By the Author of “The Second Life,” Etc., Etc.
A hot day in Lyons, fifty years ago; the untampered light staring down between the steep, gambrel roofs into the close, dirty streets; the air, when it moved, heavy with the smell of the wine-presses and refuse of the vineyards along the Saone. In an upper front room of a house near the Hotel de Ville, about the hour of noon, two men waited, listening apparently for some sound within. One, an old man, had drawn himself to his full height, his hand thrust into the breast of his embroidered surtout, his gray brows contracted, as if in expectation of a blow which he could not avert; the other paced incessantly to and fro, his hands moving with a nervous irritability about his face and beard. It was a picturesque face, English or American, small, finely cut, with brilliant brown eyes, which glanced uncertainly away from those they met; his figure was puny, but he made the best of it by studied effort at dignity of motion. Once he paused, in his restless walk, near enough to his companion to speak in a whisper.
“You think we did well, Herr von Lindbahr, to choose this man? You will regard his decision as final?”
“There is no surgeon on the Continent with the skill of Mailler. I am content—I am content. But what can he say?” The old man passed his hand feebly over his face. “My girl’s fate is sealed in my mind.”
The younger man drew his breath sharply, glanced about with a strange mixture of pain and irresolution.
“I have never known such symptoms followed by any result but the one,” said the other, controlling his face into its habitual stern repose.
“Not death. Better for her if it were, and for me. No; slow disease; years of pain, ending in deformity.”
He watched the young man turn abruptly away, and stand with his face, half covered by his hand, near the window; the old man’s look was keen and suspicious.
“He is not the true man. He will flinch,” he thought; “that is worst of all for her.”
“Herr Busschet,” he said, aloud, “let one matter be clear between us. You have been a lover of my child these two years; but whatever may be the sentence on her life, which we shall hear in a moment, you are free. No relation exists between you which this—this illness does not annul. She has no claim upon you,” drawing himself to his full height proudly.
“I am no poltroon,” replied the young man with heat. “I love your daughter.”
There was no reply, and the silence was unbroken.
Busschet stood where the window of oiled silk was open, looking down onto the street; the heavy torpor of the day weighed on his brain; yonder glittered a cross upon the bridge across the Rhone; opposite, the vineyards of the Carthusian monks sloped downward, gloomy with shadow. It was vivid as a nightmare that pause of waiting—the landscape burned itself into his memory, point by point. He dared not turn his head within; there was the old German waiting. In a room beyond George Busschet stiffened himself to check the unmanly shudder that crept over him; he would have given much for a glass of brandy to steady his nerves.
In the room beyond was nothing save a pine table, and stretched upon it a young girl; a nurse and a surgeon leaning over her. What of that? If the worst came? Other women had been doomed to lives of slow torture, and other men had watched by them loyally until death. He loosened his jacket, it was stifling in here; there was a horrible bondage closing on him, and for life—life. He looked back at the old man furtively. He was no poltroon, he loved the girl. He would be true to her. Yet he pitied himself; he deserved pity, he thought. It was to go about the world with a body of death clinging to him.
Yonder, in the yellow distance, was the peak of Tarare; here was an uncertain shiver of light in the rows of lindens that faced the window; a team of cream-colored oxen passing in the street below, with high, straw bonnets, a la cauchoise, on their heads; a peasant drove them in a dingy chamois-doublet, and flapping hat, trimmed with red-and-blue beads. Through all his long life afterward that day, with every sight and sound in it, was real to him as none other.
He would be true to her—was not she his pard-eyed captive, his wild beauty, whom he had wooed and won yonder in the forest of Baden? He had meant to take her home with him to the States in a year. The old man had called him her “lover;” he did not know. Busschet’s limbs shook. What if the old man should ever know? There would be no escape then. But Margaret was true and proud, she would hold their secret. If she did, escape was easy. He was only a student in Heidelberg; he could take passage from Marseilles for America to-morrow. What could the poor German baron, or his daughter, know of the Busschets in Carolina? But he was no poltroon.
The lindens shivered with a passing wind; the yellow distance grew hotter; within and without a terrible silence—a woman’s stifled cry broke it. A slow step came unwillingly from the outer room; as it came he leaned from the window, and the torpid air denied him breath; and the peasant looked up at his oxen with wild, prominent, ill-boding eyes.
