My Wife's Tempter


Fitz James O'Brien

logo

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:58.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

My Wife’s Tempter

i

A Predestined Marriage

Elsie and I were to be married in less than a week. It was rather a strange match, and I knew that some of our neighbors shook their heads over it and said that no good would come. The way it came to pass was thus.

I loved Elsie Burns for two years, during which time she refused me three times. I could no more help asking her to have me, when the chance offered, than I could help breathing or living. To love her seemed natural to me as existence. I felt no shame, only sorrow, when she rejected me; I felt no shame either when I renewed my suit. The neighbors called me mean-spirited to take up with any girl that had refused me as often as Elsie Burns had done; but what cared I about the neighbors? If it is black weather, and the sun is under a cloud every day for a month, is that any reason why the poor farmer should not hope for the blue sky and the plentiful burst of warm light when the dark month is over? I never entirely lost heart. Do not, however, mistake me. I did not mope, and moan, and grow pale, after the manner of poetical lovers. No such thing. I went bravely about my business, ate and drank as usual, laughed when the laugh went round, and slept soundly, and woke refreshed. Yet all this time I loved — desperately loved — Elsie Burns. I went wherever I hoped to meet her, but did not haunt her with my attentions. I behaved to her as any friendly young man would have behaved: I met her and parted from her cheerfully. She was a good girl, too, and behaved well. She had me in her power — how a woman in Elsie’s situation could have mortified a man in mine! — but she never took the slightest advantage of it. She danced with me when I asked her, and had no foolish fears of allowing me to see her home of nights, after a ball was over, or of wandering with me through the pleasant New England fields when the wild flowers made the paths like roads in fairyland.

On the several disastrous occasions when I presented my suit I did it simply and manfully, telling her that I loved her very much, and would do everything to make her happy if she would be my wife. I made no fulsome protestations, and did not once allude to suicide. She, on the other hand, calmly and gravely thanked me for my good opinion, but with the same calm gravity rejected me. I used to tell her that I was grieved; that I would not press her; that I would wait and hope for some change in her feelings. She had an esteem for me, she would say, but could not marry me. I never asked her for any reasons. I hold it to be an insult to a woman of sense to demand her reasons on such an occasion. Enough for me that she did not then wish to be my wife; so that the old intercourse went on — she cordial and polite as ever, I never for one moment doubting that the day would come when my roof tree would shelter her, and we should smile together over our fireside at my long and indefatigable wooing.

I will confess that at times I felt a little jealous — jealous of a man named Hammond Brake, who lived in our village. He was a weird, saturnine fellow, who made no friends among the young men of the neighborhood, but who loved to go alone, with his books and his own thoughts for company. He was a studious and, I believe, a learned young man, and there was no avoiding the fact that he possessed considerable influence over Elsie. She liked to talk with him in corners, or in secluded nooks of the forest, when we all went out blackberry gathering or picnicking. She read books that he gave her, and whenever a discussion arose relative to any topic higher than those ordinary ones we usually canvassed, Elsie appealed to Brake for his opinion, as a disciple consulting a beloved master. I confess that for a time I feared this man as a rival. A little closer observation, however, convinced me that my suspicions were unfounded. The relations between Elsie and Hammond Brake were purely intellectual. She reverenced his talents and acquirements, but she did not love him. His influence over her, nevertheless, was none the less decided.

In time — as I thought all along — Elsie yielded. I was what was considered a most eligible match, being tolerably rich, and Elsie’s parents were most anxious to have me for a son-in-law. I was good-looking and well educated enough, and the old people, I believe, pertinaciously dinned all my advantages into my little girl’s ears. She battled against the marriage for a long time with a strange persistence — all the more strange because she never alleged the slightest personal dislike to me; but after a vigorous cannonading from her own garrison (in which, I am proud to say, I did not in any way join), she hoisted the white flag and surrendered.

