Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
The Metamorphosis of Archibald Malmaison
By Julian Hawthorne (18461934)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1846. Died in San Francisco, Cal., 1934. Archibald Malmaison. 1878.1884.]
IF Pennroyal had been twenty years younger when this catastrophe fell upon him, it might merely have had the effect of enraging him; but he was near fifty years of age, and old for his years, and it seems to have overwhelmed and cowed him. He sat still in his house, like a rat in his hole, saying nothing, and noticing nothing, but drinking a great deal of brandy. The fiery stuff did not excite him; it merely had the effect of keeping him from sinking into unconsciousness of his misery. He knew that he was a ruined man, and that it was too late to retrieve his ruin. Means and energy were alike lacking, and could never be supplied. He sat in his chair, and brooded over all his life, and realized the utterness of his failure; and nothing could rouse himnot even the intelligence that his enemy, Sir Archibald, having by the death of his aunt, Miss Tremount, come into an inheritance of upward of seventy thousand pounds, was buying up the mortgages, and would probably foreclose on him when he got him thoroughly in his power. Archibald had beaten him, and he would fight no more. Let him enjoy his triumph, and push it to the utmost. There was one point, at all events, on which Richard had the better of him, and this thought brought with it the sole spark of comfort that these evil days afforded him. He had his wifethe woman to win whom Sir Archibald would have given all his lands and fortune, and his soul into the bargain. Yes, Kate was his, and his only; and it was the resolve to keep her his, and thus spite his enemy as long as possible, that withheld Richard from seeking relief in suicide at this juncture. So Providence leads men from agony to worse agony, with intent, doubtless, to torture out of them the evil which they will not voluntarily relinquish.
One winter evening, Hichard sitting brooding and sipping brandy as usual, with a lamp burning on the table beside him, and the embers of the fire flickering on the broad hearth at his feet, there came a light, measured step and the rustle of a dress, and he knew that his wife was in the room. He raised his haggard visage and looked at her. What a goddess of beauty she seemed! How young, graceful, lovely! How pure and clear were the tints of her face, how lustrous dark her eyes, how soft her ample hair! How peerless she was! and all she wasall this treasure of fragrant womanhoodwas his, and not anothers. Ay, and his willingly; she really loved him, he thought; she had shown it of late; she cared for him, old, ruined, and degraded though he was. It was a strange thing; it was a pleasant thing. Perhaps, he thought, if he had had such a creature to love him in earlier days, he might not have been where he was now. But then, in earlier days, he was not a ruined and wasted man.
I mean that, but for you, Id have blown my brains out the day of the trialafter Id blown out his, the scoundrel! But since I have you, I know a way to worry him better than by blowing his brains out. To know that you are mine is hell to him. And in that hell Ill keep him, as long as my body and soul will hang together!
Because he loves youthats why he cares! Ay, you neednt start. He loves you, and its hell to him to feel that another man has you. How many thousand pounds do you think hed give to kiss this little hand as I kiss it now. I wish he could see me do it!
No, not that. God knowsif there is a GodI love you, Kate, with all there is left of meexcept what hates him! Thats my lifelove for you and hate for him! And I believe I hate him less than I love you, though thats saying a great deal!
Go?go where? Gad, Ive a mind to say you shant go! Well, yes, I didnt mean it; forgive me, Kate! Only youre my wife, you know, and Im your husband; and I love you; and somehow I feel afraid to let you out of my sightas if I might not see you again. Well, then . But one thing you shall doyou shall give me a kiss before you go! Else you shant go at all!
Richard Pennroyal sat there alone; the embers of the fire were now gray and lifeless. He stirred them with his foot, and they fell into ashes. He felt cold. How still the house was; how lonely! And he had no pleasant thoughts to keep him company now that his wife had left him; but many thoughts, many memories that were far from pleasant, were lying in wait for him in the dark corners of his mind, ready to leap out upon him if he gave them a chance. Among them, why did the foolish face of crazy old Jane, his wife of many years ago, persist in obtruding itself? Why did it wear that look of stupid, unreasonable reproach? yes, unreasonable; for how was he to blame? He had but let things take their course; no more than that well, scarcely more! And yet that face, that silly old face, that dull, lifeless, drowned old face, kept meeting his in the dark corners, turn where he would. If he closed his eyes, it was still visible through the eyelids, and seemed nearer than ever.
