Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Santa; or, A woman's tragedy - Part 2



A Woman's Tragedy (2).png


I did not again meet Madame Rabenfels. She did not make her appearance the following week at Madame de L——’s. I was restless and unhappy. A longing I could not control would take me to the door of her house, and then when I came in sight of it, a recoil equally strong would oblige me to leave it. I resolutely avoided Auguste. I did not confess to myself that I was in love. I only acknowledged the interest we all feel in one we have wronged and misjudged. I had besides a mystic feeling that our acquaintance would not terminate thus, that our fates were in some way connected. In many ways the name of Madame Rabenfels reached me, and generally with some disparaging remark. Sometimes, however, with enthusiastic praise. Some persons denied indignantly the truth of the reports about her, others in the most unqualified manner classed her with the many unfortunate women placed in an equivocal position from the mere fact of being separated from their husbands. Strangely enough, however, these allusions were to the past life: the present seemed ignored by all but Auguste.

I knew she continued her visits to the Rue du Puits. I often waited for her near her own house, or rather near the garden entrance. I felt happier when I had seen the door close upon her. She was safe. Yet was it torture to me. The hours I spent thus waiting for her were the bitterest of my life. Regret, jealousy, sorrow, compassion, agitated me by turns. I had also a sense through all of my own impotence to throw off the yoke which I bore, though it galled my very heart-strings, or to be of the slightest use or consolation to her whatever the grief she endured—and this was very hard to bear.

A week or two passed, and I began to realise through all this suffering the hold this affection had upon me.

One night, or rather morning, I was standing a few yards from her door. I saw her advancing with a slower step than usual. She paused for a moment and leaned against the door before opening it, as if giving herself time for thought, or to recover herself after some overpowering emotion. She clasped her hands together with a gesture of passionate sorrow, and then entered. After the door had closed I was moving onwards when my attention was attracted by something glittering on the ground. I picked it up. It was a bracelet. I went to one of the lamps and held it up to the light. It was an old-fashioned silver chain. It was clasped by a cross, anchor, and heart entwined together. On these was written in large letters,—“Volere,” “Sapere,” “Ardire.” On the anchor, in pearls, “Volere;” on the cross, in sapphires, “Sapere;” on the heart, in carbuncles, “Ardire.” “To know, to will, to dare.” “I will dare,” I said to myself, and went to the door. Before I could look about for a bell to ring, or a fastening to undo, it suddenly opened, and Madame Rabenfels stood before me.

“My bracelet!” she exclaimed.

I put it into her hand.

“You do not know how you have served me,” she said. “This is a talisman; but how did you know it was mine?”

I felt that I crimsoned to the very temples.

“I have observed it on your arm—I was passing—”

We were standing near the door of the garden. At that moment a quick step ran up the path, and a woman servant rushed up to us and spoke to her mistress in Italian. She was evidently the bearer of some important and unpleasant news, for she was crying and in the greatest agitation. Though I understand Italian perfectly, she spoke so low and so rapidly that I could only hear that some one had arrived.

“My brother!” exclaimed Madame Rabenfels, and put out her hand as if for support.

She trembled from head to foot. I placed her arm in mine, and she moved on almost unconsciously, as it seemed to me, towards the house.

My presentiments were true. We were in what seemed the crisis of her fate—together! The dark sky stooped low over us, and held a pall as it were over both; the thick trees waved their branches around us, and united us in their embrace; the weeds over which we trod, and which continually impeded our progress, grasped at us as they would have linked us in one chain.

She did not speak. We soon reached the house. She still leant upon my arm, and I accompanied her up-stairs. The landing-place of the stairs was a gallery into which several doors opened. One of these doors was suddenly and violently opened, and a man in the dress of a Roman ecclesiastic met us.

“I have come, Santa,” he said, but stopped when he saw me. He took her from me, looked at me from head to foot, re-entered the room he had left, and would have shut the door in my face I believe, but she recovered herself with an effort, and almost drew me in after her. Alas! she instinctively clung to the presence which was friendly to her.

“Santa—” he again exclaimed, and then paused.

“When did you arrive, Giovanni?”

“Shortly after midnight. I sent for Annunziata, and after a thousand subterfuges and lies, discovered you were out, and—”

“Here I am; but what has caused this sudden journey, and why did you wait for me? They would have prepared a room for you in a moment.”

“Your husband has sent for you—he has been dangerously ill—he is willing—” but he interrupted himself almost fiercely—“I do not think it necessary to include a stranger in our conversation. Is this Rupert Rabenfels? If so, I have a message for him also.”

“It is not Rupert Rabenfels; this is a friend. But I agree with you he should be spared this miserable scene which I foresee.”