I was very happy. I had no fear about being able to gain Elsie’s heart. I think — indeed I know — that she had liked me all along, and that her refusals were dictated by other feelings than those of a personal nature. I only guessed as much then. It was some time before I knew all.

As the day approached for our wedding Elsie did not appear at all stricken with woe. The village gossips had not the smallest opportunity for establishing a romance, with a compulsory bride for the heroine. Yet to me it seemed as if there was something strange about her. A vague terror appeared to beset her. Even in her most loving moments, when resting in my arms, she would shrink away from me, and shudder as if some cold wind had suddenly struck upon her. That it was caused by no aversion to me was evident, for she would the moment after, as if to make amends, give me one of those voluntary kisses that are sweeter than all others.

Once only did she show any emotion. When the solemn question was put to her, the answer to which was to decide her destiny, I felt her hand — which was in mine — tremble. As she gasped out a convulsive “Yes,” she gave one brief, imploring glance at the gallery on the right. I placed the ring upon her finger, and looked in the direction in which she gazed. Hammond Brake’s dark countenance was visible looking over the railings, and his eyes were bent sternly on Elsie. I turned quickly round to my bride, but her brief emotion, of whatever nature, had vanished. She was looking at me anxiously, and smiling — somewhat sadly — through her maiden’s tears.

The months went by quickly, and we were very happy. I learned that Elsie really loved me, and of my love for her she had proof long ago. I will not say that there was no cloud upon our little horizon. There was one, but it was so small, and appeared so seldom, that I scarcely feared it. The old vague terror seemed still to attack my wife. If I did not know her to be pure as heaven’s snow, I would have said it was a REMORSE. At times she scarcely appeared to hear what I said, so deep would be her reverie. Nor did those moods seem pleasant ones. When rapt in such, her sweet features would contract, as if in a hopeless effort to solve some mysterious problem. A sad pain, as it were, quivered in her white, drooped eyelids. One thing I particularly remarked: SHE SPENT HOURS AT A TIME GAZING AT THE WEST. There was a small room in our house whose windows, every evening, flamed with the red light of the setting sun. Here Elsie would sit and gaze westward, so motionless and entranced that it seemed as if her soul was going down with the day. Her conduct to me was curiously varied. She apparently loved me very much, yet there were times when she absolutely avoided me. I have seen her strolling through the fields, and left the house with the intention of joining her, but the moment she caught sight of me approaching she has fled into the neighboring copse, with so evident a wish to avoid me that it would have been absolutely cruel to follow.

Once or twice the old jealousy of Hammond Brake crossed my mind, but I was obliged to dismiss it as a frivolous suspicion. Nothing in my wife’s conduct justified any such theory. Brake visited us once or twice a week — in fact, when I returned from my business in the village, I used to find him seated in the parlor with Elsie, reading some favorite author, or conversing on some novel literary topic; but there was no disposition to avoid my scrutiny. Brake seemed to come as a matter of right; and the perfect unconsciousness of furnishing any grounds for suspicion with which he acted was a sufficient answer to my mind for any wild doubts that my heart may have suggested.

Still I could not but remark that Brake’s visits were in some manner connected with Elsie’s melancholy. On the days when he had appeared and departed, the gloom seemed to hang more thickly than ever over her head. She sat, on such occasions, all the evening at the western window, silently gazing at the cleft in the hills through which the sun passed to his repose.

At last I made up my mind to speak to her. It seemed to me to be my duty, if she had a sorrow, to partake of it. I approached her on the matter with the most perfect confidence that I had nothing to learn beyond the existence of some girlish grief, which a confession and a few loving kisses would exorcise forever.

“Elsie,” I said to her one night, as she sat, according to her custom, gazing westward, like those maidens of the old ballads of chivalry watching for the knights that never came —“Elsie, what is the matter with you, darling? I have noticed a strange melancholy in you for some time past. Tell me all about it.”

