In addition to producing and narrating, audiobooks and audio short stories, I am primarily a stage actor. A few short months ago, I was in Ghost–Writer, a play by Michael Hollinger, that is loosely based on the true life situation of the famous author, Henry James. I was unfamiliar with the author’s works, but, through my research in creating this fascinating character on stage, I fell in love with James’s writing. He wrote 22 novels and hundreds of short stories.
Henry James is considered a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism and is considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language. Among other themes, he wrote about exposing and conquering personal tyrannies, and the tyrannies of the social contract. Among his best novels are The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). Among his most famous short stories are The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Beast in the Jungle (1903), Daisy Miller (1878), and The Figure in the Carpet (1896).
James was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature three times during his life. He was known for his profound portraits of human character, of the relations between genders, and of the moral conflicts and myriad cruelties of middle and upper-class society in America, England, and Europe.
One of his early works, written in 1867 and set in colonial New England, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 21, Issue 124, February, 1868.
The Romance of Certain Old Clothes
By Henry James Jr.
FEBRUARY 1868 ISSUE
TOWARD the middle of the eighteenth century there lived in the Province of Massachusetts a widowed gentlewoman, the mother of three children. Her name is of little account: I shall take the liberty of calling her Mrs. Willoughby, — a name, like her own, of a highly respectable sound. She had been left a widow after some six years of marriage and had devoted herself to the care of her children. These latter grew up in a manner to reward her tender care and to gratify her fondest hopes. The first-born was a son, whom she had called Bernard, after his father.
The others were daughters, — born at an interval of three years apart. Good looks were traditional in the family, and these young persons were not likely to allow the tradition to perish. The boy was of that fair and ruddy complexion and of that athletic mould which in those days (as in these) were the sign of genuine English blood, — a frank, affectionate young fellow, a capital son and brother, and a steadfast friend. Clever, however, he was not; the wit of the family had been apportioned chiefly to his sisters. Mr. Willoughby had been a great reader of Shakespeare, at a time when this pursuit implied more penetration of mind than at the present day, and in a community where it required much courage to patronize the drama even in the closet; and he had wished to record his admiration of the great poet by calling his daughters out of his favorite plays. Upon the elder he had bestowed the charming name of Viola; and upon the younger, the more serious one of Perdita, in memory of a little girl born between them, who had lived but a few weeks.
When Bernard Willoughby came to his sixteenth year, his mother put a brave face upon it, and prepared to execute her husband’s last request. This had been an earnest entreaty that, at the proper age, his son should be sent out to England, there to complete his education at the University of Oxford, which had been the seat of his own studies. Mrs. Willoughby valued her son three times as much as she did her two daughters together; but she valued her husband’s wishes more. So she swallowed her sobs, and made up her boy’s trunk and his simple provincial outfit, and sent him on his way across the seas. Bernard was entered at his father’s college, and spent five years in England, without great honor, indeed, but with a vast deal of pleasure and no discredit. On leaving the University he made the journey to France. In his twenty-third year he took ship for home, prepared to find poor little New England (New England was very small in those days) an utterly intolerable place of abode. But there had been changes at home, as well as in Mr. Bernard’s opinions. He found his mother’s house quite habitable, and his sisters grown into two very charming young ladies, with all the accomplishments and graces of the young women of Britain, and a certain native-grown gentle brusquerie and wildness, which, if it was not an accomplishment, was certainly a grace the more. Bernard privately assured his mother that his sisters were fully a match for the most genteel young women in England; whereupon poor Mrs. Willoughby quite came into conceit of her daughters. Such was Bernard’s opinion, and such, in a tenfold higher degree, was the opinion of Mr. Arthur Lloyd. This gentleman, I hasten to add, was a college-mate of Mr. Bernard, a young man of reputable family, of a good person and a handsome inheritance, which latter appurtenance he prepared to invest in trade in this country. He and Bernard were warm friends; they had crossed the ocean together, and the young American had lost no time in presenting him at his mother’s house, where he had made quite as good an impression as that which he had received, and of which I have just given a hint.
The two sisters were at this time in all the freshness of their youthful bloom; each wearing, of course, this natural brilliancy in the manner that became her best. They were equally dissimilar in appearance and character. Viola, the elder, now in her twenty-second year, was tall and fair, with calm gray eyes and auburn tresses; a very faint likeness to the Viola of Shakespeare’s comedy, whom I imagine as a brunette (if you will), but a slender, airy creature, full of the softest and finest emotions. Miss Willoughby, with her rich, fair skin, her fine arms, her majestic height, and her slow utterance, was not cut out for adventures. She would never have put on a man’s jacket and hose; and, indeed, being a very plump beauty, it is perhaps as well that she wouldn’t. Perdita, too, might very well have exchanged the sweet melancholy of her name against something more in consonance with her aspect and disposition. She was a positive brunette, short of stature, light of foot, with dark brown eyes full of fire and animation. She had been from her childhood a creature of smiles and gayety; and so far from making you wait for an answer to your speech, as her handsome sister was wont to do (while she gazed at you with her somewhat cold gray eyes), she had given you the choice of half a dozen, suggested by the successive clauses of your proposition, before you had got to the end of it.
