TSW Chapter 6.4

 

The Forsaken Wife’s Revenge

Excerpt from “Infelice” 1875

By Augusta Evans Wilson

 

     By the aid of photographs procured in America, and by dint of personal supervision and suggestions, Mrs. Orme had successfully arranged the exact reproduction of certain localities, the college, the campus, the humble cottage of old Mrs. Chesley with its peculiar porch, whose column caps were carved to represent dogs’ heads, -- the interior of a hospital, -- of an orphan asylum, -- and of the library of the Parsonage.

     Leaning far back, in his chair, -- a prey to gloomy and indescribably bitter reflections, as he accustomed himself to the contemplation of the fact that the beautiful woman in whom his own fickle wayward heart had become earnestly interested -- would sell herself to the grey-bearded man beside him. Cuthbert gnawed his silky mustache, while his father watched with feverish impatience for the opening of the play, and the sight of his enchantress.

     The curtain arose upon a group sitting upon the sward, before the cottage door. Minnie Merle in the costume of a very young girl, with her golden hair all hidden under a thick wig of dark curling locks, that straggled in childish disorder around her neck and shoulders, while her sun-bonnet, the veritable green and white gingham of other days, lay at her feet. Beside her a tall youth -- who represented Peleg Peterson, in the garb of a carpenter, with a tool-box on the ground, and in his hands a wooden doll, which he was carving for the child.

     In the door of the cottage sat the grandmother knitting and nodding, with white hair shining under her snowy cap-border, and while the carpenter carved, and whistled an old-fashioned ditty, “Meet me by the moonlight alone” the girl in a quavering voice attempted to accompany him.

     Minnie-sat with her countenance turned fully to the audience, and when Cuthbert Laurence’s eyes fell upon the cottage front, -- and upon the face under that cloud of dark, elfish looks, -- he caught his breath, and his eyes seemed almost starting from their sockets. His hand fell heavily on his father’s knee, and he groaned audibly.

     Gen. Laurence turned and whispered:

     “For God’s sake -- what is the matter? Are you ill?”

     There was no answer from the son, who tightened his clutch upon the old man’s knee, and watched breathlessly what was passing on the stage.

     The scene was shifted, and now the whole facade of the college rose before him, with a pretty picture in the foreground, a tall handsome student, leaning against the trunk of an ancient elm, and talking to the girl who sat on the turf, with a basket of fresh-ironed shirts resting on the grass beside her. The identical straw hat which Cuthbert had left behind him when summoned home, was upon the student’s head, and as the timid shrinking girl glanced up shyly at her companion, Cuthbert Laurance almost hissed in his father’s ear.

     “Great God! It is Minnie herself!”

     General Laurence loosened the curtain next the audience, and as the folds swept down, concealing somewhat the figure of his son, he whispered:

     “What do you mean? Are you drunk or mad?”

     Cuthbert grasped his father’s hand, and murmured:

     “Don’t you know the college? That is Minnie yonder!”

     “Minnie? My son what ails you? Go home, you are ill.”

     “I tell you that is Minnie Merle, so surely as there is a God above us. Mrs. Orme -- is Minnie -- my Minnie! My wife! She had dramatized her own life!”

     “Impossible, Cuthbert! You are delirious -- insane. You are.” ---

     “That woman yonder is my wife! Now I understand why such strange sweet memories thrilled me when I saw her first in ‘Amy Robsart’. The golden hair disguised her. Oh father! ----.”

     The blank dismay in General Laurance’s countenance, was succeeded by an expression of dread, and as he looked from his son’s blanched convulsed face to that of the actress under the arching elms of the campus, the horrible truth flashed upon him, like a lurid glimpse of Hades. He struck his hand against his forehead, and his grizzled head sank on his bosom. All that had formerly perplexed him was hideously apparent, startlingly clear, and he saw the, abyss to which she had lured him, -- and understood the motives that had prompted her.

     After some moments, he pushed his seat back beyond the range of observation from the audience, and beckoned his son to follow his example, but Cuthbert stood, leaning upon the back of his chair, with eyes riveted on the play.

