare say some of this information was false. He no doubt wished to excite me sufficiently to come again and pay for more of his news. But there was verisimilitude in it. Our fair friend has something tragic in her mien. One of those women who take things so terribly in earnest, and who are not contented with the surface of things, as most of their dear sex are. The worst kind of women to have to deal with in any relation whatever,” said he sententiously.

Poor women, we complain of your frivolity, and if we meet with one who appears to possess some depth of character or reality of purpose, she becomes more surely a victim from those very qualities.

“This is no longer the age for tragedy,” said Auguste; “life has become a comedy, a sentimental comedy if you will, but there are no parts now for your Heloisas or your Saint Theresas.”

He might have gone on for an hour; all the time he spoke, and though every word was distinctly audible to me, a vision rose before me of a noble head, a clear, frank, lofty look, and an aspect so entirely the reverse of anything undisciplined or unprincipled that it seemed to be treason to listen to him.

“What are you thinking of? Have you no remark to make upon my revelations?”

“What reply would you have? It would take too long to sift the truth from the falsehood in this romantic story, and what does it matter to me?”

“Pshaw! I have seen you hover perpetually about her for the last three months. You admire her; so do I; so do we all; but there is a hitch somewhere. There is something about her which jars with her surroundings. Some go so far as to say she is not a widow, that her husband is still alive, but that she has been separated from him for years.”

“Who says so?”

“Some countrymen of hers. The name of Rabenfels, however, belongs to such a large Austrian clan, if I may so call it, that they may have been mistaken. Yet you must confess there is a mystery about her.”

“I confess nothing of the kind.”

“But I should say,” he went on, without noticing my interruption, “that her appearance belies the scandal. Her air is so frankly independent, so quietly distinguished. A manner which is not fluttered and defiant, like that of most women in that equivocal position, but calm and self-relying. A woman separated from her husband, as things are at present, is at once in an antagonistic relation to society. It requires more consummate tact than most women are gifted with, it needs less impulsiveness than they usually possess, to steer safely through all their difficulties. This is why so few separated women keep their position in society: they almost all sink into the demi-monde.”

“Is that the fault of women, or the fault of society?”

“I think it would take us too long to discuss that question, I against women and for society; you for women and against society. Hitherto Madame Rabenfels has lived so quietly, and being so rich, the world expects so much from her power of contributing to its pleasures and amusements, that she has not yet been ostracised. I was told that her husband and herself were separated after two years of marriage; he is much older than she is, and some extraordinary tales are told of the admiration of an exalted personage at Vienna; but why this should have caused a separation is not explained. There is a long gap, too, between her leaving Vienna and her arrival in Paris. Here, musicians, painters, and authors are her only associates; but even these she sees rarely. Still, the devil’s advocate would obtain her non-canonisation, from a general unsaintly look about her and her belongings, and something revolutionary and strong-minded in her opinions; and then this episode of the Rue du Puits is damning in my opinion. If not married, why not see this man openly. I believe she is married.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I have an engagement. I cannot listen to your chronique scandaleuse any more.”

Why had I done so for so long? We parted, and I walked on with the buzz of those infamous words in my ears.

How strange is the heart of man! I had met this woman repeatedly, and admired her vaguely; much of what I had heard this evening I had heard in fragments before; nothing was absolutely new; and yet because I had walked a few hundred yards with her and heard her speak of the past, there was a feeling of appropriation towards her, which made my temples throb and my heart beat, at this light mention of her name.

I felt fevered and excited, and instead of going home, walked about for the next two hours, scarcely attending to where I went, till, on looking up, I found myself not far from the street mentioned by Auguste. I heard the clocks strike two, and an irresistible impulse led me to the spot mentioned by him. The streets in this neighbourhood, one of the worst in Paris, are filthy, narrow, and dark, and are reported to be dangerous. I thought of nothing, and though I was once hustled and pressed on by two men, I got free and went on. As I passed the centre house, the door opened and a woman issued from it. She went swiftly onwards, without turning to the right or the left. She was plainly dressed in black, and her veil was drawn close down. It was my instinct alone which told me it was Madame Rabenfels, for in nothing could she have been recognised except perhaps by a certain swiftness and lightness of tread, which I had noticed as we walked together a few hours ago.

A step has to me much significance. I can judge of a character by the sound of a step. I can distinguish a race by the manner in which an individual treads. I can estimate the health and temper of a person by observing his walk.