The young girls were very glad to see their brother once more; but they found themselves quite able to maintain a reserve of good-will for their brother’s friend. Among the young men their friends and neighbors, the belle jeunesse of the Colony, there were many excellent fellows, several devoted swains, and some two or three who enjoyed the reputation of universal charmers and conquerors. But the homebred arts and the somewhat boisterous gallantry of these honest young colonists were completely eclipsed by the good looks, the fine clothes, the respectful empressement, the perfect elegance, the immense information, of Mr. Arthur Lloyd. He was in reality no paragon; he was an honest, resolute, intelligent young man, rich in pounds sterling, in his health and comfortable hopes, and his little capital of uninvested affections. But he was a gentleman; he had a handsome face; he had studied and travelled; he spoke French, he played on the flute, and he read verses aloud with very great taste. There were a dozen reasons why Miss Willoughby and her sister should forthwith have been rendered fastidious in the choice of their male acquaintance. The imagination of women is especially adapted to the various little conventions and mysteries of polite society. Mr. Lloyd’s talk told our little New England maidens a vast deal more of the ways and means of people of fashion in European capitals than he had any idea of doing. It was delightful to sit by and hear him and Bernard discourse upon the fine people and fine things they had seen. They would all gather round the fire after tea, in the little wainscoted parlor— quite innocent then of any intention of being picturesque or of being anything else, indeed, than economical, and saving the expense of stamped papers and tapestries, — and the two young men would remind each other, across the rug, of this, that, and the other adventure. Viola and Perdita would often have given their ears to know exactly what adventure it was, and where it happened, and who was there, and what the ladies had on; but in those days a well-bred young woman was not expected to break into the conversation of her own movement or to ask too many questions; and the poor girls used therefore to sit fluttering behind the more languid— or more discreet— curiosity of their mother.
That they were both very nice girls Arthur Lloyd was not slow to discover; but it took him some time to satisfy himself as to the balance of their charms. He had a strong presentiment— an emotion of a nature entirely too cheerful to be called a foreboding— that he was destined to marry one of them; yet he was unable to arrive at a preference, and for such a consummation a preference was certainly indispensable, inasmuch as Lloyd was quite too much of a young man to reconcile himself to the idea of making a choice by lot and being cheated of the heavenly delight of falling in love. He resolved to take things easily, and to let his heart speak. Meanwhile, he was on a very pleasant footing. Mrs. Willoughby showed a dignified indifference to his “intentions,” equally remote from a carelessness of her daughters’ honor and from that hideous alacrity to make him commit himself, which, in his quality of a young man of property, he had but too often encountered in the venerable dames of his native islands. As for Bernard, all that he asked was that his friend should take his sisters as his own; and as for the fair creatures themselves, however each may have secretly longed for the monopoly of Mr. Lloyd’s attentions, they observed a very decent and modest and contented demeanor.
Towards each other, however, they were somewhat more on the offensive. They were good sisterly friends, betwixt whom it would take more than a day for the seeds of jealousy to sprout and bear fruit; but the young girls felt that the seeds had been sown on the day that Mr. Lloyd came into the house. Each made up her mind that, if she should be slighted, she would bear her grief in silence, and that no one should be any the wiser; for if they had a great deal of love, they had also a great deal of pride. But each prayed in secret, nevertheless, that upon her the glory might fall. They had need of a vast deal of patience, of self-control, and of dissimulation. In those days a young girl of decent breeding could make no advances whatever, and barely respond, indeed, to those that were made. She was expected to sit still in her chair with her eyes on the carpet, watching the spot where the mystic handkerchief should fall. Poor Arthur Lloyd was obliged to undertake his wooing in the little wainscoted parlor, before the eyes of Mrs. Willoughby, her son, and his prospective sister-in-law. But youth and love are so cunning that a hundred little signs and tokens might travel to and fro, and not one of these three pair of eyes detect them in their passage. The young girls had but one chamber and one bed between them, and for long hours together they were under each other’s direct inspection. That each knew that she was being watched, however, made not a grain of difference in those little offices which they mutually rendered, or in the various household tasks which they performed in common. Neither flinched nor fluttered beneath the silent batteries of her sister’s eves. The only apparent change in their habits was that they had less to say to each other. It was impossible to talk about Mr. Lloyd, and it was ridiculous to talk about anything else. By tacit agreement they began to wear all their choice finery, and to devise such little implements of coquetry, in the way of ribbons and top-knots and furbelows as were sanctioned by indubitable modesty. They executed in the same inarticulate fashion a little agreement of sincerity on these delicate matters. “Is it better so ? ” Viola would ask, tying a bunch of ribbons on her bosom, and turning about from her glass to her sister. Perdita would look up gravely from her work and examine the decoration. “I think you had better give it another loop,” she would say, with great solemnity, looking hard at her sister with eyes that added, “upon my honor.” So, they were forever stitching and trimming their petticoats, and pressing out their muslins, and contriving washes and ointments and cosmetics, like the ladies in the household of the Vicar of Wakefield. Some three or four months went by; it grew to be midwinter, and as yet Viola knew that if Perdita had nothing more to boast of than she, there was not much to he feared from her rivalry. But Perdita by this time, the charming Perdita, felt that her secret had grown to be tenfold more precious than her sister’s.