When he turned back, he found the physician looking with a grave concern at the old man, whose head had fallen forward upon his breast, one hand thrown up to command silence.
“I thought it better to be candid, monsieur,” he said, gently.
“No more—no more! Pardon, Herr le Doctein; but, she is my only child.”
George Busschet went out into the salle with a hurried, unsteady step. He was going to the room where the girl lay, with but one thought in his brain, that her life was miserably wrecked that day, that it was his right to stand beside her henceforth on her long combat with death. She was the old man’s only child, but she was his darling, his—
He stopped short, the word upon his lips. Who knew that? His hand upon the door, listening to the long querulous moans within. Busschet was an effeminate, nervous man, with a strong physical antipathy to pain. To hear that cry day after day, year after year! To be burdened for life with a loathsome cripple! His hand fell off the lock, and he stole swiftly down, and out to the scorching streets, driven by an uncontrollable disgust and terror. He meant to come back in an hour—at noon—in the evening. But when night fell, he yet lingered on the quays.
Three months later, Busschet, in a planter’s dress of white linen, paced up and down the long verandas of a South Carolina villa, with the same uncertain, nervous step, but with a quieted eye. He held in his hand a letter.
“Dead? ‘The little gray-eyed Gretchen, with whom you used to amuse yourself.’ Stromm says, ‘Died miserably of some acute disorder in her father’s old Bavarian hiding-place.’ Then I am safe—my shame can never find me out.”
With the feeling of security, he found breath to regret her share of this trouble, and to think that, after all, he might have chosen the manly part, and not have fled. But she had kept his secret, and he was safe, was the end of his chapter of thoughts on it. Then Busschet, with washed hands, as he thought, began to make ready for his career at home as politician, and the representative of an old, well-placed family.
Forty years had passed. There was a long gap of rainy weather in the midst of the bathing season at Nahant—it lasted for a fortnight. Col. Busschet thrust his peaked face out on the balcony of his hotel window one afternoon, glancing sharply about him from right to left, though the dribble from the eaves soaked his white whiskers and hair.
He drew in his head quickly—he had a cat-like antipathy to water. An ostler-boy, to whom he had beckoned, and who came lounging across the yard, thought that he looked not unlike a cat, with his small, supple body in its light, glossy suit of brown, his furtive, quick eyes, and the white, pointed whiskers projecting on either side of his mouth. But the ostler was an ostler, and a man sits in the contracting end of the telescope when viewed from his kitchen.
Busschet ordered the carriage. “We will drive over to see your friend, Mr. Dexter,” he said.
His companion laid down his pen briskly. “Good! if there were any vitality left on the soaked earth, it was chez madame,” he said; then turned to the fire, keeping a furtive watch on Busschet as he paced about, brushing the flecks of rain from his sleeve, buttoning his jaunty surtout, curling his mustache.
“Meanwhile, colonel, you will consider my proposal. I should return to Washington to-morrow, and I must carry your reply with me.”
“It shall be ready. I will convey my views to the President in writing,” with a slight inflation of his narrow chest.
“Yes, yes,” anxiously. “You will, in writing, I hope, ignore the difference in social standing of yourself and Andrew Jackson? It is as well to be blind to his obscure origin and roughness of manner until this matter is definitely settled.”
“Sir, he is un bete,” bringing down his cane with emphasis. “But he is the President of the States, I shall not forget it.”
“Remember, if you please, also, Col. Busschet, that I am an accredited, though unofficial agent of the government. If you enter the Senate, after the coming election, promising your support to this measure, I am empowered to offer you—” his voice sunk to a whisper.
Busschet’s thin face reddened with triumph. But he controlled his voice. “I shall consider the matter,” he said, briefly.
Dexter went back to his writing, hiding a flickering smile. They need not have bid so high for the little old man, he thought, to buy him body and soul. His eyes glittered as if a cup of nectar had touched his lips. Yet Busschet had been a power in his day, a colleague of Calhoun’s, serving his party with scrupulous honor; a man with a shrewd fin, feminine intellect, who had pursued the political path since the day he chose it on the piazza of the villa, without a day’s rest. His long day’s toil over—one step farther, this election secured, and his reward was in his hand.