     The courtship, the clandestine meetings, the interview in which Peleg intruded upon the lovers, -- the revelation to the grandmother, were accurately delineated, and in each scene the girl grew taller, by some arrangement of the skirts, which were at first very short, while she appeared in a sitting posture.

     When the secret marriage was decided upon, and the party left the cottage by night, Cuthbert turned, rested one hand on his father’s shoulder, and as the scene changed to the quiet Parsonage, he pressed heavily, -- -and muttered:

     “Even the very dress she wore that day! And -- here is the black agate! On her hand -- -where I put it! Don’t you know it? How she turns it -- I --.”

     In the tableau of the marriage ceremony, she had taken her position with reference to the locality of the box, and as near it as possible, and in the glare of the footlights, the ring was clearly revealed.

     Lifting, his lorgnette Gen. Laurance inspected the white hand he had once kissed so rapturously, and by the aid of the lenses, ho recognized the costly ring, the valued heirloom for the recovery of which he had offered five hundred dollars. Had he still cherished a shadowy hope that Cuthbert wan suffering from some fearful delusion, the sight of that singular and fatal ring, utterly overthrew the last lingering vestige of doubt. Stunned, miserable, dimly foreboding some overwhelming denouement, he sat in stony silence, knowing that this was but the prelude to some dire catastrophe.

     When the telegram arrived and the young husband took his bride in his arms, the girlish face was lifted, and the passionate gleam of the dilating brown eyes sent a strange-thrill to the hearts of both father and son. Vowing to return very soon and claim her, the husband tore himself away, and as he vanished through a side door near the box, Minnie followed, stretched out her arms, -- and looking up full at its two tenants, -- she breathed her wild passionate prayer which rang with indescribable pathos through that vast building:

     “My husband! My husband -- do not forsake me!”

     Cuthbert put his hand over his eyes, and but for the voices on the stage, his shuddering groan would have been heard outside the box. In the scene where Peleg’s advances were indignantly repulsed, -- and his threats to unleash the bloodhounds of slander, hunting her to infamy, were fully developed, Cuthbert seemed to rouse himself from his stupor and a different expression crossed his face.

     Skillfully the part played by Gen. Laurance in bribing Peleg and returning the letters of the wretched wife, -- the disgraceful threats, the offers to buy up and cancel her conjugal claims were all presented.

     When the grandmother departed, and the child-wife secretly made her way, to New York, seeking service that would secure her bread, and still hopeful of her husband’s return, Cuthbert grasped his father’s arm and hissed in his ear:

     “You deceived me! You told me she went with that villain to California, to hide her disgrace!”

     Cowed and powerless, the old man sat, recognizing the faithful portraiture of his own dark schemes in those early days of the trouble and growing numb with a vague prophetic dread that the foundations of the world were crumbling away.

     His son suddenly drew his chair a little forward and sat down, his elbow on his knee, his head on his hand: his gaze fixed on the woman, who had contrived to reproduce even the fall, that caused her removal to the hospital.

     The ensuing scene represented the young mother, sitting on a cot in the hospital, with a babe lying across her knees, -- and the storm of horror, hate, and defiance with which she spurned Peleg from her, -- calling on heaven to defend her and her baby, -- and denouncing the treachery of Gen. Laurence who had bribed Peterson to insult and defame her.

     As he was dragged from the apartment, vowing that neither she nor her child would be permitted to enjoy the name to which they were entitled, -- the feeble woman, shorn of her brown locks, and wearing a close cap, lifted her infant and with streaming eyes implored heaven to defend it and its hapless mother from cruel persecution.

     In the wonderful power with which she proclaimed her deathless loyalty to the husband of her love, and her conviction that God would interpose to shield his helpless child, -- the audience recognized the fervor and pathos of the rendition, and the applause that greeted her, as she bowed sobbing over her baby, -- told how the hearts of the hearers thrilled.

     The curtain fell, and Cuthbert’s eyes-gleaming like steel, turned to his father’s countenance.

     “Is that true? Dare you deny it?”

     The old man only stared blankly at the carpet on the floor, and his son’s fingers closed like a vise around his arm.

     “You have practiced an infernal imposture upon me! You told me that she followed him, and that the child was his.”

     “He said so.”

     Gen. Laurance’s voice was husky, -- and a gray hue had settled upon his features.