She bade me farewell—her hand lingered in mine for a moment, it was as cold as ice.

As I slowly descended the stairs, I saw a woman seated on one of the steps, apparently in a convulsion of grief. It was the maid Annunziata. She started up as I approached her.

“My good sir, why did you leave them? He will kill her with his violence: she is so good—an angel—and to be tribolata così—un vero martirio—they are all devils, all of them—husband, brother, Rupert, all of them.”

A question rose within me—who is Rupert? but I suppressed it.

“Now that her husband is ill, he wants her.” And she sobbed with childish impetuosity.

I tried to console her. She suddenly started up.

“I will not let you go, till he has left her.”

She seized my hand and dragged me after her, before I could prevent her, through a corridor, up and down various passages, till she brought me into a small, dark room. To my surprise she closed the door, locked it, and put the key into her pocket.

“There,” she said in a breathless undertone, and moved slightly a heavy curtain which masked a door; the door was open, and to my horror—for playing the eaves-dropper was not my vocation—I found myself next to the room in which were Madame Rabenfels and her brother.

I turned away: Annunziata had seated herself on the ground, covered her face with her apron to stifle her sobs, and was rocking herself to and fro. If I tried to pass her she would be sure to make a disturbance, and thus create the difficulty I would have laid down my life to avoid. Yet it was terrible to become the secret witness of this scene, although there was a kind of fatal fascination in it, I confess. Two human beings of such strong passions and energies, struggling in what seemed a storm of fate, so much sorrow and beauty in one, so much anger and reproach in the other, and both giving free scope to their feelings with Italian eloquence and demonstrativeness, would have interested the most indifferent spectator. What must it have been to me, who felt my love (I had at last acknowledged to myself that it was love) was being tried there, as before a tribunal, to be dismissed as guilty, or acquitted as innocent? Was she married? Had she been divorced? Was she free? Their voices reached me distinctly as if I had been in the same room.

“Ferdinand will forgive the past.”

“Forgive—grant me patience;—do not mistake me for a moment, Giovanni; I stand where the condemnation or absolution of Ferdinand cannot reach me. I throw from me that word forgiveness as a reproach.”

I saw her erect, superb, defiant; she stood before him like a flame, thrilling with an indignation which words seemed powerless to express.

“Santa, you are mad.”

“Not yet, Giovanni; I shall be driven so perhaps.”

“A woman owes submission, obedience, humility to her husband.”

“Her husband owes protection, love, fidelity to her. There is no tampering with these reciprocal duties. Think not I would make his broken faith an excuse, had I broken mine. Thank God, the evil of others has not produced evil in me—but how could I yield when I was commanded to sin? how could I obey, when guilt was enforced upon me? how could I humble myself when my husband had sunk into such an abyss of moral inferiority? Even in your tame interpretation of conjugal duties, there is a flaw here. Who was it exposed me to a perilous temptation, when I would have fled from it? Who sought to force me back to endure it? And because I would not swerve from my duties, abandoned me in the bloom and inexperience of my youth, to solitude, calumny, sorrow? Hear me, Giovanni, I will return with you, I will put a veil over the past—but do not talk of forgiveness.”

“And Rupert Rabenfels?”

I saw her shrink back as if a weapon had reached her.

“Does your conscience speak there?”

My heart bled for her (writhing as I was with a sense of bitter impotent jealousy) when I saw her burst into a flood of tears and sink helpless into a chair.

“Did not your own words condemn you there? And since then, what has been your life? Instead of penance, mortification, self-denial, have you not led a worldly life, incessantly occupied with all which feeds the pride of the eye, the vain glory of the intellect, and the corrupt enjoyment of the senses?”

He looked round the room: it was sumptuously furnished, and bore striking evidence in its pictures, its statues, its books, its flowers, of the artistic and costly tastes of its mistress. “I have striven,” she said, “humbly to fill up the void of my existence by the cultivation of tastes and powers for which I must render an account, and which you, Giovanni, in our young days, (have you forgotten them?) encouraged and cherished.”

“It is no longer to my sister I speak,” said the priest, brutally. “I have no ties with the world; I am of those who have forsaken father and mother, sisters and brethren, for God.”

She started up (beautiful in her anger)—“Hypocrite! the God for whom you have forsaken your human ties, is ambition! Had I consented to gratify you and my husband by sinning against my own soul, you would not have broken your ties with your sister,—he, his obligations towards his wife; but,” and her voice sank into an inexpressible mournfulness, “recrimination is of no use; you and I have drifted too far apart to be able to understand each other, but, after all, let us not forget we are brother and sister.” How did the tender, warm heart subdue the fiery spirit! I felt the moisture rise in my own eyes as I listened.