Dexter read his thoughts clearly as he sat opposite to him in the carriage, watching the old man languidly reclined against the velvet cushions, his furtive, brilliant eye resting on the dull landscape, his delicate, pink nostril scarcely distended by his breathing. It was one of Desprez’s portraits of an old French cavalier, with the dingy background, a ray of light falling on the narrow head, with its silky white hair; the small, bloodless hand, half hid by the laced ruffles of his shirt; a half gray, half pensive smile on the aquiline features.
“I wish especially,” said Dexter, “to make you known to this lady before I go. I wish you to acknowledge that a woman, old and deformed, has exercised over you a more subtle magnetism than any beauty of your youngest days.”
Busschet stroked his eyebrows, blushing and smiling slightly. The fame of his power over women yet lingered about Charleston. Dexter waxed enthusiastic; he smoothed his lean, red beard; he prided himself on his knowledge of human nature. “For me,” he said, “I want to see more of Mme. von Herznay. She is a plant grown in European salons, transplanted to our coarser air and society. She is a lover of her kind. I have never known but the one, though we have reformers in plenty.”
“Madame von Herznay?”
“Madame by courtesy. She has never married; the name came to her with some property, I believe. She is of an old stock Bavaria. Did you speak?”
“No. Bavaria, you said?”
Busschet opened the window. Dexter fancied that his gray mustache jerked nervously, and that the fire-opal on his finger shook.
Busschet looked out into the dull fog; farther at the sea in its most melancholy boding mood. He laughed harshly.
“You know Lyons, Mr. Dexter? Of course—you have done Europe. Some trifle just then recalled it to me.”
“There’s a queer old Abby there, Aisnay—the Roman Anthenaeum; Brunehaut had a hand in it. I,” wiping his forehead, “I think of Lyons as one of the highways to hell, sir!”
Dexter looked at him with grave surprise.
Busschet laughed nervously. “An old fancy,” shrugging his shoulders. “But I saw it in ’92, hot with the latent fires of the revolution. There was something in the air, I think,, that made men’s natures cowardly. They fell easily into crime, did unmanly deeds—dishonorable,” his thin face burning as if he had been struck.
He leaned back, not heeding Dexter’s suspicious glance. He was thinking how the world held him honorable, and that he was a counterfeit. Neither God nor man could prove him guilty; yet, at the remembrance of his dishonor, he sat there a cowed, defeated old man. The road was dreary and silent; but the best of the surf drowned their voices; and the wind drove the rain against the windows, and sighed shrilly through the gathering gloom of the afternoon. There seemed something prophetic in the coming of this woman, old, deformed, from the land where Gretchen’s lay dead, in this hour of his triumph. What if she knew his secret? What if she came to prove him a criminal, a coward, to blast him before wife, children, country?
“What did you call the family of this Mme. von Herznay?”
His head was turned, but he faced Dexter in a moment. He had his shield up, his face was watchful, inscrutable, cunning.
“Her maiden name, you called—”
“Margaret. But I did not name her.”
He was on guard; and then danger does not convey itself in the first moment with full power. Presently, almost in sight of the cottage where Mme. von Herznay lodged, Busschet recalled an appointment.
“We must not overcrowd the afternoon. We will leave cards only; and to-morrow I will make the acquaintance of your ancient enchantress.
He looked at the name upon his card a moment before giving it to the footman—George Busschet, in bold letters. He was going to meet the peril face to face. If this was the woman he thought, she had come here to find him. Under the name he wrote an hour the next day.
Col. Busschet paced softly up and down in the subdued light of the cottage drawing-room, waiting. Yesterday, the thought of this woman, and the fate she might bring upon him, had been like a touch of palsy, left him weak and insensible as a hysteric woman.
Now that the danger was upon him, and could be met in flesh and blood, he faced it with a quiet, half-jeering courage. He had not forgotten, even with a grim, humor, to dress himself as freshly as a bridegroom about to meet his bride. The stealthy, fastidious nature of the man gave character to the very clothes he wore; the soft, mulberry-colored cloth clung to supple skin to his limbs; the delicate lace ruffling his breast and wrists; the shifting, hiding color of the fire-opal on his finger; the subtle perfume that escaped, when you sought to name it, became a part of the man himself, dainty, weak, and impenetrable.