     “You paid him to proclaim that base -- falsehood! You whom I trusted, -- so fully. Father -- where is my child?”

     No answer, and the curtain rose on the fair young mother, who came forward with her own golden hair in full splendor.

     Involuntarily the audience testified their recognition of the beautiful actress who now appeared for the first time, looking as when she made her debut, long ago in Paris. She was at the asylum, with a young child clinging to her finger, tottering at, her side, and as she guided its steps, and hushed it in her arms, many mothers among the spectators felt the tears rush to their eyes.

     Walking with the infant cradled on her bosom, she passed twice across the stage, and then paused beneath the box, and murmured:

     “Papa’s baby -- Papa’s own precious baby!” and her splendid eyes humid with tears, looked -- full, straight -- into those of her husband.

     It was the first time they had met during the evening, and something she saw in that quivering face -- made her heart ache with the old numbing agony. Cuthbert could scarcely restrain himself from leaping down upon the stage, and clasping her in his arms, -- but she moved away, and the sorely smitten husband bowed his face in his hand, luckily shielded from public view by the position in which he sat.

     The dinner scene ensued and the abrupt announcement of the second marriage. The anguish and despair of the repudiated wife were portrayed with a vividness, a marvelous eloquence and passionate fervor that surpassed all former exhibitions of her genius, and the people rose, and applauded, as audiences sometimes do, when a magnetic wave rolls from the heart and brain on the stage to those of the men and women who watch and listen, -- completely en rapport.

     The life of the actress began, the struggle to provide for her child, -- the constant care to elude discovery, the application for legal advice, the statement of her helplessness, the attempt to secure the license, all were represented, and at last the meeting with her husband in the theatre.

     Gradually the pathos melted away, she was the stern relentless outraged wife, intent only upon revenge. She spared not even the interview in which the faithless husband sought her presence, and as Cuthbert watched her, repeating the sentences that had so galled his pride, he asked himself how he had failed to recognize his own wife?

     In the meeting with the child of the second marriage, her wild exultation, her impassioned invocation of Nemesis, was one of the most effective passages of the drama, and it caused a shiver to creep like a serpent over the body of the father, who pitied so tenderly his afflicted Maud.

     As the scheme of saving her own daughter, by sacrificing herself in a nominal marriage with the man whom she hated and loathed so intensely, developed itself, a perceptible chill fell upon the audience, the unnaturalness of the crime asserted itself.

     While she rendered almost literally, the interviews at Pozzuoli, and at Naples, Cuthbert glanced at his father, and saw a purplish flush steal from neck to forehead, but the old man’s eyes never quitted the floor. He seemed incapable of moving, gorgonized by the beautiful Medusa whose invectives against him were scathing, terrible.

     As the play approached its close and the preparation for the marriage, even the details of the settlement were narrated, suspense reached its acme. Then came the letters of reprieve, the deliverance from the bondage of Peterson’s vindictive malice, the power of establishing her claim, and when she wept her thanksgiving for salvation, many wept in sympathy, while Regina, borne away in breathless admiration of her mother’s wonderful genius, sobbed unrestrainedly.

     When the letters of Peterson, and of the lawyer were read, mapping the line of prosecution for the recovery of the wife’s rights, the father slowly raised his eyes, and looking drearily at his son, muttered:

     “It is all over with us Cuthbert. She has won, -- we are ruined. Let us go home.”

     He attempted to rise, but with a glare of mingled wrath and scorn, his son, held him back.

     The last scene was reached, the triumphant vindication of wife and child the condemnation of the two who had conspired to fraud them, the foreclosure of the mortgages, the penury of the proud aristocrats, and the disgrace that overwhelmed them.

     Finally the second wife and the afflicted child came to crave leniency and the husband and father pleaded for pardon, but with a malediction upon the house that had caused her wretchedness, the broken-hearted woman retreated to the palatial home she had at last secured, and under its upas shadow died in the arms of her daughter.

     Her play contained many passages which afforded her scope for the manifestation of her extraordinary power, and at its close the people would not depart until she had appeared in acknowledgment of their plaudits.