She turned quickly round and gazed at me with eyes wide open and face filled with a sudden fear. “Why do you ask me that, Mark?” she answered. “I have nothing to tell.”

From the strange, startled manner in which this reply was given, I felt convinced that she had something to tell, and instantly formed a determination to discover what it was. A pang shot through my heart as I thought that the woman whom I held dearer than anything on earth hesitated to trust me with a petty secret.

I believed I understood. I was tolerably rich. I knew it could not be any secret over milliners’ bills or women’s usual money troubles. God help me! I felt sad enough at the moment, though I kissed her back and ceased to question her. I felt sad, because my instinct told me that she deceived me; and it is very hard to be deceived, even in trifles, by those we love. I left her sitting at her favorite window, and walked out into the fields. I wanted to think.

I remained out until I saw lights in the parlor shining through the dusky evening; then I returned slowly. As I passed the windows — which were near the ground, our house being cottage-built — I looked in. Hammond Brake was sitting with my wife. She was sitting in a rocking chair opposite to him, holding a small volume open on her lap. Brake was talking to her very earnestly, and she was listening to him with an expression I had never before seen on her countenance. Awe, fear, and admiration were all blent together in those dilating eyes. She seemed absorbed, body and soul, in what this man said. I shuddered at the sight. A vague terror seized upon me; I hastened into the house. As I entered the room rather suddenly, my wife started and hastily concealed the little volume that lay on her lap in one of her wide pockets. As she did so, a loose leaf escaped from the volume and slowly fluttered to the floor unobserved by either her or her companion. But I had my eye upon it. I felt that it was a clew.

“What new novel or philosophical wonder have you both been poring over?” I asked quite gayly, stealthily watching at the same time the telltale embarrassment under which Elsie was laboring.

Brake, who was not in the least discomposed, replied. “That,” said he, “is a secret which must be kept from you. It is an advance copy, and is not to be shown to anyone except your wife.”

“Ha!” cried I, “I know what it is. It is your volume of poems that Ticknor is publishing. Well, I can wait until it is regularly for sale.”

I knew that Brake had a volume in the hands of the publishing house I mentioned, with a vague promise of publication some time in the present century. Hammond smiled significantly, but did not reply. He evidently wished to cultivate this supposed impression of mine. Elsie looked relieved, and heaved a deep sigh. I felt more than ever convinced that a secret was beneath all this. So I drew my chair over the fallen leaf that lay unnoticed on the carpet, and talked and laughed with Hammond Brake gayly, as if nothing was on my mind, while all the time a great load of suspicion lay heavily at my heart.

At length Hammond Brake rose to go. I wished him good night, but did not offer to accompany him to the door. My wife supplied this omitted courtesy, as I had expected. The moment I was alone I picked up the book leaf from the floor. It was NOT the leaf of a volume of poems. Beyond that, however, I learned nothing. It contained a string of paragraphs printed in the biblical fashion, and the language was biblical in style. It seemed to be a portion of some religious book. Was it possible that my wife was being converted to the Romish faith? Yes, that was it. Brake was a Jesuit in disguise — I had heard of such things — and had stolen into the bosom of my family to plant there his destructive errors. There could be no longer any doubt of it. This was some portion of a Romish book — some infamous Popish publication. Fool that I was not to see it all before! But there was yet time. I would forbid him the house.

I had just formed this resolution when my wife entered. I put the strange leaf in my pocket and took my hat.

“Why, you are not going out, surely?” cried Elsie, surprised.

“I have a headache,” I answered. “I will take a short walk.”

Elsie looked at me with a peculiar air of distrust. Her woman’s instinct told her that there was something wrong. Before she could question me, however, I had left the room and was walking rapidly on Hammond Brake’s track.

He heard the footsteps, and I saw his figure, black against the sky, stop and peer back through the dusk to see who was following him.

“It is I, Brake,” I called out. “Stop; I wish to speak with you.”