One afternoon Miss Willoughby sat alone before her toilet-glass, combing out her long hair. It was getting too dark to see; she lit the two candles in their sockets on the frame of her mirror, and then went to the window to draw her curtains. It was a gray December evening; the landscape was bare and bleak, and the sky heavy with snow-clouds. At the end of the long garden into which her window looked was a wall with a little postern door, opening into a lane. The door stood ajar, as she could vaguely see in the gathering darkness, and moved slowly to and fro, as if someone were swaying it from the lane without. It was doubtless a servant-maid. But as she was about to drop her curtain, Viola saw her sister step within the garden, and hurry along the path toward the house. She dropped the curtain; all save a little crevice for her eyes. As Perdita came up the path, she seemed to be examining something in her hand, holding it close to her eyes. When she reached the house she stopped a moment, looked intently at the object, and pressed it to her lips.
Poor Viola slowly came back to her chair, and sat down before her glass, where, if she had looked at it less abstractedly, she would have seen her handsome features sadly disfigured by jealousy. A moment afterwards, the door opened behind her, and her sister came into the room, out of breath, and her cheeks aglow with the chilly air.
Perdita started. “Ah,” said she, “I thought you were with mamma.” The ladies were to go to a tea-party, and on such occasions, it was the habit of one of the young girls to help their mother to dress. Instead of coming in, Perdita lingered at the door.
“Come in, come in,” said Viola. “We 've more than an hour yet. I should like you very much to give a few strokes to my hair.” She knew that her sister wished to retreat, and that she could see in the glass all her movements in the room. “Nay, just help me with my hair,” she said, “and I ’ll go to mamma.”
Perdita came reluctantly and took the brush. She saw her sister’s eyes, in the glass, fastened hard upon her hands. She had not made three passes, when Viola clapped her own right hand upon her sister’s left and started out of her chair. “Whose ring is that? ” she cried, passionately, drawing her towards the light.
On the young girl’s third finger glistened a little gold ring, adorned with a couple of small rubies. Perdita felt that she need no longer keep her secret, yet that she must put a bold face on her avowal. “It’s mine,” she said proudly.
“Who gave it to you?” cried the other.
Perdita hesitated a moment. “Mr. Lloyd.”
“Mr. Lloyd is generous, all of a sudden.”
“Ah no,” cried Perdita, with spirit, “ not all of a sudden. He offered it to me a month ago.”
“And you needed a month’s begging to take it?” said Viola, looking at the little trinket; which indeed was not especially elegant, although it was the best that the jeweler of the Province could furnish. “I shouldn’t have taken it in less than two.”
“It is n’t the ring,” said Perdita, “it’s what it means! ”
“It means that you ’re not a modest girl,” cried Viola. “Pray does mamma know of your conduct? does Bernard?”
“Mamma has approved my ‘conduct,’ as you call it. Mr. Lloyd has asked my hand, and mamma has given it. Would you have had him apply to you, sister?”
Viola gave her sister a long look, full of passionate envy and sorrow. Then she dropped her lashes on her pale cheeks and turned away. Perdita felt that it had not been a pretty scene; but it was her sister’s fault. But the elder girl rapidly called back her pride and turned herself about again. “You have my very best wishes,” she said with a low courtesy. “I wish you every happiness, and a very long life.”
Perdita gave a bitter laugh. “Don’t speak in that tone,” she cried. “I ’d rather you cursed me outright. Come sister,” she added, “he couldn’t marry both of us.”
“I wish you very great joy,” Viola repeated mechanically, sitting down to her glass again, “and a very long life, and plenty of children.”
There was something in the sound of these words not at all to Perdita’s taste. “Will you give me a year, at least? ” she said. “In a year I can, have one little boy, — or one little girl at least. If you 'll give me your brush again, I ’ll do your hair.”