He went up and down, his hands clasped behind him, with long, noiseless strides, wondering at his own coolness when this decisive hour of life was on him. There was a slight sound, like a far-off step; he stopped, the blood jarring fiercely back to his heart. It was but the fall of some ashes on the hearth, and he resumed his walk, coming at last to a cabinet-picture that hung in a dark recess.
The head of a girl just past childhood, the curved throat rising out of some mass of vapor which lifted itself behind to form the background. The painter’s fancy had been just to evolve the face from mist, its beauty being of the most delicate and fragile type, finely cut as a cameo; the very sadness in the dark, eluding eyes, the obstinacy of the mouth, being rather hints than assertions of character.
Even on this portrait Busschet looked with unnatural composure.
“A face prophetic of ill-fortune,” he said, critically; “but it has a man’s sturdy sense of honor in it. I did well to trust her to keep the secret.”
He remembered, too, as another significant hint of what manner of woman she was, the firm, free step with which she had entered the door of that hotel in Lyons. He wondered how she had borne the sentence. Margaret, his Gretchen, was a sweet, loving fool; this woman he knew by reputation as having made and held her place in the inner-circles of the literary world in Germany. She had a good deal of vitality of the heroic element, Gretchen; for himself (with a shrug) not so much! “It’s an honorable face,” he said, half aloud, hearing a step behind him, “I did well to trust her.”
“It cost but little to keep the secret,” said a quiet voice.
Busschet turned. She looked at the portrait steady and grave, speaking in the same monotonous voice,
“In all the life which was needed to bring my soul from that body to this,” touching her bony, misshapen figure, “there was no pain like that of remembering that I was your wife, that soul and body were wedded to——”
“Dishonor! My faith—yes! I deserve your hate. Let it be bitter as you will.”
“It is too late for that.” She crossed before him to a seat, making no effort to hide her person from him. He knew by that trifle that his power over her was gone; and it was a curious sign of the man’s character that it stung him to the quick.
She was a tall, thin woman—her deformity partly hidden by the soft, heavy folds of her black dress. Gold bands at her wrist and waist were the only ornaments she wore; her hair was white, and rolled back artistically from a worn, lonely-looking face; the eyes sunken under shaggy, gray brows. He scanned her coolly as she sat down, declining his motion to a chair with a courteous wave of the hand.
His wife! That the face his fingers had touched, the soft lips he had kissed, the curly hair that had floated on his breast! The firelight rose and fell, bringing the high, straight chair on which she sat, and the thin figure upon it into sharp relief; her head was bent forward, the eyes resting on the fire—she seemed to have neither interest nor concern in him. She held his honor in her hands. The little man, as he stood regarding her, grew pale, his thin lips turning blue; for honor before men was a better and other thing than life to him. The sough of the wind on the shore, and the beat of rain-drops on the window filled the silence.
“Margaret,” he said, at last, “why did you seek me?” holding his jeweled snuff-box in his trembling hand, essaying a smile.
“Not that I wished to keep alive the memory of that which is past.”
He caught at the word eagerly, his wrinkled face contorted and nervous. “No. Let it die—let it die! I tell you plainly, Mme. von Herznay, you have my life under your touch. What can this love of the past century matter to us? It is dead—dead! What is it to you?”
A strange change had passed over the thin face as he spoke. “In feeling, it matters nothing—in law, everything,” she said, quietly.
“I do not understand.”
She glanced at him, lifted her shaggy brows, gave her shoulders a puzzled shrug. Was this trembling, cowardly old man, the master her soul had owned during this life-long contest with pain? She sat silent, one hand over her eyes. In that moment Busschet looked sharply over the yawning ruin before him. He was this woman’s husband; he had deserted her, had married into one of the most powerful families of Carolina. A clean record to bring into the October election, to win all that Dexter promises! Coward and bigamist! His wife and children—— A sharp pain darted through his head, so extreme was his sense of peril; but his sensuous eye noted even then the delicate outline of her forehead, shirred about with its white hair, on which rested a velvet band.
“The little Bavarian has fine tact still in her effects, in the depths of her age and ugliness,” he thought.