So he opened his eyes; and there hovered the face, in the gloom beyond the lamp. What an expression! Was it signalling him to come away? Was it mocking him for fearing to come? Fearing? He was not afraid. He was a Pennroyal; he had noble blood in his veins; though he was now a bit old and shaky, and had, perhaps, been taking a little too much brandy of late. Butafraid! not he. Why, he would follow the thing, if it came to that; follow it to
He rose slowly from his chair, still keeping his eyes steadily fixed upon it, and moved toward it, with his hands outstretched. He did not get any nearer to it; it was retreating before him, like a will-o-the-wisp. He kept on, crossing the length of the room; it seemed to pass through the substance of the door, and yet he saw it beyond. He opened the door softly; yes, there it was in the hall. A pistol was lying on the little table beside the door, which Richard knew to be loaded. Mechanically, and without looking at it, he took it up as he passed. Then down the hall on tiptoe, the shadowy, unmeaning face marshalling him the way, and leering at him if he hesitated. Ay, he would follow it to the end, now. Fortunately, the house-door stood open; there would be no noise in getting out. Out they glided, pursuer and pursued, into the cold stillness of the night. There was a moon, but it was dim and low down. The shadows seemed more real than the light. There was no snow to betray footprints. But whither would this chase lead? It seemed to be heading toward the northwesttoward Malmaison; ay, and toward the pool that lay on the borders of the estate. Richard shuddered when he thought of that pool, and of the grisly significance of his being led thither by this witless, idiotic old phantom of his dead wifes face. Stay, the face seemed to have got itself a body within the last few moments: it was a gray figure that now flitted on before him; gray and indistinct in the dim moonlight, with noiseless, waving drapery. It was going the very path that old Jane had gone that day, many years agoher last day on earth; and yet, was she not here again to-night? And she was leading him to the pool; and what then?
Swiftly she flitted onward, some seventy paces in advance apparently, now lost in shadow, now reappearing in the light. She never turned nor beckoned, but kept straight on, and Richard had much ado to keep pace with her. At length he caught the gleam of the dark pool some little distance beyond. He set his teeth, and came on. The gray phantom had paused at last. But was that Jane after all? Not Janes was that tall and graceful figure. This must be some other womans ghost. Was it a ghost? And if so, was that anotherthat man who issued from behind a clump of bushes, and came toward her? The two figures met; the man took the woman in his arms, and kissed her many times on the lips and eyes. Kisses! ay, those were kisses indeed! Now they seemed to be conversing together; his arms were round her waist. The moonlight revealed his features; it was the enemyit was Archibald Malmaison! And the woman was not the dead wife, but the living one.
We are perfectly safe, my darling, Archibald was saying. The room was all prepared for you, and there is no possibility of discovery. There will be a great outcry and confusion for a week or so, and they will search for you, dead and alive; and I along with the rest, the better to disarm suspicion. It will be settled, at last, that you must have escaped to some foreign country; or, maybe, Richard himself will fall under suspicion of having made away with you, as he did with his first wife. Sooner or later, at any rate, they will give up the search; and, whether or not, we shall always be free to each other. You could not persuade any one at Malmaison to so much as put his nose into the east chamber, and as to the other, you and I are the only living creatures who even dream of its existence. Darling, you will not mind being a prisoner for a little while, since love will be a prisoner with you?
The woman clung to him tremulously. I did not know it would be so hard to leave him, she murmured. I hate him, and yet it was hard. He is so wretched; and he is all alone. What will he do now? He kept saying that he loved me and asking me to love him, and to call him Dick; and he made me kiss him. Oh, Archie, I feel that kiss beneath all yours. I shall always feel it!
Sir Archibald looked; and there, indeed, stood the tall figure of the Honorable Richard Pennroyal, without his hat, and with an expression on his face that was a living curse to behold. And yet that face smiled and bowed with a hideous politeness.
Ah, that comes in very conveniently. Now, let us see. Mrs. Pennroyal, since you are my wife, perhaps you will be good enough to give us the word?No, she insists upon fainting. Well, then, we must manage the best way we can. But let me entreat you to take your aim carefully, my dear Sir Archibald, for if you miss it will involve unpleasant consequences for Mrs. Pennroyal as well as for yourself. Now, I will toss up this pebble, and when it strikes the surface of the water we will fire. Is it agreed? Here goes, then.
There could be no more words. Sir Archibald raised his pistol; his antagonist threw the pebble high in the air, and as it smote the smooth surface of the pool in its descent, both pulled trigger. Richard Pennroyals weapon missed fire; Sir Archibalds bullet passed through his enemys heart; he swayed backward and forward for a moment, and then fell on his face, hurling his pistol as he fell at the prostrate figure of his wife, who lay huddled on the ground; but it flew wide, and struck Sir Archibald on the temple. Before the ripples caused by the pebbles fall had died away, Pennroyal had ceased to live.
