The Path, September, 1890.
In the boudoir of a charming woman of the world, this tale was told to me. If you do not believe it, I shan't blame you. Even now, I can hardly believe it myself.
The boudoir was a strange one for a woman. With Nina Grandville the unusual was always to be found. She was like, and unlike, other women. On the surface, grande dame de par le monde. Beneath that polished surface, which afforded no hold to the cynic claws of her own sex, who shall say what swift dilation of the nostril, what smouldering fire of the eye, what scorn in her walk amid the crass, material crowd might not confound the observer? Distinguished by a quiet elegance, the surface woman was accepted by all save the philosopher and the fool. I have always been a little of both. As I looked at the tiger skins, the panoplies or weapons, the savagely grotesque bronzes of her boudoir, refusing to blend with crown Derby and plush poufs a la mode, I wondered, for the thousandth time, more or less, over that hidden nature to which this admixture must be the key. The late Grandville, remarkable only for fadeur and a keen taste in sauces, was never responsible for it, I was sure.
Waiting there for the lady, my eye wandered down a sunbeam, its quivering point touching an object hitherto unnoticed by me. It was a small dagger, sheathed in bronze, with a figure of Mephistopheles holding up a wine cup while he mocked and sang, upon the handle. The impish deviltry of the little figure attracted me. It hung upon a velvet disk just above Madame's lounge, and when I unsheathed the blade it was a slim, oval-shaped bar of steel, sharp on both edges, with a wasp's sting point. A lovely bit steel with only one defect where a dark stain marred the blue polish of that blade. Mrs. Grandville appearing at the moment, I held the dagger out to her, remarking "What a pity to let such a weapon rust. Do let me have it cleaned."
She stood in the doorway, grasping the curtain, her lithe undulation arrested by my words. She turned from red to white - a fiery, luminous whiteness - and from that to ashy grey. Her throat quivered, but no words came. Her nostrils dilated, she went white again, her grand figure expanded, towered; by some subtle alchemy of nature the woman seemed to turn tigress before my eyes; in a bound she was at my side, clasping my wrist, and our eyes burned, each into the other's. As a spectator of some great natural upheaval, it did not occur to me to say anything. I held my breath and the dagger while we sounded one another a long moment. In her gaze I saw only a fierce question. What she saw in mine mast have satisfied her, for she relinquished my wrist and seated herself with a shrug and a laugh.
"Certainly, Lord Hatfield; take it to every gunsmith when you return t town and ask him to remove the stain. You will find that most of them know it. If they succeed I will pay them any price they may ask. And to you I will give one of the rarest things on earth, a woman's loyal and profound friendship.
While she spoke I had been looking at the stain on the blade. It somehow affected my brain with a kind of heat and tumult. I attributed this effect to the blade because of some emanation proceeding from it, like a hot and jarring mist, which blurred the mockery of Mephistopheles. Altogether, I was wrought up beyond my usual mood. So I looked full at her, saying:
"Suppose I wanted even more than that? Suppose I wanted what is less rare, but closer, more human, - a woman's love?"
I don't think I had known that I loved her until then, but I took a quick advantage and threw all my newly-found heart into my voice. Her eyes shone, then contracted; one saw she was happy, then sad.
"In that case I - I should tell you the tale of the dagger," she replied.
"Tell it to me, then."
"It is not easy, Hatfield."
"Say it is impossible, but tell it. Strong tasks are set to the strong. You are very strong."
A pink flush suffused her pallor at my praise. I have seen rosy sunrise clouds flit over the Jura snow peaks so. But in her eyes was a piteous dread.
"Tell me," I entreated again.
"That you may laugh?"
"That I may learn."
"What a woman's soul is, when it is real."