“You are prepared, then, to accompany me to Rome to-morrow?”

“To-morrow? No.”

“Why not?”

“No matter” (faintly): “a day or two I must have—”

“You have partings, I suppose?” (contemptuously).

“Giovanni,” said she, gravely, “you have insulted me long enough. Had not the same mother borne us, you should repent the longest day you live the words you have said to-night.”

“Will you deny that Rupert Rabenfels is in Paris, and that you must see him before you go?”

Again she sank down on her seat, overcome, vanquished by that fatal name. “Oh!” she murmured, “to think that one human being can so torture another.” There was a pause, then she spoke in a hollow, broken voice—“I must end this, I feel it is killing me. Yes, Rupert is in Paris—I must see him once more.”

“Shameless, and yet you have denied!”

“I deny everything,” she said, passionately.

“Yet you must see him again—and you said there was no love between you.”

“I swear,” she said, wildly, “by this sacred representation of our faith,” she touched what looked like a casket upon the table, “that Rupert hates me even more than my husband does, even more than you do.” There was such a piercing grief in her tone that her brother was silenced. “Now let us part,” she said, “I need repose.” She pointed to the door opposite to where I stood, and crest-fallen and subdued, the haughty priest left the room.

I waited only till the door had closed upon him, and lifting the curtain, had entered the room, and was at her feet almost before she was conscious of my presence. I poured out before her apologies, protestations, excuses for having overheard so unintentionally the scene between her brother and herself, offers of service, assurances of my admiration, reverence, and of my most respectful love. I could have said with Balzac’s hero—“Je sens en moi le désir d’occuper ma vie à vous faire oublier vos chagrins, à vous aimer pour tous ceux qui vous ont haïe ou blessée.” I pleaded too earnestly not to be believed. Passion gave me eloquence—impulse—fire! My soul spoke to her soul and was understood.

I thought not of myself. May I not lay claim to a certain heroism in thus entirely ignoring, absorbed as I was in the impulse of chivalric devotion which stirred through my whole being and cast me at her feet, that the words I had heard that night cut up by the roots all the fond dreams of my love—Santa was married! my love, my suffering, my passion were vain. But, alas! not vain, if it were to be my privilege to serve her.

Annunziata had rushed in behind me, and with rapid words and more rapid exclamations, accused herself and praised herself in one breath, for the precaution she had taken of keeping me. Gradually I saw Madame Rabenfels’ countenance soften and relax from the set, stern expression it had assumed on my entrance. She gave me her hand.

“I thank you,” she said, “from my heart for these kind words. I feel you are my friend. I am only sorry that this poor woman’s unthinking affection for me should have detained you so long. I will now say farewell; but I owe to you, I owe to myself, some explanations of this scene; you shall have it. I will write to you. All women when accused assert they are more sinned against than sinning. God knows I am aware of sins which have merited and found their punishment; but the accusations which have been made against me are false, and the particular misconduct which has been attributed to me is the last of which I could be guilty. To sin is always to suffer; but, alas! to suffer is not always to sin.”

Her eyes fell on the casket on the table: it was a small triptych. On the left-hand leaf was the Virgin and Child; on the right hand the Virgin by the Cross; in the centre an Assumption. There was a vague resemblance in the figure of the Virgin to the woman beside me. I was to be reminded of this still more a little later.

I left her. I had a fierce longing to carry on the struggle which was warring in my heart of hearts, in solitude. If it were defeat, if it were victory, I was best alone.

I am one of those natures to whom pain is an excitement. In battle I could have continued fighting, insensible to wounds, till, riddled through and through with shot, I at last dropped down dead. The very anguish I suffered as I looked on this woman whom I had so loved, and who I must love no more, made me brave. My words were no vain, false cant. I would have literally died to make Santa happy. The self in me was destroyed as a worm is crushed beneath an iron heel.

There was that about Santa which repelled at once and for ever the thought of a sinful love. No evil could enter precincts hallowed by her presence. Goodness and a kind of crystalline passionlessness were the atmosphere of her being, and influenced all who approached her. Santa might love tenderly, fervently, deeply; but passionately—in the usual meaning of the word—never. Looking at her, the union of virgin purity and a warm, all-embracing motherhood was intelligible.

From the moment her grave eyes had met mine, and she had said, “I feel you are my friend,” there was no appeal possible. With the word “friend” she barred, as with a sword, the entrance into the Eden of Love.