He stopped, and in a minute or so we were walking side by side along the road. My fingers itched at that moment to be on his throat. I commenced the conversation.

“Brake,” I said, “I’m a very plain sort of man, and I never say anything without good reason. What I came after you to tell you is, that I don’t wish you to come to my house any more, or to speak with Elsie any farther than the ordinary salutations go. It’s no joke. I’m quite in earnest.”

Brake started, and, stopping short, faced me suddenly in the road. “What have I done?” he asked. “You surely are too sensible a man to be jealous, Dayton.”

“Oh,” I answered scornfully, “not jealous in the ordinary sense of the word, a bit. But I don’t think your company good company for my wife, Brake. If you WILL have it out of me, I suspect you of being a Roman Catholic, and of trying to convert my wife.”

A smile shot across his face, and I saw his sharp white teeth gleam for an instant in the dusk.

“Well, what if I am a Papist?” he said, with a strange tone of triumph in his voice. “The faith is not criminal. Besides, what proof have you that I was attempting to proselyte your wife?”

“This,” said I, pulling the leaf from my pocket —“this leaf from one of those devilish Papist books you and she were reading this evening. I picked it up from the floor. Proof enough, I think!”

In an instant Brake had snatched the leaf from my hand and torn it into atoms.

“You shall be obeyed,” he said. “I will not speak with Elsie as long as she is your wife. Good night. You think I’m a Papist, then, Dayton? You’re a clever fellow!”

And with rather a sneering chuckle he marched on along the road and vanished into the darkness.

ii

The Secret Discovered

Brake came no more. I said nothing to Elsie about his prohibition, and his name was never mentioned. It seemed strange to me that she should not speak of his absence, and I was very much puzzled by her silence. Her moodiness seemed to have increased, and, what was most remarkable, in proportion as she grew more and more reserved, the intenser were the bursts of affection which she exhibited for me. She would strain me to her bosom and kiss me, as if she and I were about to be parted forever. Then for hours she would remain sitting at her window, silently gazing, with that terrible, wistful gaze of hers, at the west.

I will confess to having watched my wife at this time. I could not help it. That some mystery hung about her I felt convinced. I must fathom it or die. Her honor I never for a moment doubted; yet there seemed to weigh continually upon me the prophecy of some awful domestic calamity. This time the prophecy was not in vain.

About three weeks after I had forbidden Brake my house, I was strolling over my farm in the evening apparently inspecting my agriculture, but in reality speculating on that topic which latterly was ever present to me.

There was a little knoll covered with evergreen oaks at the end of the lawn. It was a picturesque spot, for on one side the bank went off into a sheer precipice of about eighty feet in depth, at the bottom of which a pretty pool lay, that in the summer time was fringed with white water-lilies. I had thought of building a summer-house in this spot, and now my steps mechanically directed themselves toward the place. As I approached I heard voices. I stopped and listened eagerly. A few seconds enabled me to ascertain that Hammond Brake and my wife were in the copse talking together. She still followed him, then; and he, scoundrel that he was, had broken his promise. A fury seemed to fill my veins as I made this discovery. I felt the impulse strong upon me to rush into the grove, and then and there strangle the villain who was poisoning my peace. But with a powerful effort I restrained myself. It was necessary that I should overhear what was said. I threw myself flat on the grass, and so glided silently into the copse until I was completely within earshot. This was what I heard.

My wife was sobbing. “So soon — so soon? I— Hammond, give me a little time!”

“I cannot, Elsie. My chief orders me to join him. You must prepare to accompany me.”

“No, no!” murmured Elsie. “He loves me so! And I love him. Our child, too — how can I rob him of our unborn babe?”

“Another sheep for our flock,” answered Brake solemnly. “Elsie, do you forget your oath? Are you one of us, or are you a common hypocrite, who will be of us until the hour of self-sacrifice, and then fly like a coward? Elsie, you must leave to-night.”