She studied me briefly; then she plunged into this tale:
"I will tell you. When I have done, you shall pronounce the verdict, 'Guilty,' or 'Not guilty.' A horrid weight will be lifted from me. My mind will not revolve about it any more, like a trapped rat in a wheel. To know how a sane mind judges my moral status, this is the relief you offer me. It is a real and terrible thing I am about to tell you, but the majority of persons would call it a phantasm of the mind. Only the very sane can admit the reality of subjective phenomena. Few know that the unseen is more real than the seen. That stain is on the dagger, plain to every sight, but the ethical cause of it would be denied by most men and women.
"Before my marriage with Mr. Grandville, I lived with my mother in Italy. You know she was a Florentine. I had artistic talent and studied under Luigi Fiamamente, an artist of reputation. I became engaged to him. My cousin, Lavoisini, studied with me, and in view of these circumstances my mother's chaperonage often relaxed. What happy days those were! We were young, full of life and health, aspiring to high ideals, pure as daybreak. Ours was the blissful confidence of innocence, ignorance. It was disturbed. It was disturbed indeed.
"One day, as I painted, I heard a footstep coming up the long flight of stairs leading to the studio. Leisurely, emphatic, elastic, confident, it came on and on. Louder, more aggressive, self-assertive by the time it reached the studio door, I felt that an enemy stood there. The man who entered completed my instinctive dislike. In his auburn hair, his ruddy cheeks, his massive but supple form, scarlet lips and hawk-like, contemptuous eyes, the lust of life was exemplified. He came to buy a picture. He remained to insinuate the poison of materiality into our hearts. Into mine, hatred. Into Luigi's, fascination. He said that the artist refreshed him like spring water. At the bottom of the clearest human nature you may stir up mud if you will. The spring became polluted. Luigi became unnerved, listless, hollow of eye and cheek in a few days. He sought me less; when he did, he treated me with apologetic kindness. Marshall - so the stranger was called - appeared interested in me also. I repulsed him without disguise. He said that, since I would not receive him, he must content himself 'with our Luigi.' The words were a veiled threat. He soon held my poor boy as in a vise. Steeped in material pleasures, he winced under Marshall's contempt of all finer feeling; his ideals were rendered ridiculous, his virtues contemptible, but he submitted to the influence. I was not able to remonstrate. I was so young, you see; I could hardly define what had happened. But I hated Marshall. The hatred grew. It reached a climax one day when I found Luigi prostrate on the studio floor, his body convulsed with sobs. I begged him to tell me what had happened. He only muttered that it was too late. I told him it was never too late for truth and love. He replied that he had neither; he did not even desire them. His face, aged and lined, his wasted frame, his dimmed eyes, all confirmed his words. 'Hateful as is the gulf where I have fallen,' he said, 'I do not wish to leave it. Outside of the sensations it affords, I am a dead man. Even while I lament, an interior voice mocks me and assures me that my thirst for the lowest forms of pleasure is unslaked, that I shall soon enjoy them again, and with him, even as he enjoys partly through me. This promise delights me. Go, Nina; go.'
"Terrible words for a young girl to hear! I left him, loving him more than ever. I shut myself in my room, planning his release, nursing my detestation of Marshall. I did not perceive that he had thus infected my mind also. While I thought out various plans, all at once I seemed to see Marshall lying upon the studio lounge, where he took his noon siesta, after an opium cigarette. Above the lounge this dagger always hung. And then I seemed to see it planted in his heart. This picture delighted my fancy. A spark lit and flamed in my brain, while I mentally contemplated it. Then I laughed aloud. A new thought had struck me. There was a private passage way connecting our house and the studio. At noon, every one was asleep. And - why not? Why not? A Something seemed to harden, inside of me. I rose like one refreshed. I was young and strong. I loved Luigi. I would free him.
