Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Santa; or, A woman's tragedy - Part 3
SANTA; OR, A WOMAN’S TRAGEDY.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AGNES TREMORNE,” &c.
“I will tell you my history,” she began, “and you shall judge me. You will find that—
Toute ma pbilosophie
N’est qu’un désespoir accepté.
“Till the age of sixteen I was as happy as a human being could be. I was an only daughter, and from some delicacy of constitution which required constant care, I was not sent, as usual, to a convent, but received a kind of rambling, desultory education at home. My father taught me to read, my mother to embroider, my brother to sing. I was much loved, and the indulgence I met with may perhaps have fostered my natural self-will; and yet, in the expansion which is so easy to a nature developed under genial circumstances, there is an advantage which outweighs all evils.
“I was sheltered, fostered, cherished, and I grew up to love, to confide, and to trust. I was proud, passionate, and impatient, but I was affectionate, truthful, and generous. I loved all around with the fervour of a warm heart and innocent nature.
“When I was sixteen there occurred a great misfortune in our happy home. My brother is ten years older than I am, and a circumstance I was then ignorant of caused a change in his fate. He met with a love disappointment. A beautiful girl whom he passionately loved married another man. That woman has been, directly or indirectly, the bane of my life. I never saw her, and it is strange to think of the evil I owe to her. She married a Sicilian named Serrano, and went with him to Vienna. This grief entirely changed my brother’s nature. He became stern, morose, severe, even to me. A total disbelief in the goodness and in the principles of women took the place of his former indulgence and kindness. He took orders as a priest, and in a few months his great talents, his fiery enthusiasm, and indomitable will made him recognised as one of the most promising young ecclesiastics of the Court of Rome. He became absorbed in politics. One of his favourite dreams was, to make use of the influence of Austria to deepen and extend the Papal power. He became personally ambitious; he seemed pleased at the promise of my beauty, and would talk a good deal of the necessity of a Colonna making a great alliance. It was about this time that his intercourse with political characters introduced him to the Austrian minister at Rome, the Count Rabenfels. He brought him to our house. Count Rabenfels was struck with my appearance, and, though thirty years my senior, did not hesitate to make proposals for me to my parents. My father and mother were pleased with my brilliant prospects. However unworldly for themselves, parents are often worldly for their children; but they left the decision to me. To me it seemed impossible, for the simple reason that to make any change in the life I had led hitherto, appeared out of the question. No other objection entered my head.
“I was free and light-hearted as a child. The manners, the appearance, the conversation of Count Rabenfels were all in his favour. He was so much in love that he entirely waived the question of dowry. He was so enormously rich that the few thousand scudi of a Roman girl’s portion was immaterial to him. I do not know how far these advantages would have influenced my father alone, but when backed by my brother they became irresistible. His strong and pertinacious support of the alliance imposed it on my parents as a duty. He assured them that I myself would be grateful for having it enforced upon me. He said that my ignorance and inexperience were the only motives of my opposition. He talked to me, and as, after all, my objections were to the marriage and not to the bridegroom, it was not difficult to overrule them. I consented with some girlish reluctance and some girlish pleasure in the very natural gratification of giving pleasure to others. All were delighted; and I received as my reward the most submissive and flattering homage from the stately and dignified man, who was certainly then the most powerful personage at Rome. All my young friends envied me, and vied with each other in assuring me I was the happiest girl in the world. I was bewildered by the rapidity of the preparations for my marriage, and kept in a constant state of excitement. My brother never left me; he was kinder to me than ever. There was but one dissentient voice—that of an aunt—a sister of my father’s, the abbess of the Convent of ‘Le Vive Sepolte’ in Rome.
“I was taken to receive her blessing, as was usual once a year, but the time was anticipated for this purpose on account of my marriage. She saw me alone. For some time she was silent. She looked at me fixedly.
“‘What capacities for enjoyment,’ she said, ‘are here! and also what capacities for suffering! Child! is it too late to retract?’
“‘I am to be married the day after to-morrow, dear aunt,’ I replied; ‘but why retract? Everyone is pleased, and I am happy.’
“‘Are you happy only because they are pleased?’
“‘Then you marry a man you do not love—poor, poor Santa!’