“Thank you,” said Viola. “You had better go to mamma. It is n't proper that a young lady with a promised husband should wait on a girl with none.”
“Nay,” said Perdita, good-humoredly, “ I have Arthur to wait upon me. You need my service more than I need yours.”
But her sister motioned her away, and she left the room. When she had gone, poor Viola fell on her knees before her dressing-table, buried her head in her arms, and poured out a flood of tears and sobs. She felt verymuch the better for this effusion of sorrow. When her sister came back, she insisted upon helping her to dress, and upon her wearing her prettiest things. She forced upon her acceptance a bit of lace of her own, and declared that now that she was to be married, she should do her best to appear worthy of her lover’s choice. She discharged these offices in stern silence; but, such as they were, they had to do duty as an apology and an atonement; she never made any other.
Now that Lloyd was received by the family as an accepted suitor, nothing remained but to fix the wedding-day. It was appointed for the following April, and in the interval, preparations were diligently made for the marriage. Lloyd, on his side, was busy with his commercial arrangements, and with establishing a correspondence with the great mercantile house to which he had attached himself in England. He was therefore not so frequent a visitor at Mrs. Willoughby’s as during the months of his diffidence and irresolution, and poor Viola had less to suffer than she had feared from the sight of the mutual endearments of the young lovers. Touching his future sister-in-law Lloyd had a perfectly clear conscience. There had not been a particle of sentiment uttered between them, and he had not the slightest suspicion that she coveted anything more than, his fraternal regard. He was quite at his ease; life promised so well, both domestically and financially. The lurid clouds of revolution were as yet twenty years beneath the horizon, and that his connubial felicity should take a tragic turn it was absurd, it was blasphemous, to apprehend. Meanwhile at Mrs. Willoughby’s there was a greater rustling of silks, a more rapid clicking of scissors, and flying of needles than ever. Mrs. Willoughby had determined that her daughter should carry from home the most elegant outfit that her money could buy, or that the country could furnish. All the sage women in the county were convened, and their united taste was brought to bear on Perdita’s wardrobe. Viola’s situation, at this moment, was assuredly not to be envied. The poor girl had an inordinate love of dress, and the very best taste in the world, as her sister perfectly well knew. Viola was tall, she was full and stately, she was made to carry stiff brocade and masses of heavy lace, such as belong to the toilet of a rich man’s wife. But Viola sat aloof, with her beautiful arms folded and her head averted, while her mother and sister and the venerable women aforesaid worried and wondered over their materials, oppressed by the multitude of their resources. One day there came in a beautiful piece of white silk, brocaded with heavenly blue and silver, sent by the bridegroom himself, it not being thought amiss in those days that the husband elect should contribute to the bride’s trousseau. Perdita was quite at loss to imagine a pattern and trimmings which should do sufficient honor to the splendor of the material.
“Blue’s your color, sister, more than mine,” she said with appealing eyes. “It’s a pity it’s not for you. You’d know what to do with it.”
Viola got up from her place and looked at the great shining fabric as it lay spread over the back of a chair. Then she took it up in her hands and felt it, — lovingly, as Perdita could see, — and turned about toward the mirror with it. She let it roll down to her feet, and flung the other end over her shoulder, gathering it in about her waist with her white arm bare to the elbow. She threw back her bead, and looked at her image, and a hanging tress of her auburn hair fell upon the gorgeous surface of the silk. It made a dazzling picture. The women standing about uttered a little “Ah!” of admiration. “Yes, indeed,” said Viola, quietly, “blue is my color.” But Perdita could see that her fancy had been stirred, and that she would now fall to work and solve all their silken riddles. And indeed, she behaved very well, as Perdita, knowing her insatiable love of millinery, was quite ready to declare. Yards and yards of lovely silks and satins, of muslins, velvets, and laces, passed through her cunning hands, without a word of envy coming from her lips. Thanks to her efforts, when the wedding-day came, Perdita was prepared to espouse more of the vanities of life than any fluttering young bride who had yet challenged the sacramental blessing of a New England divine.
It had been arranged that the young couple should go out and spend the first days of their wedded life at the country house of an English gentleman, -— a man of rank, and a very kind friend to Lloyd. He was an unmarried man; he professed himself delighted to withdraw and leave them for a week to their billing and cooing. After the ceremony at church, — it had been performed by an English priest, — young Mrs. Lloyd hastened back to her mother’s house to change her wedding gear for a riding-dress.