He stooped accordingly, and getting his hands beneath the arms of the corpse, dragged it to one of the flights of steps that led down to the water. Kate sat watching him with her hands clasped in her lap. She heard a splashing sound and a ripple. Sir Archibald came back, picked up the pistol, and flung it also into the pool.
In a secret chamber at Malmaison lamps were burning softly in a dozen sconces of burnished silver round the walls. Their light fell on luxurious furniture, fit for the boudoir of a lovely and noble lady. The broad-backed ebony chairs were upholstered in delicate blue damask; cups and salvers of chased gold stood on the inlaid cabinet; the floor was covered with richly-tinted Persian rugs and soft-dressed furs; a warm fire glowed on the hearth, and upon the table was set out a supper such as might have awakened an appetite in a Roman epicure. A tall mirror, at the farther end of the room, reflected back the lights and the color and the sparkle, while in a niche at one side stood rigidly upright an antique suit of armor, its gauntlets seeming to rest meditatively upon the hilt of its sword, while from between the closed bars of the helmet one might fancy that the dark spirit of its former inmate was gazing grimly forth upon all this splendor and luxury, and passing a ghastly jest thereon. But it was as fair and comfortable a scene as perhaps this world can show, and well calculated to make the sternest ascetic in love with life.
Through the massive oaken door, clamped with polished steel bands, entered now two pallid and haggard personsa man and a woman. The light striking on their eyes made them blink and look aside. The man led the woman to the fire, and seated her upon a low chair; and taking a blue satin coverlid from the bed in the recess, he folded it tenderly round her shoulders. She scarcely seemed to notice where she was, or what was being done; she sat with her eyes and face fixed, shivering now and then, and with her mind apparently preoccupied with some ugly recollection. The man then went to the table and poured out a glass of wine, and held it to the womans lips, and after a little resistance she drank some of it.
You must not think of that at all. When you are warm, and have drunk some wine, you will not feel this nervousness. Nothing has been done that is worth regretting, or that could have been helped. Kate, I love you more than ever.
I must leave you for a few minutes, he said gently. It is necessary that I should show myself to Lady Malmaison and to the servants. No one knows that I have left the house. By the time I come back you will have got warm, and we will sup together. Dont be downhearted, my darling.
She made no rejoinder; and, after standing a moment looking down at her, he turned and went out. He closed the oaken door behind him, and locked it, then felt his way along the stone passage, and let himself out by the concealed entrance. He put the silver rod in its receptacle beneath the floor, and walked toward the room adjoining. On the threshold of that room he paused a moment, leaning against the door-post. A sensation of sluggish weariness had come over him; his head felt full and heavy. He roused himself presently, and went on trying to remember whither he was going. By the time he had reached the top of the great staircase, the idea that he was in search of seemed to have come to him. He descended the stairs and went directly to Lady Malmaisons room. It was then about eleven oclock. The good lady was playing cards with her companion, her spaniel sleeping on her knees. She looked up in astonishment, for Sir Archibald seldom honored her with a visit.
I think it is very unkind, then, declared the young man, reproachfully; for Richard promised me I should be groomsmanand now they have gone and got married while I was asleep. It was unkind of Kate, and I dont love her; but I dont believe it was Richards fault, because he is good, and I love him.
During all the months of consternation, speculation, and vague hue-and-cry that followed the mysterious disappearance of the Honorable Mr. and Mrs. Pennroyal, it never for one moment occurred to any one to suggest any connection between that unexplained circumstance and the equally curious but impertinent fact that poor Sir Archibald had gone daft once more.
How should it? It was known that Sir Archibald had been in his room all that day and evening up to the time when he came into his mothers chamber without his wits. It was true that there had been no love lost of late between the houses of Malmaison and Pennroyal, but that was neither here nor there.
The notion that the vanished persons had met with foul play was never seriously entertained, it being generally agreed that Mr. Pennroyal had ample reasons for not wishing to remain in a place where his credit and his welcome were alike worn out. In all likelihood, therefore, the pair had slunk away to foreign parts, and were living under an assumed name somewhere on the Continent, or in America.
It was not surprising that they had gone together, for it was known that they were on very good terms with each other, especially during the last year. An idle story of a groom, who affirmed that he had been present at an interview between Mrs. Pennroyal and Sir Archibald, on horseback, a few weeks before the trial, when, according to this narrator, they had appeared to be rather friendly than otherwise, was not thought to be in any way to the point.
So the months passed away, and the years followed the months; the house and the lands of the Pennroyals were sold, and their very name began to be forgotten. The daft baronet and his aged mother went on living at Malmaison in a quiet and uneventful manner, seeing very few people, and doing nothing except allow their large property to grow larger. Yet, in spite of their retiring inoffensiveness, a shadow seemed to brood over the ancient house.