“I do not know what there was in her voice and in her look, but I felt the blood rise slowly to my forehead and a suffocating sensation swelled at my heart. In that oratory, vowed to penance, mortification and prayer, and by that austere woman, emaciated and worn down by fasts and vigils, the first veil was lifted which, till then, had concealed the mysteries of my being. The great needs of my nature rose apparent. I was psychologised as it were. I saw unutterable things—I heard unspeakable words; dimly the beatitude of love was made manifest. It was but for a moment. I was still kneeling on the cushion at my aunt’s feet. She leant forward in her high carved oak chair, holding my hands and looking into my face. Deep under her brows gleamed her dark eyes, piercing yet sad. The story of a repressed life could be read there. A restless eagerness lay coiled in their depths; but round the pale, discoloured lips there was a great sweetness and repose, and the forehead though very wan was majestic in its calm. There might still be struggle and regret, but she had overcome. I did not at once analyse all this, but the impression made on me I shall never forget. I afterwards learnt, by a bitter experience, to account for and understand, the fierce, unsatisfied longing which was the Promethean torture of this wasted life,—that hunger and thirst for human love to which some are condemned.
“‘Poor child,’ she at last said, ‘what a fate!’
“‘But indeed I shall be happy,’ I replied; and I looked round the room as if I would have said, ‘You can scarcely judge here.’
“She smiled mournfully.
“‘Santa! there are “Vive Sepolte” in the world as well as in the cloister. My youth, womanhood and age have been passed here. What I have suffered, God alone knows; and yet, at the very time when I suffered most, I knew there were griefs I should have found harder to bear. I have thought so much on this very subject—a woman’s destiny. I have written many pages on it. When I am dead they shall be sent to you.’
“‘But now, my dear child, I must give you my gift, too.’ She went to a small carved cabinet, and took out of it an old-fashioned ornament. It was a cross, anchor, and heart; but instead of the hackneyed motto of Love, Faith and Hope, inscribed on it in pearls, sapphires, and carbuncles, were the words—Volere, Sapere, Ardire, To will, to know, to dare. She clasped it on my arm, and then kissed my forehead and lips. ‘I bless you, my child; remember my one counsel to you, is—Be true. All else is scarcely in our power—passions, temptations, circumstances, may overcome us; but there is one thing in the power of all—Truth.’ She again looked me steadfastly in the face, and murmured: ‘Both the shadow and the light—both the curse and the blessing are there. What a sensitive mouth, what a firm forehead! the eyes, too, are of that royal shape which contain so many tears.’ I never saw her again.
“I married. I had not been married three months, and was still surprised and confused by my new duties, when I lost my mother. She died happily, with her hand in mine, thinking she left me safely sheltered and protected. My father survived her but a week; they had been married thirty years. Her life was the mainspring of his; without her the machine stopped.
“It was while suffering from the sorrow of these bereavements that I began to awake to the cold, selfish character of my husband. At first he was politely sympathetic, but soon my continued dejection bored him. My brother was appealed to. He would come occasionally and preach resignation to me. I was disappointed in him also. I began to realise the hardness of his character. His views of life and the world jarred upon me. He and my husband talked in a manner that was entirely incomprehensible to me. All private ties or duties were ignored. Life was to be used for public and political purposes only; state intrigues were the aim of existence—expediency its principle. A dreadful loneliness seemed to grow around me. I began to feel like the child whose fairy gifts all withered in her grasp. A husband, a brother, a gay and brilliant circle of which I was the centre,—and yet I was alone.
“We went to Vienna about eighteen months after my marriage. I was nearly nineteen and in the bloom of such beauty as I possessed. My Italian face pleased. My manners were more impulsive and animated than was the conventional mode at Court, and I became the fashion. My husband was enchanted at the admiration I received, childishly so, as it seemed to me. It mortified me that he should seem to value me more, because others appreciated his choice. How much I had to learn!
“I used to rise early, and till our late breakfast read with avidity all which fell into my way. Music I was a proficient in, but books were a new treasure. I rarely saw my husband alone. He was engaged with his letters and despatches, and our conversation was usually monosyllabic. There was something arid and monotonous in this way of life. Sometimes a poem, a song, a picture would rouse me from my lethargy, and I had a brief vision of what life might be—but it was transitory. I would look at my bracelet and wonder at its signification.
“‘How can women will, know, and dare?’ I would ask myself.
“I was as bandaged in mind as our Italian babes are in body; my perceptions were left free—but all my other faculties were dormant.
“I was a great favourite in the circle in which I moved. The highest personage in it looked upon me with a favour which placed me high in the admiration of all.
“One day, my husband informed me he was obliged to return to Rome. To my infinite surprise he said I was to remain at Vienna with his sister.
“‘Impossible, Ferdinand! I beseech you to let me go with you.’ (I had still a childish regard and confidence in him.)