Viola helped her to effect the change, in the little old room in which they had been fond sisters together. Perdita then hurried off to bid farewell to her mother, leaving Viola to follow. The parting was short; the horses were at the door, and Arthur impatient to start. But Viola had not followed, and Perdita hastened back to her room, opening the door abruptly. Viola, as usual, was before the glass, but in a position which caused the other to stand still, amazed. She had dressed herself in Perdita’s cast-off wedding veil and wreath, and on her neck, she had hung the heavy string of pearls which the young girl had received from her husband as a wedding-gift. These things had been hastily laid aside, to await their possessor’s disposal on her return from the country. Bedizened in this unnatural garb, Viola stood at the mirror, plunging a long look into its depths, and reading Heaven knows what audacious visions. Perdita was shocked and pained. It was a hideous image of their old rivalry come to life again. She made a step toward her sister, as if to pull off the veil and the flowers. But catching her eyes in the glass, she stopped.
“Farewell, Viola,” she said. “You might at least have waited till I had got out of the house.” And she hurried away from the room.
Mr. Lloyd had purchased in Boston a house which, in the taste of those days, was considered a marvel of elegance and comfort; and here he very soon established himself with his young wife. He was thus separated by a distance of twenty miles from the residence of his mother-in-law. Twenty miles in that primitive era of roads and conveyances were as good as a hundred at the present day, and Mrs. Willoughby saw but little of her daughter during the first twelvemonth of her marriage. She suffered in no small degree from her absence; and her affliction was not diminished by the fact that Viola had fallen into a spiritless and languid state, which made change of scene and of air essential to her restoration. The real cause of the young girl’s dejection the reader will not be slow to suspect. Mrs. Willoughby and her gossips, however, deemed her complaint a purely physical one, and doubted not that she would obtain relief from the remedy just mentioned. Her mother accordingly proposed on her behalf a visit to certain relatives on the paternal side, established in New York, who had long complained that they were able to see so little of their New England cousins. Viola was despatched to these good people, under a suitable escort, and remained with them for several months. In the interval her brother Bernard, who had begun the practice of the law, made up his mind to take a wife. Viola came home to the wedding, apparently cured of her heartache, with honest roses and lilies in her face, and a proud smile on her lips. Arthur Lloyd came over from Boston to see his brother-in-law married, but without his wife, who was expecting shortly to be confined. It was nearly a year since Viola had seen him. She was glad — she hardly knew why— that Perdita had stayed at home. Arthur looked happy, but he was more grave and solemn than before his marriage. She thought he looked “interesting,”— for although the word in its modern sense was not then invented, we may be sure that the idea was. The truth is, he was simply preoccupied with his wife’s condition. Nevertheless, he by no means failed to observe Viola’s beauty and splendor, and how she quite effaced the poor little bride. The allowance that Perdita had enjoyed for her dress had now been transferred to her sister, who certainly made the most of it. On the morning after the wedding, he had a lady’s saddle put on the horse of the servant who had come with him from town and went out with the young girl for a ride. It was a keen, clear morning in January; the ground was bare and hard, and the horses in good condition, — to say nothing of Viola, who was charming in her hat and plume, and her dark blue riding-coat, trimmed with fur. They rode all the morning, they lost their way, and were obliged to stop for dinner at a farmhouse. The early winter dusk had fallen when they got home. Mrs. Willoughby met them with a long face. A messenger had arrived at noon from Mrs. Lloyd; she was beginning to be ill, and desired her husband’s immediate return. The young man swore at the thought that he had lost several hours, and that by hard riding he might already have been with his wife. He barely consented to stop for a mouthful of supper but mounted the messenger’s horse and started off at a gallop.
He reached home at midnight. His wife had been delivered of a little girl.
“Ah, why weren’t you with me?” she said, as he came to her bedside.
“I was out of the house when the man came. I was with Viola," said Lloyd, innocently.
Mrs. Lloyd made a little moan and turned about. But she continued to do very well, and for a week her improvement was uninterrupted. Finally, however, through some excess of diet or of exposure, it was checked, and the poor lady grew rapidly worse. Lloyd was in despair. It very soon became evident that the relapse was fatal. Mrs. Lloyd came to a sense of her approaching end and declared that she was reconciled with death. On the third evening after the change took place, she told her husband that she felt she would not outlast the night. She dismissed her servants, and also requested her mother to withdraw, — Mrs. Willoughby having arrived on the preceding day. She had had her infant placed on the bed beside her, and she lay on her side, with the child against her breast, holding her husband’s hands. The night-lamp was hidden behind the heavy curtains of the bed, but the room was illumined with a red glow from the immense fire of logs on the hearth.