The next evening, as I sat alone in my room in a tumult of feeling, I suddenly took the resolution of going to the Rue du Puits. I feared she might need protection, that the priest might follow her, that she herself, exhausted as she appeared, might require assistance; but under all these good reasons I gave myself for going, the real motive was the passionate longing I had to see her once again. Must it all end thus? Had her eyes met mine, had my hand touched hers, for the last time? Would that presence which had fulfilled life for me never rise before me again? And yet what did it all avail? In a few brief days we should be separated, and perhaps for ever. The clocks, as they told the hour, had a mournful, funereal sound, and each time they struck my nerves I felt an acute physical pain. At midnight I went out. I reached the house. I rang: the porter admitted me, and I found myself in a small paved court. I walked boldly on. The faint glimmer of a lamp which swung across from wall to wall showed me where the stairs began. I ascended one or two and looked up. As well as I could pierce the darkness, I could make out that the stairs were in short flights, divided by landing-places on which opened the doors of the rooms of the several floors.

“I will wait,” I thought; “if she be not yet arrived, I shall see her as she passes up-stairs, if not, I will wait till she comes down. If I have not courage to speak to her, her dress may touch me for a moment; in short, I shall be near her once more.”

The house was a very noisy one. I heard a voice just above me, singing in a hoarse falsetto shrill tone a gay love song. It was a woman’s voice, and grated on the ears; the words were so mirthful, the tone so despairing. I heard loud talking, and a noise of plates and glasses as of persons supping, in some other room. In one quite near me I could hear a child’s sobs, evidently crying from pain or illness, every now and then stifled, as if some manual check had been administered to it.

My sense of hearing became at last painfully on the stretch. I think I should have heard the lightest sound on the topmost stair.

I had thus waited about an hour, when suddenly I heard a step slowly descending the stairs in a faltering, hesitating manner. I felt my heart beat. There was a pause on each landing-place as if there was a difficulty in getting further. Suddenly, there was a longer one. I thought I had been mistaken in my apprehension, deceived in my yearning. I then heard a fall. I rushed up two flights, and there, at my feet, I saw a woman had fallen. It was Santa. She had fainted. I carried her down stairs, and knocked gently at the porter’s door. Grumblingly he opened it; a bribe stopped his questions. I sent him for a fiacre and placed Madame Rabenfels on a miserable chair, the only one in the room. We were alone. I chafed her hands, loosened her bonnet, unfastened her mantle—but all seemed useless. She was as if dead. I was alarmed. I did not dare to send for a doctor, secrecy being evidently of importance to her. The time passed, I waited breathlessly—she had been insensible for hours—so long that the day was already dawning with a sickly light. The porter had returned with the fiacre, but had merely put his head in to announce it, and, muttering words I did not hear, had ascended the stairs and had not returned. The house was more quiet, but at times a bell had sounded and I had performed the office of porter, and pulled the string which opened the door. At last, with a few tremulous shivers, she shuddered back to life; the grey shadow passed from her face, and she opened her eyes with a forlorn, wandering, woful look which I shall never forget. She did not move or speak, while I, as well as I could, put on her cloak and bonnet, but when I was preparing to lift her into the carriage, she asked in a faint, broken voice, the hour.

“Six,” I answered.

She put out her hand. “It must be all over. I must go upstairs,” she said.

“Impossible: you cannot stand.”

“With you,” she said faintly.

I could not oppose the pleading of that voice. Alas! what right had I to oppose it? We ascended the stairs. On the fourth landing-place she left my arm, and opened the door resolutely. It was a poor room, and I was surprised at first to see it full of light. Only for a moment. I could see, as I stood on the threshold, reflected fan wise on the ceiling, the seven luminous spots of light that shone from the seven lights below round the bed. On it was a corpse. I saw the outline of a figure, but a sheet covered it. A priest in the corner of the room was reading some prayers.

Madame Rabenfels had fallen on her knees beside the bed. After a while, she rose and uncovered the face. She stooped over it with a gesture and expression which would have convinced me at once and for ever, had I had a doubt left, that whatever mysterious tie might subsist between her and that poor clay, it was not the tie of guilty love.

At that supreme moment of sorrow there could be no feigning. No sister ever kissed her brother, no mother ever pressed her lips to the pale brow of her son, with more pure or more holy affection. She then looked round the room once more, and left it without a word.

I supported her in silence into the carriage. She sank back, and I could hear her weeping convulsively. I have never witnessed such tears: they were mingled with such sobs, such faint cries, such deep sad sighs. The heart must have been well nigh broken from which such a manifestation of grief could proceed.

The carriage stopped at some little distance from her usual entrance into her house. I dismissed it. She would not let me accompany her farther than the door. She wrung my hand in silence, and entered.

Two days afterwards a servant brought me a packet and a letter. His mistress had left Paris. This, then, was her farewell; that farewell is shrined in my soul. With the letter were enclosed some closely-written sheets which contained her history. I will transcribe it.