“‘It is impossible, mon enfant,’ he said. ‘I go for a very short time—it will be more convenient for me to live en garçon while at Rome. There, there, never mind; you must amuse yourself as much as you can here. Your poor husband has the cares of life, you see, but he leaves you its joys.’
“I looked steadfastly in my husband’s face.
“There was an expression of irony he could not control! I must say he had not much of the hypocrite about him. I do not know whether he read incipient rebellion in my eyes; for he assumed a stern look, and said:
“‘It is my wish, Santa, that you remain,’ and left the room.
“I was too timid to follow him, but my heart swelled as if it would burst. I had a vague sense of wrong, and yet what had I to complain of? I felt I must appear unreasonable and exacting.
“I did not again see my husband till that evening at Court. The Emperor was even more gracious than usual. He spoke to me of Rome, mentioned his intention of going to Venice and Milan, in short I saw I was more than usually distinguished by him this evening. I read it in the countenances around. I read it still more distinctly in my husband’s face, as our eyes met, after a pause in my conversation with my sovereign. His eyes flashed with conscious pride, and rested on me, with a delight he could not conceal. Still when we retired, and he led me to the carriage, there was the same expression of irony on his face, that I had seen in the morning. The clever man of the world was, however, too clever. He did not understand the innocence and guilelessness of my nature. He thought my womanly vanity had been pleased at the homage I had received, and that I had already forgotten my wish of the morning. When we reached home, he said:
“‘I will now take leave of you. I go so early to-morrow that I should not like to disturb you.’
“‘Ferdinand, I entreat you to take me with you. I do not like being left alone.’
“‘Alone, when you are surrounded by friends and admirers! You had quite a triumph to-night.’
“‘I care for no triumph, but to please you. Let me go with you.’
“‘How beautiful you are!’ he said admiringly, ‘there is a power of expression in your countenance I have seen in no other—but you must be very prudent.’
“He took my arm: on it I wore my aunt’s bracelet.
“‘This is your motto,’ he said. ‘Volere, Sapere, Ardire’. It is a wise one, act upon it.’
“I threw myself at his feet.
“‘Ferdinand,’ I said, ‘I beseech you, let me go with you.’
“‘This is madness. Scenes are my aversion. I do not understand all this pertinacity and passion. It is my will that you should stay.’
“He raised me, placed me on the sofa, touched my forehead with his lips, and was gone.
“I was deeply wounded. I felt the indifference such conduct showed.
“Two months passed. I led the same life as hitherto, I was not unhappy. I enjoyed the diversions usual to my age; but there were times when I asked myself. ‘Will this go on for ever? Does life afford nothing higher, greater, more absorbing?’
“My success at Court increased daily. I was more and more drawn into its most intimate circle. My husband’s sister accompanied me everywhere; but accidentally, or from design, I was always left alone, the centre of some charmed line of demarcation at all Court festivities, which set me apart from all but one. That one showed me a kindness which I had the folly to mistake for a real honest regard. My inexperience, however, delayed the catastrophe.
“I was not one of those women who can play with love, and accept it from any man who offers it; who take possession of a life as they would of a jewel, to wear or cast aside, and as long as they preserve a personal fidelity to their husband, fancy they do no wrong. I had dreams of something different from the calm sentiment of affection which hitherto was all I had experienced or inspired; and hoped that my husband would some day see in me more than the inexperienced child he had married for her beauty, and would learn to love me as I felt I could love him; but I sought nothing else. The love now offered me had no characteristic by which I could recognise it as the passionate emotion of which I had dreamed. It was simply pleasant. A sentiment, not a feeling. My tastes were sympathised with and understood, my opinions consulted, and I had that delightful consciousness that the best construction was put upon all I did and said, which gives a woman so much security, and doubles whatever power of charming she may have. I said to myself. ‘It is sweet to have a friend.’ The exalted position of this friend mingled my gratitude with a feeling of reverence (I had been educated in the most old-fashioned notions of loyalty), which gave an exaltation to my manner which was at last misunderstood.
“It was one evening at a masked ball to which I went as Night, crescent on head and bow in hand, that the declaration, which had been probably predicted by Court gossips for more than a month past, was made. A mask hovered about me for some time, and then drew me to a conservatory which opened from the ball-room. It was the Emperor. He threw aside the careless light tone he had hitherto accustomed me to, and confessed a passion which had enough of truth in it to knock loudly at my heart. I had never till then heard that voice. Yes, I felt I was loved, though I did not love. It was bitter-sweet!