“It seems strange to die by such a fire as that,” the young woman said, feebly trying to smile. “If I had but a little of such fire in my veins! But I’ve given it all to this little spark of mortality.” And she dropped her eyes on her child. Then raising them she looked at her husband with a long penetrating gaze. The last feeling which lingered in her heart was one of mistrust. She had not recovered from the shock which Arthur had given her by telling her that in the hour of her agony he had been with Viola. She trusted her husband very nearly as well as she loved him; but now that she was called away forever, she felt a cold horror of her sister. She felt in her soul that Viola had never ceased to envy her good fortune; and a year of happy security had not effaced the young girl’s image, dressed in her wedding garments, and smiling with fancied triumph. Now that Arthur was to be alone, what might not Viola do? She was beautiful, she was engaging; what arts might she not use, what impression might she not make upon the young man’s melancholy heart? Mrs. Lloyd looked at her husband in silence. It seemed hard, after all, to doubt of his constancy. His fine eyes were filled with tears; his face was convulsed with weeping; the clasp of his hands was warm and passionate. How noble he looked, how tender, how faithful and devoted! “Nay,” thought Perdita, “he’s not for such as Viola. He ’ll never forget me. Nor does Viola truly care for him; she cares only for vanities and finery and jewels.” And she dropped her eyes on her white hands, which her husband’s liberality had covered with rings, and on the lace ruffles which trimmed the edge of her night-dress. “She covets my rings and my laces more than she covets my husband.”
At this moment the thought of her sister’s rapacity seemed to cast a dark shadow between her and the helpless figure of her little girl.
“Arthur,” she said, "you must take off my rings. I shall not be buried in them. One of these days my daughter shall wear them, — my rings and my laces and silks. I had them all brought out and shown me to-day. It’s a great wardrobe, — there’s not such another in the Province; I can say it without vanity now that I’ve done with it. It will be a great inheritance for my daughter when she grows into a young woman. There are things there that a man never buys twice, and if they 're lost you ’ll never again see the like. So, you ’ll watch them well. Some dozen things I've left to Viola; I 've named them to my mother. I’ve given her that blue and silver; it was meant for her; I wore it only once, I looked ill in it. But the rest are to be sacredly kept for this little innocent. It’s such a providence that she should be my color; she can wear my gowns; she has her mother’s eyes. You know the same fashions come back every twenty years. She can wear my gowns as they are. They’ll lie there quietly waiting till she grows into them, — wrapped in camphor and rose-leaves, and keeping their colors in the sweet-scented darkness. She shall have black hair; she shall wear my carnation satin. Do you promise me, Arthur?”
“Promise you what, dearest?”
“Promise me to keep your poor little wife’s old gowns.”
“Are you afraid I 'll sell them?
“No, but that they may get scattered. My mother will have them properly wrapped up, and you shall lay them away under a double-lock. Do you know the great chest in the attic, with the iron bands? There’s no end to what it will hold. You can lay them all there. My mother and the housekeeper will do it and give you the key. And you ’ll keep the key in your secretary, and never give it to anyone but your child. Do you promise me?”
“Ah, yes, I promise you,” said Lloyd, puzzled at the intensity with which his wife appeared to cling to this idea.
“Will you swear?” repeated Perdita.
“Yes, I swear.”
“Well — I trust you — I trust you,” said the poor lady, looking into his eyes with eyes in which, if he had suspected her vague apprehensions, he might have read an appeal quite as much as an assurance.
Lloyd bore his bereavement soberly and manfully. A month after his wife’s death, in the course of commerce, circumstances arose which offered him an opportunity of going to England. He embraced it as an alleviation to his sadness. He was absent nearly a year, during which his little girl was tenderly nursed and cherished by her grandmother. On his return he had his house again thrown open and announced his intention of keeping the same state as during his wife’s lifetime. It very soon came to be predicted that he would marry again, and there were at least a dozen young women of whom one may say that it was by no fault of theirs that, for six months after his return, the prediction did not come true. During this interval he still left his little daughter in Mrs. Willoughby’s hands, the latter assuring him that a change of residence at so tender an age was perilous to her health. Finally, however, he declared that his heart longed for the little creature’s presence, and that she must be brought up to town. He sent his coach and his housekeeper to fetch her home. Mrs. Willoughby was in terror lest something should befall her on the road; and, in accordance with this feeling, Viola offered to ride along with her. She could return the next day. So she went up to town with her little niece, and Mr. Lloyd met her on the threshold of his house, overcome with her kindness and with gratitude. Instead of returning the next day, Viola stayed out the week; and when at last she reappeared, she had only come for her clothes. Arthur would not hear of her coming home, nor would the baby. She cried and moaned if Viola left her; and at the sight of her grief Arthur lost his wits, and swore that she was going to die. In fine, nothing would suit them, but that Viola should remain until the little thing had grown used to strange faces.