The old story of Sir Archibalds past exploits in the magical line, and of his ancestors before him, were still revived occasionally round evening firesides; and it was submitted whether his present condition were not a judgment upon him for having tampered with forbidden mysteries.
In the opinion of these fireside juries, there was a curse upon Malmaison, especially upon that part of it which contained the east chamber. That room was haunted, and had never been haunted so badly as during the few days immediately following Sir Archibalds loss of memory.
It may have been a demons carousal over the sad plight of the poor, foolish young baronet. At all events shrieks had been heard, faint and muffled, but unmistakable, proceeding from that region, when everybody knew that no living soul was there or could be there; but all the servants at Malmaison could swear to the sounds. Ay, the place was accursed.
Late on the night of the 22d of January, 1833, Sir Archibald found himself mounting the staircase of Malmaison, with but an indistinct idea of how he came to be doing so. He could not recollect whether he had seen his mother and the servants or not. No wonder if his thoughts had been a little absent, with such a dark and burdensome secret as that which lay upon his soul. But, of course, he must have seen them. He had left Kate with the intention of doing so, within this very hour; and how should he be coming up-stairs, unless from the execution of that purpose? His mind was busy with many projects. It would probably be thought that Mr. and Mrs. Pennroyal had left the country to escape creditors. If only the pond froze, and the cold weather held on for a week or two, there would be no trace that could lead to a suspicion of anything else. For himself, he would find no difficulty in proving an alibi, if it came to that. And after all, he had but acted upon compulsion, and in self-defence, and upon equal terms. He was guilty of no crime, exceptwell, call it a crime; he was willing to bear the brunt of that. So they would be able to get away soon, and in Italy, Spain, somewhere, anywhere, they could live and be happy many years. Perhaps after a time they could venture to marry and return openly to England. There were numberless and indefinite possibilities in their favor. Life was all they wanted, and life they had. They were both young; the gloom of this unlucky tragedy would soon be dispelled. Kate had been nervous and distraught when he left her, and no wonder, poor love! but wine, and food, and warmth would soon bring the color back to her cheeks and the light to her eyes. Lovely Kate! sweet, wayward, tender, haughty, but his own at lasthis own in spite of earth and heaven! Yes, he and she would have their will and take their pleasure in spite of God and man; and if God would kill them, then, at any rate, they would die together, and in each others arms.
With these and many like thoughts flying through his mind, Sir Archibald Malmaison reached the east chamber, struck a light, and lit the candle that stood on the table beside the door. He looked at his watchhalf-past eleven; he was within his time then; he had been absent less than half an hour. What was Kate doing? he wondered. He stopped a moment, picturing her to himself in some luxurious attitude; but his impatience would not suffer him to delay. He quickly got the silver rod from its receptacle, opened the concealed door, and went in, carrying the lighted candle in his hand. In a moment he was at the inner oaken door; it resisted his attempt to open it. Then he recollected that he had locked it for additional security. The key was in the lock; he turned it, and entered.
An involuntary cry of surprise escaped him. Instead of the soft blaze of light that he had expected, the room was full of a heavy darkness, that seemed to rush out to meet him, and almost overwhelmed the feeble glimmer of his wretched candle. And why was it so deadly cold? Where had gone that cheerful fire which was burning so ardently on the hearth half an hour ago? Could Kate have put out the lights and gone off? Impossible, since the doors were fastened. Ah, there she was!
She was kneeling with her face bowed forward on her arms, which rested on the seat of one of the low chairs. Her attitude was that of passionate prayer. Her thick brown hair was unfastened, and fell over her shoulders.
Kate! he said in a hushed voice; and as she did not answer, he spoke more loudly: Kate, I have come back; and Ive a mind to scold you for letting the fire go out, and startling me with this darkness. What are you doing on your knees? Come, my darling, we want no prayers to-night. Kate will you give me a kiss now?
He went close up to her, and laid his hand on her shoulder: he seemed to grasp nothing but the empty stuff of the dress. With a terrified, convulsive motion, he pulled her round, so that the head was disturbed from its position on the arms, and the ghastly mystery was revealed to his starting eyeballs. The spectacle was not one to be described. He uttered a weak, wavering scream, and stood there, unable to turn away his gaze.
I must confess that I do not care to pursue this narrative any farther: though it is just at this point, according to my venerable friend Dr. Rollinson, that the real scientific interest begins. He was constantly with Sir Archibald during the eight or nine months that he remained in life after this episode; and made some highly important and edifying notes on his case, besides writing down the unhappy baronets confessions, as given from time to time. After his death, the Doctor made an autopsy of the brain, and discoveredI care not what! It was not the mystery of the mans soul, I am convinced.