He spoke to her. It was the echo of some old word that her husband had used to her in those early days; and the woman who had thrown her life so utterly beneath his feet was alive, after all, in this woman of society—this “lover of her kind.” Something flashed into her eyes, which brought him back to the days in Heidelberg.
“They tell me you have children,” she said, with a strange movement of her hands. “I never had a child,” and then was silent.
“Poor wretch!” thought Busschet, with a dull perception that there might be wants and ambitions outside of a caucus, of Charleston dinner-table.
“After you left me,” she said, “I had nothing—neither beauty, nor love, nor even maiden pride left. Nothing. The years were debased and empty—empty.”
“You had your brain, Margaret, never weak nor idle. You had the whole world of books and art open to you. There is no hunger they should not satisfy.”
“None?” Her lips hardly moved; but the wide eyes laid on his with a look that grew intolerable.
He moved restlessly; for the first time it was clear to him that he had cheated this woman out that which God himself could not give again.
She gathered herself up suddenly into the quiet and self-poise from which she had fallen. “I will not lie,” she said. “Nothing can feed the hunger of an unloved woman.”
“You are at rest and quiet,” he urged, coming closer.
“I am more. I thank God every day for a rich, beautiful life,” her face burning. “I have done the best I could for it.”
“You have fought your fate like a man,” he said, eagerly. “You have forced the world to look at the mischance of your body through the beauty of your soul; you have countless friends in lieu of children; you have the skill to summon from even the passing stranger his best thoughts to entertain you. My life is meager beside yours,” wiping his forehead. “Pass it by on the other side, Margaret. Do not drag out of the past this old blot to darken it.”
He stood waiting for her answer, one hand covering his mouth to hide it.
He had miscalculated the power of her old remembrances. The brief outcry past, she was grave, business-like, in word and motive—duty had taken the reins again.
“I see no reason why your wish should control me—it is a matter of simple right and wrong. There is no room for tragedy or comedy here, Mr. Busschet,” with a slight touch of scorn.
“And you decide?”
“As I have determined for years. While I live, I remain silent. When I die, it will be necessary, for the disposition of my property, that the truth shall be fully known. The good that I would do must live after me,” smiling. ”I must look down on faces that I have made happy. You cannot expect me to leave a secret mine, which can be sprung to destroy my plans. It was to warn you of this that I came. My lawyer holds all the papers containing my story, to be used as soon as I am dead.”
“Her life is not worth a three months’ purchase,” he thought to himself, but he said nothing. The flickering firelight compassionately avoided the sallow, hawk-like face looking into it, as if conscious that death itself would bring no defeat so utter and leveling as that which at this moment held for him.
George Busschet faced the result with his usual keen intuition, and seeing it irrevocable, wasted no breath in regret or whine. He wiped off some foam that had gathered on his lips, and presently looked up, adjusting his gray mustache, his cat-like eyes fixed on hers with a courteous smile. Did she take him for an idiot, to rest passive while she struck away at her pleasure every prop of his life, and let him drift, wrecked, down the stream? Wrecked? Again, the sultry day in Lyons rose up before him; the shadowless room, with its surgeon’s table in the midst, on which she lay, in her nameless pain and loss, while he crept out and left her. Not hers the life that had been wrecked that day. He could the lindens now that lined the pave, as he stole down the hot street, so feverish had every sense grown.
When she repeated again her reasons and her decision, he listened unmoved. “All shall be as you wish, madam. Let us hope that the painful necessity shall be far removed,” with a bow. She was indifferent to his fate as to an insect her foot was raised to crush. But there was a way to balk fate even now, he thought, smiling in her face.
He did not remember afterward how or when he came away. The glaring sun and the dust of Lyons, the bleak stretch of fog, the cry of the breakers, his wife, pink-cheeked, and brown-eyed, and this weazen-faced bigot, were mazed and bewildered inextricably together. As he lay back in the carriage, rolled through the mud and dark sleety rain, he thought dully, again and again, that it had been a paltry, miserable life at best—and he was glad it was so nearly done. Passions of his youth had but a mawkish flavor, nauseating and stale, coming back to remembrance; and they forced themselves back, to-night. He shifted his seat uneasily, for his gouty leg dragged on him, and rheumatic pains began to twinge his back sharply. “The world has had its uses out of old George Busschet,” he laughed, “and begins to shuffle him off indecently.”