It took two months for this consummation to be brought about; for it was not until this period had elapsed that Viola took leave of her brother-in-law. Mrs. Willoughby had fretted and fumed over her daughter’s absence; she had declared that it was not becoming, and that it was the talk of the town. She had reconciled herself to it only because, during the young girl’s visit, the household enjoyed an unwonted term of peace. Bernard Willoughby had brought his wife home to live, between whom and her sister-in-law there existed a bitter hostility. Viola was perhaps no angel; but in the daily practice of life she was a sufficiently good-natured girl, and if she quarreled with Mrs. Bernard it was not without provocation. Quarrel, however, she did, to the great annoyance not only of her antagonist, but the two spectators of these constant altercations. Her stay in the household of her brother-in-law, therefore, would have been delightful, if only because it removed her from contact with the object of her antipathy at home. It was doubly — it was ten times — delightful, inasmuch as it kept her near the object of her old passion. Mrs. Lloyd’s conjectures had fallen very far short of the truth touching Viola’s feeling for her husband. It had been a passion at first and a passion it remained, — a passion of whose radiant heat, tempered to the delicate state of his feelings, Mr. Lloyd very soon felt the influence. Lloyd, as I have said, was no paragon; it was not in his nature to practice an ideal constancy. He had not been many days in the house with his sister-in-law before he began to assure himself that she was, in the language of that day, a devilish fine woman. Whether Viola really practiced those insidious arts that her sister had been tempted to impute to her it is needless to inquire. It is enough to say that she found means to appear to the very best advantage. She used to seat herself every morning before the great fireplace in the dining-room, at work upon a piece of tapestry, with her little niece disporting herself on the carpet at her feet, or on the train of her dress, and playing with her woolen balls. Lloyd would have been a very stupid fellow if he had remained insensible to the rich suggestions of this charming picture. He was prodigiously fond of his little girl and was never weary of taking her in his arms and tossing her up and down, and making her crow with delight. Very often, however, he would venture upon greater liberties than the little creature was yet prepared to allow, and she would suddenly vociferate her displeasure. Viola would then drop her tapestry and put out her handsome hands with the serious smile of the young girl whose virgin fancy has revealed to her all a mother’s healing arts. Lloyd would give up the child, their eyes would meet, their hands would touch, and Viola would extinguish the little girl’s sobs upon the snowy folds of the kerchief that crossed her bosom. Her dignity was perfect, and nothing could be less obtrusive than the manner in which she accepted her brother-in-law’s hospitality. It may be almost said, perhaps, that there was something harsh in her reserve. Llyod had a provoking feeling that she was in the house, and yet that she was unapproachable. Half an hour after supper, at the very outset of the long winter evenings, she would light her candle, and make the young man a most respectful courtesy, and march off to bed. If these were arts, Viola was a great artist. But their effect was so gentle, so gradual, they were calculated to work upon the young widower’s fancy with such a finely shaded crescendo, that, as the reader has seen, several weeks elapsed before Viola began to feel sure that her return would cover her outlay. When this became morally certain, she packed up her trunk, and returned to her mother’s house. For three days she waited; on the fourth Mr. Lloyd made his appearance, a respectful but ardent suitor. Viola heard him out with great humility and accepted him with infinite modesty. It is hard to imagine that Mrs. Lloyd should have forgiven her husband; but if anything might have disarmed her resentment, it would have been the ceremonious continence of this interview. Viola imposed upon her lover but a short probation. They were married, as was becoming, with great privacy, — almost with secrecy, — in the hope, perhaps, as was waggishly remarked at the time, that the late Mrs. Lloyd wouldn’t hear of it.
The marriage was to all appearance a happy one, and each party obtained what each had desired, — Lloyd “a devilish fine woman,” and Viola — but Viola’s desires, as the reader will have observed, have remained a good deal of a mystery. There were, indeed, two blots upon their felicity; but time would, perhaps, efface them. During the three first years of her marriage Mrs. Lloyd failed to become a mother, and her husband on his side suffered heavy losses of money. This latter circumstance compelled a material retrenchment in his expenditure, and Viola was perforce less of a great lady than her sister had been. She contrived, however, to sustain with unbroken consistency the part of an elegant woman, although it must be confessed that it required the exercise of more ingenuity than belongs to your real aristocratic repose. She had long since ascertained that her sister’s immense wardrobe had been sequestrated for the benefit of her daughter, and that it lay languishing in thankless gloom in the dusty attic. It was a revolting thought that these glorious fabrics should wait on the bidding of a little girl who sat in a highchair, and ate bread-and-milk with a wooden spoon. Viola had the good taste, however, to say nothing about the matter until several months had expired. Then, at last, she timidly broached it to her husband. Was it not a pity that so much finery should be lost? — for lost it would be, what with colors fading, and moths eating it up, and the change of fashions. But Lloyd gave so abrupt and peremptory a negative to her inquiry, that she saw that for the present her attempt was vain. Six months went by, however, and brought with them new needs and new fancies. Viola’s thoughts hovered lovingly about her sister’s relics. She went up and looked at the chest in which they lay imprisoned. There was a sullen defiance in its three great padlocks and its iron bands, which only quickened her desires. There was something exasperating in its incorruptible immobility. It was like a grim and grizzled old household servant, who locks his jaws over a family secret. And then there was a look of capacity in its vast extent, and a sound as of dense fulness, when Viola knocked its side with the toe of her little slipper, which caused her to flush with baffled longing. "It’s absurd,” she cried; “it’s improper, it’s wicked,” and she forthwith resolved upon another attack upon her husband. On the following day, after dinner when he had had his wine, she bravely began it. But he cut her short with great sternness.