“‘Why do you look at me so searchingly?’ he said; ‘I ask for nothing but the simple assurance that I am not indifferent to you—my great love will sooner or later win a return. Beautiful and beloved, answer me.’
“I started. I felt I had forgotten myself in a strange musing to have allowed this to go so far; and to his infinite surprise, for I saw it in his face, I neither blushed nor faltered, but knelt in my turn, I gravely kissed his hand, and laid it on my forehead (such was the custom at this Court at an audience of farewell), and then I rose, and without a word left the room. He had understood me, and sprang after me.
“‘Where are you going?’
“‘To my husband.’ And then, seeing the mortification and pain of his countenance, I added, ‘Forget, as I have already forgotten.’
“The next morning by sunrise I was on my way to Rome. I travelled day and night. At length the great Dome rose before me in the purple sky. O Patria! It all seemed like a dream.
“The carriage drove to a house in the Corso, where my husband had an apartment. It was evening; through the half-closed windows I could see lights. He was at home. I went up-stairs. In the ante-room I met and recognised the German valet who was always in his service. He started back as if he had seen an apparition.
“‘Immediately,’ he said, ‘his Excellency should be informed of my arrival. But will the Countess come this way; my master is at dinner with some friends, but he will be at liberty immediately—will your ladyship come into this room and rest.’
“He showed me into a very sumptuous bed-room. Through the open doors I saw the drawing-room brilliantly lighted up, beyond was the dining-room. I threw myself on a chair and waited. Why did not my husband join me? A sound of loud gay conversation, tinkling glasses, and quick exclamations reached me through the closed doors. It was a convivial meeting evidently, and not one of the most refined character.
“At last Ferdinand entered, he looked annoyed.
“‘Santa, what is the meaning of this?’
“I did not care for his coldness. In my youth and innocence I felt a sense of protection and confidence in my husband’s presence, and in his home. I threw myself into his arms, I told him all. He started up, walked up and down the room with impatient exclamations in German, and at last drew me to the light, and looked at me from head to foot. His face cleared up.
“‘Listen to me,’ he said, gravely. ‘I will forgive you, on condition that you return home to-morrow;’—home, then, was not with him.—‘I will accompany you as far as the frontier.’
“‘Do not answer me,’ he said, imperiously. ‘Take some refreshment and repose, and be ready to start at six.’
“‘Ferdinand,’ I said, passionately, ‘have you understood me?’
“I looked into my husband’s face; it was flushed. He had evidently taken a great deal of wine. He would not have spoken with so little caution under other circumstances. He was excited, and my sudden arrival perplexed him. I was so inexperienced that the shock of finding my grave distinguished husband one of a bacchanalian circle dispelled my illusions about him at once. He was cast down from his pedestal for ever. The reaction from almost childlike respect to almost profound contempt was so great, that I was more indignant, more impetuous than I should otherwise have been.
“I wrung my hands.
“‘Nonsense, I abhor scenes; you must, you shall return.’
“‘Are you mad?’
“‘I will not return.’
“‘Your vanity has turned your head; you speak treason, and you think treason—return, you shall.’
“‘You shall not force me back where my honour is perilled.’
“‘Your honour is my honour.’
“At these words the door was opened gently, and a woman with fair face, and blonde hair streaming in ringlets over her uncovered shoulders, small and light as a fairy, glided in. I knew her face. She was an actress whose name had been often coupled with my husband’s, before his marriage.
“‘What is all this, Ferdinand?’ she said; ‘the coffee is cold. Excuse me,’ turning to me, ‘I did not see you;’ and turning to him, asked in a low voice who I was.
“Before my husband could recover the vexation into which this apparition had thrown him, I was gone.
“‘I understand him now,’ I said, and drawing my mantle round me, was down-stairs and half-way to the old Palazzo on the Palatine Hill before I again drew breath. The storm of passionate indignation with which I rushed through the moonlit streets of Rome had no grief in it. It is a sad awaking to real life, when an uncontrollable sense of wrong gives us the measure of our being. Like all persons of strong imagination, however, I somewhat exaggerated the wrong, and gave it a premeditation which was false. I imagined I had been left in Vienna purposely to free my husband from his conjugal duties, and that this woman was the cause. The truth was, I was left in Vienna because it was foreseen that my influence with the Emperor would become paramount. The Emperor himself had wished it—for I was too much in the habit of clinging to my husband for him to find it possible to make any impression on me, while the one I was always watching and thinking of, stayed beside me.