In his own field of politics, where he had played whipper-in for his party for ten years, the pack were beginning to follow another man. He could picture Storr’s quiet jibe when this story of madam’s reached him, and Diehl’s grave surprise. “The little dogs and all—Tray, Branch, and Sweetheart,” he muttered, drawing up the blanket over his knees. It was cold, the smell of rank tobacco in the air, he fancied; a glass of his own sherry would put life into his old bones; but the cases had been broken in packing. Since his favorite cook died he had both eaten and drunk slops. “It is time the curtain dropped,” he said, sitting erect; “the play is but the wretchedest of farces;” and coming to his hotel, sat down in his wet boots, and shuddering with lumbago, to wait for morning.
A sudden break in the nor-easter; a soft wet wind bringing smells of the late harvest fields, of freshly kindled wood fires in the village, and more unsavory scents from the fisheries. Rifts of dark blue began to show through the heavy orange clouds overhead, which clogged the horizon seaward, horizoned black by the wind in its search for farther opening for the yet unvented storm. The tide running out, underswept the breakers, already flattened by the long patter of the week’s rain; the caps were hardly enough defined above the sluggish mass of water, to catch the pink glitter of the morning light; far out at sea one or two fishing schooners, and a yacht, drifted idly against the sky-line.
About two hours after sunrise, Dexter, and some amateur fishermen, turned their glasses to the latter craft, which was rapidly dropping out of sight to leeward.
“Busschet has a fresh morning for his solitary sail. A silly whim,” they said.
While the two men idly followed the course of the yacht with their glasses, Busschet paced up and down the deck, freshly dressed, with the perfume of a May morning about him, breathing in the cool, blue air with relish, noting the flash of a bird’s wing overhead.
He had not meant to take the yacht out of eye-sight of land. Busschet was nothing without an audience; but he knew that Dexter and his companions watched him through their glasses. The despair, the ennui sharper than pain of the night before, were gone with his morning’s bath and glass of wine; instead, had come the bodily nerve and relish of dramatic effect with which he would have gone out to fight a duel.
The bathers were out on the beach in their bright red-and-blue dresses; faint bits of music from the band were drifted out through the absolute silence of the bright air. The hands of his watch touched the hour of eleven. Twenty minutes would carry the tide out, “and Peter Busschet will try his fortune then on other seas.”
He passed to the other side of the vessel for a few moments, and then coming back, seated himself composedly on deck, facing the land. There was a low gurgling sound, whose monotony made it heard above the waves, which began to plash strangely high on the sides of the vessel.
He glanced behind him to note how grand a curtain the flame-colored banners of the sky made; he remembered that he had balked her; thought of the funeral his body would have, and settled himself, with a half smile, on his seat.
“My honor is unstained. It is the exit of a king,” he said, aloud, looking at the vast plain upheaving, which should speedily drink him down to muddy death.
There was a great outcry and mourning when the little body, which should bow and smile no more; when the mulberry-colored clothes and the fire-opal, the ruffles and the perfume, all muddied and soaked, came on shore—deep and sincere mourning. A noble ending to a noble life, they said. The poor German woman, who had loved him, carried away another doubt and pain to fight down in her life.
But the great Nemesis, who sees the trial of life with other eyes than ours, knew that against him judgment had been rendered.
 An man’s overcoat.
 A complete coward.
 From the Caux region of France.
 A short buff-colored jacket.
 “Pard” is a leopard.
 An ostler or hostler is a person who tends horses.
 Jackson (1767-1845), seventh President of the United States from 1829 to 1837 and is recognized as the founder of the Democratic Party and for his forcible removal of Native Americans from their native lands under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
 A beast.
 John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), Democratic Vice President of the United States under John Quincy Adams and Andrews Jackson from 1825 to 1832.
 “Fin” as an adjective typically means financial.
 Louis Jean Desprez (c.1743-1804), French painter.
 Brunehaut or Brunhilde (534-c.613), queen of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia. After her sister and husband were assassinated, she was involved in a bloody battle for power for herself and her descendants.
 A pet name among Germans for Margaret. In the original, it is not capitalized here but is a few lines lower on the page, so I have capitalized it here.
 Original has “live,” a seeming typo.
 The assistant to a hunter who forces stray dogs back into the pack.