“Once for all, Viola,” said he, “it’s out of the question. I shall be gravely displeased if you return to the matter.”
“Very good,” said Viola. “I’m glad to learn the value at which I'm held. Great Heaven!” she cried, “I’m a happy woman. It’s a delightful thing to feel one’s self sacrificed to a caprice!” And her eyes filled with tears of anger and disappointment.
Lloyd had a good-natured man’s horror of a woman’s sobs, and he attempted — I may say he condescended — to explain. “It’s not a caprice, dear, it’s a promise,” he said, -— “an oath.”
“An oath? It’s a pretty matter for oaths! and to whom, pray?”
“To Perdita,” said the young man, raising his eyes for an instant, but immediately dropping them.
“Perdita, — ah, Perdita! ” And Viola’s tears broke forth. Her bosom heaved with stormy sobs, — sobs which were the long-deferred counterpart of the violent fit of weeping in which she had indulged herself on the night when she discovered her sister’s betrothal. She had hoped, in her better moments, that she had done with her jealousy; but here it raged again as fierce as ever. “And pray what right,” she cried, “had Perdita to dispose of my future? What right had she to bind you to meanness and cruelty? Ah, I occupy a dignified place, and I make a very fine figure! I’m welcome to what Perdita has left! And what has she left? I never knew till now how little! Nothing, nothing, nothing!”
This was very poor logic, but it was very good passion. Lloyd put his arm around his wife’s waist and tried to kiss her, but she shook him off with magnificent scorn. Poor fellow! he had coveted a "devilish fine woman,” and he had got one. Her scorn was intolerable. He walked away with his ears tingling, — irresolute, distracted. Before him was his secretary, and in it the sacred key which with his own hand he had turned in the triple lock. He marched up and opened it, and took the key from a secret drawer, wrapped in a little packet which he had sealed with his own honest bit of blazonry. Teneo, said the motto, — ”I hold.” But he was ashamed to put it back. He flung it upon the table beside his wife.
“Keep it!” she cried. “I want it not. I hate it!”
“I wash my hands of it,” cried her husband. “God forgive me!”
Mrs. Lloyd gave an indignant shrug of her shoulders, and swept out of the room, while the young man retreated by another door. Ten minutes later Mrs. Lloyd returned, and found the room occupied by her little stepdaughter and the nursery-maid. The key was not on the table. She glanced at the child. The child was perched on a chair with the packet in her hands. She had broken the seal with her own little fingers. Mrs. Lloyd hastily took possession of the key.
At the habitual supper-hour Arthur Lloyd came back from his countingroom. It was the month of June, and supper was served by daylight. The meal was placed on the table, but Mrs. Lloyd failed to make her appearance. The servant whom his master sent to call her came back with the assurance that her room was empty, and that the women informed him that she had not been seen since dinner. They had in truth observed her to have been in tears, and, supposing her to be shut up in her chamber, had not disturbed her. Her husband called her name in various parts of the house, but without response. At last, it occurred to him that he might find her by taking the way to the attic. The thought gave him a strange feeling of discomfort, and he bade his servants remain behind, wishing no witness in his quest. He reached the foot of the staircase leading to the topmost flat, and stood with his hand on the banisters, pronouncing his wife’s name. His voice trembled. He called again, louder, and more firmly. The only sound which disturbed the absolute silence was a faint echo of his own voice, repeating his question under the great eaves. He nevertheless felt irresistibly moved to ascend the staircase. It opened upon a wide hall, lined with wooden closets, and terminating in a window which looked westward, and admitted the last rays of the sun. Before the window stood the great chest. Before the chest, on her knees, the young man saw with amazement and horror the figure of his wife. In an instant he crossed the interval between them, bereft of utterance. The lid of the chest stood open, exposing, amid their perfumed napkins, its treasure of stuffs and jewels. Viola had fallen backward from a kneeling posture, with one hand supporting her on the floor and the other pressed to her heart. On her limbs was the stiffness of death, and on her face, in the fading light of the sun, the terror of something more than death. Her lips were parted in entreaty, in dismay, in agony; and on her bloodless brow and cheeks there glowed the marks of ten hideous wounds from two vengeful ghostly hands.