“Ah! my husband, my husband!” sobbed the unhappy woman.

“You have no husband, woman,” cried Brake harshly. “I promised Dayton not to speak to you as long as you were his wife, but the vow was annulled before it was made. Your husband in God yet awaits you. You will yet be blessed with the true spouse.”

“I feel as if I were going to die,” cried Elsie. “How can I ever forsake him — he who was so good to me?”

“Nonsense! no weakness. He is not worthy of you. Go home and prepare for your journey. You know where to meet me. I will have everything ready, and by daybreak there shall be no trace of us left. Beware of permitting your husband to suspect anything. He is not very shrewd at such things — he thought I was a Jesuit in disguise — but we had better be careful. Now go. You have been too long here already. Bless you, sister.”

A few faint sobs, a rustling of leaves, and I knew that Brake was alone. I rose, and stepped silently into the open space in which he stood. His back was toward me. His arms were lifted high over his head with an exultant gesture, and I could see his profile, as it slightly turned toward me, illuminated with a smile of scornful triumph. I put my hand suddenly on his throat from behind, and flung him on the ground before he could utter a cry.

“Not a word,” I said, unclasping a short-bladed knife which I carried; “answer my questions, or, by heaven, I will cut your throat from ear to ear!”

He looked up into my face with an unflinching eye, and set his lips as if resolved to suffer all.

“What are you? Who are you? What object have you in the seduction of my wife?”

He smiled, but was silent.

“Ah! you won’t answer. We’ll see.”

I pressed the knife slowly against his throat. His face contracted spasmodically, but although a thin red thread of blood sprang out along the edge of the blade, Brake remained mute. An idea suddenly seized me. This sort of death had no terrors for him. I would try another. There was the precipice. I was twice as powerful as he was, so I seized him in my arms, and in a moment transported him to the margin of the steep, smooth cliff, the edge of which was garnished with the tough stems of the wild vine. He seemed to feel it was useless to struggle with me, so allowed me passively to roll him over the edge. When he was suspended in the air, I gave him a vine stem to cling to and let him go. He swung at a height of eighty feet, with face upturned and pale. He dared not look down. I seated myself on the edge of the cliff, and with my knife began to cut into the thick vine a foot or two above the place of his grasp. I was correct in my calculation. This terror was too much for him. As he saw the notch in the vine getting deeper and deeper, his determination gave way.

“I’ll answer you,” he gasped out, gazing at me with starting eyeballs; “what do you ask?”

“What are you?” was my question, as I ceased cutting at the stem.

“A Mormon,” was the answer, uttered with a groan. “Take me up. My hands are slipping. Quick!”

“And you wanted my wife to follow you to that infernal Salt Lake, City, I suppose?”

“For God’s sake, release me! I’ll quit the place, never to come back. Do help me up, Dayton — I’m falling!”

I felt mightily inclined to let the villain drop; but it did not suit my purpose to be hung for murder, so I swung him back again on the sward, where he fell panting and exhausted.

“Will you quit the place to-night?” I said. “You’d better. By heaven, if you don’t, I’ll tell all the men in the village, and we’ll lynch you, as sure as your name is Brake.”

“I’ll go — I’ll go,” he groaned. “I swear never to trouble you again.”

“You ought to be hanged, you villain. Be off!”

He slunk away through the trees like a beaten dog; and I went home in a state bordering on despair. I found Elsie crying. She was sitting by the window as of old. I knew now why she gazed so constantly at the west. It was her Mecca. Something in my face, I suppose, told her that I was laboring under great excitement. She rose startled as soon as I entered the room.

“Elsie,” said I, “I am come to take you home.”

“Home? Why, I AM at home, am I not? What do you mean?”

“No. This is no longer your home. You have deceived me. You are a Mormon. I know all. You have become a convert to that apostle of hell, Brigham Young, and you cannot live with me. I love you still, Elsie, dearly; but — you must go and live with your father.”

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005