I reached her as she came under the light of a lamp. Still I could not see her face. I passed on and then turned back and repassed her. I looked at her earnestly and saw her start. An impulse, which I restrained, made me step forward as if to speak, but she quickened her pace, and again repassed me. We proceeded thus—I following, she a little in advance—for nearly half an hour. I could not break the spell. I knew not whether she was conscious of it or not, but she drew me as a mesmeriser draws a magnetic patient. At last we entered a street into which one side of her house opened. She drew out a key and opened a small garden door. There to my astonishment she paused for a moment, turned round, threw up her veil, and walked up to me; her grave, earnest eyes flashed upon me, as she bowed haughtily, and with freezing contempt said:

“Be satisfied, Mr. Seymour, the woman you have been insulting by this espionage is the Countess Rabenfels.”

In another minute she was gone.

I was stung to the heart. I could have knelt at her feet. I could have submitted to any chastisement by way of atonement. Such were my thoughts that night as I paced my room. Night is the Egeria to us all. Our best selves come out beneath its influence and counsel. In the teeth of the reports I had heard, in spite of what I had myself seen, I could have attested, at the price of my own, the honour which I had so cruelly doubted.

But alas! the morning comes. The work-a-day world awakes, and we are at once placed in contact with the Prince of the Air and his evil angels. We become suspicious, cynical, and hard. I rose with the most unjustifiable anger against my species in general, against women in particular. Yet, as I argued with myself, what was it all to me? But when did such questions avail?

I went out more than usual. I scorned myself for feeling wounded by the actions of a comparative stranger. I could not shake it off. True, the javelin had been thrown by a stranger’s hand, but the flesh was torn and bled. Pain roused memory, and the memory of pain received and given is a strong tie. I noted this as about a week afterwards I met the Countess Rabenfels again at Madame de L——’s.

I felt I blushed as I met her glance. She looked much as usual, but a flash of the eye, a dilatation of the nostrils told me that she, too, was sensible of a link between us.

I listened to the music as it rose and fell. There is a bitter sweetness in the effect of music at times. We may attach our own meaning and interpretation to it, but to me at least there is often a vague sense of unfulfilled promise in it. It suggests “infinite passion,” but with it also

Of finite heaThe pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

The mortal ear is ravished with the heard melody, but it longs with a tender transport for some yet more divinely harmonious song of which it is only the type.

The rooms were very crowded and the pressure of the throng brought me suddenly exactly behind the seat occupied by Madame Rabenfels.

“How perfect the music has been to-night,” I said to her.

“Perfect in itself, but to me there is always imperfection in music.”

I started, as she thus echoed my own thoughts.

“It is not so much the case in vocal music; the voice and passion of the singer give individuality, and limit it at once to the finite, and within that limit we can be entirely satisfied. But the absolute concord of perfectly wrought instruments, and the perfect beauty of the compositions they utter, rouse in us a burning sense of the infinite which cannot be assuaged.”

“I agree with you,” I said.

I thought she sighed. We were silent. The ghost of the evening in the Rue du Puits rose between us. As I stood so near her, I could observe that tremulous movement in the throat which is the sure sign of suppressed emotion among women. The face remains calm, the eyes cold, the mouth even is still, but they cannot silence this treacherous pulse.

At this moment some one passed me, and whispered in a mocking, stage whisper:

“Remember No. 9, Rue du Puits.”

I turned and saw the laughing face of Auguste. She heard him also. She looked at him, and then full in my face. It flashed upon me that she thought I had betrayed her secret to this worldly trifler. What steadfast questioning in her eyes! No reproach, but a kind of mournful wonder, a sense of undeserved wrong, a perception of unexpected baseness. My eyes fell. But the fiend within me had been roused, and was not to be thus appeased.

“By-the-bye,” I said, “will you allow me to assume the privileges of a native, counselling a stranger upon the usages of his country? I have lived in Paris so long that I know it well. You should not enter the street in which I met you some nights ago.” (She started.) “There are all kinds of dangers in it. No one should enforce such an obligation upon you.”

She turned white to the lips, but I went on.

“There are all kinds of dangers——

“For me there are no dangers.”

“Dangers to the purse, the life——

“Go on.”

“The reputation of those seen in it. But I suppose you are unacquainted with its character, and passed through it accidentally?”

I became confused. My impertinence, excited by a kind of blind revenge for the pain I had suffered and was suffering, was not natural to me, and I used the weapon awkwardly, and possibly gave more pain than even in that moment of resentment I intended.

“You are mistaken,” she said quietly, and rose from her seat. “I know the street well: I go there constantly: I go to-night again.” And with superb disdain she bowed and left me.

Again was I foiled. What a fool I had been! And how each blow I aimed at her recoiled upon myself. The ground seemed to become suddenly hot beneath my feet, and I too left the room.