“My husband had not the deliberate villany of wishing me to be the Emperor’s mistress. He had a certain faith in my principles, but he hoped there was enough of a coquette’s instinct in my nature, to lead me to encourage, flatter, and profit by the feeling I had excited, without succumbing to it. How many women do this daily! It was friendship. And in the name of friendship a married woman can give herself so large a margin, she can take so much and give so little, if she be virtuous (virtuous, God help me!), that he anticipated the realisation of his most ambitious dreams through the Imperial favour bestowed on me. He was more contented, however, to be absent during this comedy, though it was to be performed ‘en tout bien et en tout honneur.’ On returning to Rome he met with a former love, and had compensated to himself for his enforced celibacy by enjoying a great deal of the society of his bachelor friends and connections. I was not, however, jealous in the common acceptation of the word. I cared nothing for that blue-eyed little fairy. I would not have wronged her for worlds; but the door of my heart was closed against my husband for ever!
“My brother’s astonishment, when he saw me enter the room in which he was writing was extreme. I trembled from head to foot as I related to him what had happened. He listened to me thoughtfully. He saw that my pride, my sense of right, my self-respect had been outraged; but that this was not a grief which had cut at my heart-strings. He knew—he knew, alas!
“He was kind. A room was prepared for me, my own old girlish room, and I was left to repose.
“What emotions of regret, tenderness, foreboding overcame me as I recognised the old familiar objects, the simple furniture, the faded tapestries. Eager, ardent, and impulsive as when I had last slept in that bed, what a world of thought, and what a difference of position separated me from the girl who had knelt before yonder image of the Virgin, and slept on this couch. I sobbed myself to sleep.
“I heard afterwards that my brother had sought my husband, and remonstrated strongly with him—on what? That he had not remained with me at Vienna, till my favour had been consolidated, my savage prudery softened, my girlish straight-lacedness corrected. Both the Churchman and the Ambassador, the brother and the husband, were prepared to take advantage, in the furtherance of their own selfish aims, of the magic wand which the poor beauty of the wife and the sister was to have proved.
“The next morning they both sought me. I was calmer, but I was steadfast; to Vienna I would not return without my husband.
“‘You must remain here, then.’
“‘Never!’ I said.
“‘Never. I should be disgraced—slandered—betrayed.’
“He bit his lip.
“‘You will not return to Vienna—you will not stay here?’
“‘I will return to Vienna with you.’
“‘After this escapade I should be disgraced, I think. Listen to me,’ he said, and he talked fast and eagerly for him; ‘your vanity and inexperience have led you to make mountains of mole-hills. The Emperor admires you, so do many, why should they not? Why should I grudge your smiles to others, when your heart is mine? The influence you would have obtained by a simple and innocent acceptance of the homage offered to you (I say homage, nothing more), would have served us all; a feather’s weight has often turned the balance in which the destinies of nations have been weighed, a smile from you might have consolidated a line of policy which we statesmen have worked years to initiate.’
“Again that look of irony passed over his face.
“There was something dreadful to me in these cold-blooded allusions to all I held sacred.
“‘Then you do not love me, or care for my love?’
“‘You have a great deal to learn. This is not a question of love. I leave you at Vienna with my sister, and you make us all ridiculous by this flight to Rome. Your conduct will give rise to all sorts of suspicions and scandalous interpretations. You must return, or we shall be the laughing-stock of the whole world.’
“‘The world! Is there nothing else?’ I answered, as I looked in his face, with a last appeal, ‘must the world be always between us? do you aspire to nothing higher than court favour and influence? Is love nothing?’
“His countenance changed.
“‘Child!’ he said, sadly, ‘I should have known you twenty years ago. It is too late now.’
“‘You must decide,’ interrupted my brother.
“‘I have decided.’
“For two hours they combated my resolve; I was firm. At last my husband’s anger rose beyond all bounds.
“‘Be it so,’ he said, ‘you will not stay here, you will not return to Vienna—there is only one other alternative. I have an aunt, the Chanoinesse Landsberg, who lives at Schloss-stein, eighty leagues from Vienna. She will receive you gladly. You shall pass the summer there. When you are tired of the retirement, write to me that you are willing to obey my wishes, and all shall be forgotten.’
“My brother approved. Defiance rose within me, but I was silent. In a few hours the carriage came; my husband handed me in, and bade me farewell. I have never seen him since.”
- I received a packet some years afterwards. I showed it to a celebrated French author, and it was published. It contains the most masterly and lucid exposition of woman’s nature, position, and mission, considered physiologically, morally, and intellectually. There was too much boldness in it, in some respects;—too much hardness and severity in others. Still it was admirable; but written in too dry a style to become popular.—I. B.