My Dear Heinrich:
One morning after breakfast, Max and I were seated in the library, enjoying our matutinal cigars, when, the conversation flagging, I asked Maximilian whether he had noticed the two young ladies who were in the Prince of Cabano’s carriage the morning I whipped the driver. He replied that he had not observed them particularly, as he was too much excited and alarmed for my safety to pay especial attention to anything else; but he had seen that there were two young women in the barouche, and his glance had shown him they were both handsome.
“Have you any idea who they were?” I asked after a pause, for I shrank from revealing the interest I took in one of them.
“No,” said he, indifferently; “probably a couple of the Prince’s mistresses.”
The word stung me like an adder; and I half rose from my chair, my face suffused and my eyes indignant.
“Why, what is the matter?” asked Maximilian; “I hope I have said nothing to offend you.”
I fell back in my chair, ashamed of the exhibition of feeling into which I had been momentarily betrayed, and replied:
“Oh, no; but I am sure you are wrong. If you had looked, for but a moment, at the younger of the two, you would never have made such a remark.”
“I meant no harm,” he answered, “but the Prince is a widower; he has a perfect harem in his palace; he has his agents at work everywhere buying up handsome women; and when I saw two such in his carriage, I naturally came to the conclusion that they were of that character.”
“Buying up women!” I exclaimed; “what are you talking about? This is free America, and the twentieth century. Do you dream that it is a Mohammedan land?”
“It isn’t anything half so good,” he retorted; “it is enslaved America; and the older we grow the worse for us. There was a golden age once in America — an age of liberty; of comparatively equal distribution of wealth; of democratic institutions. Now we have but the shell and semblance of all that. We are a Republic only in name; free only in forms. Mohammedanism — and we must do the Arabian prophet the justice to say that he established a religion of temperance and cleanliness, without a single superstition — never knew, in its worst estate, a more complete and abominable despotism than that under which we live. And as it would be worse to starve to death in sight of the most delicious viands than in the midst of a foodless desert, so the very assertions, constantly dinned in our ears by the hireling newspapers, that we are the freest people on earth, serve only to make our slavery more bitter and unbearable. But as to the buying up of women for the harems of the wealthy, that is an old story, my dear friend. More than a century ago the editor of a leading journal in London was imprisoned for exposing it. The virtuous community punished the man who protested against the sin, and took the sinners to its loving bosom. And in this last century matters have grown every day worse and worse. Starvation overrides all moralities; the convictions of the mind give way to the necessities of the body. The poet said long ago:
“‘Women are not
In their best fortunes strong, but want will perjure
The ne’er-touched vestal.’
“But he need not have confined this observation to women. The strongest resolves of men melt in the fire of want like figures of wax. It is simply a question of increasing the pressure to find the point where virtue inevitably breaks. Morality, in man or woman, is a magnificent flower which blossoms only in the rich soil of prosperity: impoverish the land and the bloom withers. If there are cases that seem to you otherwise, it is simply because the pressure has not been great enough; sufficient nourishment has not yet been withdrawn from the soil. Dignity, decency, honor, fade away when man or woman is reduced to shabby, shameful, degrading, cruel wretchedness. Before the clamors of the stomach the soul is silent.”
“I cannot believe that,” I replied; “look at the martyrs who have perished in the flames for an opinion.”
“Yes,” he said, “it is easy to die in an ecstasy of enthusiasm for a creed, with all the world looking on; to exchange life for eternal glory; but put the virgin, who would face without shrinking the flames or the wild beasts of the arena, into some wretched garret, in some miserable alley, surrounded by the low, the ignorant, the vile; close every avenue and prospect of hope; shut off every ennobling thought or sight or deed; and then subject the emaciated frame to endless toil and hopeless hunger, and the very fibers of the soul will rot under the debasing ordeal; and there is nothing left but the bare animal, that must be fed at whatever sacrifice. And remember, my dear fellow, that chastity is a flower of civilization. Barbarism knows nothing of it. The woman with the least is, among many tribes, mostly highly esteemed, and sought after by the young men for wedlock.”
“My dear Maximilian,” I said, “these are debasing views to take of life. Purity is natural to woman. You will see it oftentimes among savages. But, to recur to the subject we were speaking of. I feel very confident that the younger of those two women I saw in that carriage is pure. God never placed such a majestic and noble countenance over a corrupt soul. The face is transparent; the spirit looks out of the great eyes; and it is a spirit of dignity, nobleness, grace and goodness.”
“Why,” said he, laughing, “the barbed arrow of Master Cupid, my dear Gabriel, has penetrated quite through all the plates of your philosophy.”
“I will not confess that,” I replied; “but I will admit that I would like to know something more about that young lady, for I never saw a face that interested me half so much.”