"Well; the day and the night passed somehow. Through the long hours I revelled in a mental picture of a dagger stained with blood. Life, for me, seemed to end with Mephistopheles sneering above a dead man's heart. Noontide found me in the studio; Marshall lay there, asleep. I felt as cool and as hard as a rock. I leaned over him, took the dagger from the wall, unsheathed it, planting myself firmly upon my feet. The sleeper turned towards me, smiling in his lethargy. I smiled back. I raised my arm, looked at the weapon to guide my aim. Heaven! What was that I saw upon the blade? What was the deadly stain? Whence came those drops of blood? The blade had a voice. It yelled MURDER at me. The air resounded with crisp tongues that took up the cry. I shrank. I cowered. I fled.
"Back in my room again, alone with the dagger, I tried frantically to remove the stain. I could not. The silent witness of my moral guilt remained. Marshall walked the streets, but I was a murderess. The thought was the deed; it lived, even though the final blow was wanting. I saw this, but I would not believe it. I stole to the studio and hung the unclean thing upon the wall again, quaking with fear lest some one should unsheath it and expose that eloquent stain."
She sobbed a moment, hysterically, from exhaustion.
"I will not keep you much longer. While I lingered, my cousin came in. I burst into tears at sight of him. He led me before Luigi's best work; it was cut to pieces with a palette knife. 'It is Marshall who obsesses him,' he said; 'Can nothing be done?' I shook my head and gazed at the dagger on the wall; hate was in my heart, together with the rage of impotence. His eyes followed mine; they dilated, then remained fixed. After awhile I left him, still staring at the dagger.
Next day the city rang with news of Marshall's murder. Later, my cousin was arrested with the dagger in his possession. He seemed benumbed, dazed, and did not defend himself. At the trial he admitted his guilt and said that the dagger had a blood stain upon it and a voice came from it, urging him to kill. Some thought him crazed. Others believed that be affected mental disorder to escape extreme punishment. He did escape that, having always been a gentle, peace-loving soul. They sent him to the galleys for life. Before going, he gave me the fatal dagger. 'You know its power,' he said; 'keep it safe from human eyes.' In a short time, he too was dead. My heart seemed dead also. My love for Luigi was gone. The shocks had sobered him. Perhaps we might have raised one another, but we were both too tired to feel. Mamma brought me to England. The rest you know. And now, who murdered Marshall?" She rose to receive my sentence. "What do you say? Guilty or not guilty?"
I said nothing. With the force of that extraordinary tale upon me I stammered some consolatory commonplace and said I must have time to think. I got away to my rooms in town; the dagger was still in my hand and my brain felt light as a feather. I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. Late next morning I awoke, right as a trivet, clear as a crystal, and all the cobwebs swept from my brain and my practical commonsense restored. My thoughts ran somewhat thus.
"Guilty? Poor girl! How should she be? The melodrama of her mother's blood is in her. Social strain has made her morbid. I'll tell her so. I'll tell her I love her, by Jove, and we'll go on a wedding tour to Norway. No air braces one up like that." With such thoughts I tubbed, dressed, took breakfast, and drove to my gunsmith's. I wanted to take her the dagger, clear and clean. The man said he could do it, then he was puzzled. Finally he said it couldn't be done, so I had to renounce that little plan. I was soon on my way out to Windsor, but concluded to walk through the park to calm myself, for I was as full of ardor as any lad, dreaming God knows what dreams of love fulfilled. Something rustled near me. There, beneath the branches of an oak, I saw a stately stag of ten, gazing at me. The next instant he turned to run. The hunter's thirst for prey must have taken me by the throat. I ran after him, feeling for some weapon: something flew from my hand; he fell; there was a dagger in his palpitant side, and Mephistopheles leered at me, while all the little voices or the wood cried "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!"
I got home somehow. And I never again saw Nina Grandville. Between us there seemed to be the shadow of a crime. Absurd, if you will, but my soul gave the verdict "Morally Guilty." And I could not argue it down.
Somewhere about the world is a small bronze dagger, with Mephistopheles on the hilt and a stain on the blade. Let no man possess himself of it unless he desires to kill. It has been steeped in thoughts of crime until it has become an entity whose life is hatred, whose impulse is murder.
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