“Now,” said he, “see what it is to have a friend. I can find out for you all that is known about her. We have members of our society in the household of every rich man in New York. I will first find out who she is. I will ask the Master of the Servants, who is a member of our Brotherhood, who were the two ladies out riding at the time of our adventure. I can communicate with him in cipher.”
He went to the wall; touched a spring; a door flew open; a receptacle containing pen, ink and paper appeared; he wrote a message, placed it in an interior cavity, which connected with a pneumatic tube, rang a bell, and in a few minutes another bell rang, and he withdrew from a similar cavity a written message. He read out to me the following:
“The elder lady, Miss Frederika Bowers; the younger, Miss Estella Washington; both members of the Prince of Cabano’s household.”
“Estella Washington,” I repeated; “a noble name. Can you tell me anything about her?”
“Certainly,” he replied; “we have a Bureau of Inquiry connected with our society, and we possess the most complete information, not only as to our own members, but as to almost every one else in the community of any note. Wait a moment.”
He opened the same receptacle in the wall, wrote a few words on a sheet of paper, and dispatched it by the pneumatic tube to the central office of that district, whence it was forwarded at once to its address. It was probably fifteen minutes before the reply arrived. It read as follows:
Miss ESTELLA WASHINGTON. — Aged eighteen. Appearance: Person tall and graceful; complexion fair; eyes blue; hair long and golden; face handsome. Pedigree: A lineal descendant of Lawrence Washington, brother of the first President of the Republic. Parents: William Washington and Sophia, his wife. Father, a graduate of the University of Virginia; professor of Indo–European literature for ten years in Harvard University. Grandfather, Lawrence Washington, a judge of the Supreme Court of the United States for fifteen years. Sophia, mother of Estella, née Wainwright, an accomplished Greek and Sanscrit scholar, daughter of Professor Elias Wainwright, who occupied the chair of psychological science in Yale College for twenty years. Families of both parents people of great learning and social position, but not wealthy in any of the branches. History: Father died when Estella was eight years old, leaving his family poor. Her mother, after a hard struggle with poverty, died two years later. Estella, then ten years old, was adopted by Maria, widow of George Washington, brother of Estella’s father, who had subsequently married one Ezekiel Plunkett, who is also dead. Maria Plunkett is a woman of low origin and sordid nature, with a large share of cunning; she lives at No. 2682 Grand Avenue. She had observed that Estella gave promise of great beauty, and as none of the other relatives put in a claim for the child, she took possession of her, with intent to educate her highly, improve her appearance by all the arts known to such women, and eventually sell her for a large sun, to some wealthy aristocrat as a mistress; believing that her honorable descent would increase the price which her personal charms would bring. On the 5th day of last month she sold her, for $5,000, to the Master of the Servants of the so-called Prince of Cabano; and she was taken to his house. Estella who is quite ignorant of the wickedness of the world, or the true character of her aunt, for whom she entertains a warm feeling of gratitude and affection, believes that she is to serve as lady-companion for Miss Frederika Bowers, the favorite mistress of the Prince, but whom Estella supposes to be his niece.
You can imagine, my dear brother — for you have a kind and sensitive heart, and love your wife — the pangs that shot through me, and distorted my very soul, as I listened to this dreadful narrative. Its calm, dispassionate, official character, while it confirmed its truth, added to the horrors of the awful story of crime! Think of it! a pure, beautiful, cultured, confiding girl, scarcely yet a woman, consigned to a terrible fate, by one whom she loved and trusted. And the lurid light it threw on the state of society in which such a sacrifice could be possible! I forgot every pretense of indifference, which I had been trying to maintain before Maximilian, and, springing up, every fiber quivering, I cried out:
“She must be saved!”
Maximilian, too, although colder-blooded, and hardened by contact with this debased age, was also stirred to his depths; his face was flushed, and he seized me by the hand. He said:
“I will help you, my friend.”
“But what can we do?” I asked.
“We should see her at once,” he replied, “and, if it is not yet too late, carry her away from that damnable place, that house of hell, and its devilish owner, who preys on innocence and youth. We have one thing in our favor: the Master of the Servants, who bought Estella, is the same person who answered my first message. He belongs, as I told you, to our Brotherhood. He is in my power. He will give us access to the poor girl, and will do whatever is necessary to be done. Come, let us go!”
Those thin, firm lips were more firmly set than ever; the handsome eyes flashed with a fierce light; he hurried for an instant into his secret room.
“Take this magazine pistol,” he said, “and this knife,” handing me a long bowie-knife covered with a handsome, gold-embossed sheath; “we are going into a den of infamy where everything is possible. Never unsheathe that knife until you are compelled to use it, for a scratch from it is certain and instant death; it is charged with the most deadly poison the art of the chemist has been able to produce; the secret is known only to our Brotherhood; the discoverer is an Italian professor, a member of our society.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50