     Brilliantly beautiful she looked, with the glittering light of triumph in her large mesmeric eyes, a rich glow mantling her cheeks, and rouging her lips, while in heavy folds the black velvet robe swept around her queenly figure. How stately, elegant, unapproachable she seemed, to the man who leaned forward, gazing with all his heart in his eyes, upon the wife of his youth, the only woman he had ever really loved, now his most implacable foe.

     The audience dispersed, and Cuthbert and his father sat like those old Roman Senators, awaiting the breaking of the wave of savage vengeance that was rolling in upon them.

     At length Gen. Laurence struggled to his feet, and mechanically quitted the theater, followed by his son. Reaching the carriage they entered and Cuthbert ordered the coachman to drive to Mrs. Orme’s hotel.

     “Not now! For god’s sake -- not to-night.” groaned the old man.

     “To-night -- before another hour, -- this awful imposture must be confessed, -- and reparation offered. I sinned against Minnie, abut not premeditatedly. You deceived me. You made me believe her, the foul guilty thing you wished her. You intercepted her letters, -- you never let me know that I had a child neglected and forsaken -- and father, God may forgive you, but I never can. My proud, lovely Minnie! My own wife!”

     Cuthbert buried his face in his hands, and his strong frame shook as he pictured what might have been, contrasting it with the hideous reality of his loveless and miserable marriage, with the banker’s daughter, who threatened him with social disgrace.

     During that drive Gen. Laurence felt that he was approaching some offended and avenging Fury, -- that he was drifting down to ruin, powerless to life his hand mid stay even for an instant the fatal descent, -- that he was gradually petrifying, -- and things seemed vague and intangible.

     When they reached the hotel, they were ushered into the salon already brilliantly lighted as if in expectation of their arrival. Cuthbert paced the floor; his father sank into a chair, resting his hands on the top of his cane.

     After a little while, a silk curtain at the lower end of the room was lifted, and Mrs. Orme came slowly forward. How her lustrous eyes gleamed as she stood in the centre of the apartment, scorn, triumph, hate, all struggling for mastery in her lovely face.

     “Gentlemen, you have read the handwriting on the wall. Do you come for defiance, or capitulation?”

     Gen. Laurence lifted, his head, but instantly dropped it on his bosom, he seemed to have aged suddenly, prematurely. Cuthbert advanced, stood close beside the woman whose gaze intensified as he drew near her, and said brokenly.

     “Minnie I come, merely to exonerate myself before God and man. Heaven is my witness, that I never knew I had a child in America, until to-night, -- that until to-night I believed you were in California living as the wife of that base villain Peterson, who wrote, announcing himself your accepted lover. From the day I kissed you good-bye -- at the cottage, I never received a line, a word, a message from you. When I doubted my father’s and Peterson’s statements concerning you, and wrote two letters, one to the President of the College, one to a resident professor, seeking some information of your whereabouts, in order at least to visit you once more, when I became twenty-one, -- both answered me that you had forfeited your fair name, had been forsaken by your-grandmother, and had gone away from the village accompanied by Peterson, who was regarded as your favored lover. I ceased to doubt, I believed you false. I knew no better until to-night. Father my honor demands that the truth be spoken. Will you corroborate my statement?”

     Pale and proud, he stood erect, and she saw that a consciousness of rectitude at least in purpose, sustained him.

     “Mrs. Orme,” -- began Gen. Laurence.

     “Away with such shams and masks! Mrs. Orme died on the theatrical board to-night, and henceforth the world knows me as Minnie Laurance! Ah! By the grace of God! Minnie Laurance!”

     She laughed derisively, and held up her fair slender hand, exhibiting the black agate with its grinning skull lighted by the glow of the large radiant diamonds.

     “Minnie, I never dreamed you were his wife, -- oh? My God! How horrible it all is.”

     He seemed bewildered, and his son exclaimed:

     “Who is responsible for the separation from my wife? You father, or I.”

     I did it, my son. I meant it for the best. I naturally believed you had been entrapped into a shameful alliance, -- and as any other father would have done, I was ready to credit the unfavorable estimate derived from the man Peterson. He told me that Minnie had belonged to him until she and her grandmother conceived the scheme of inveigling you into a secret marriage, and afterwards he-informed me of the birth of his child. I did not pay him to claim it, but when he pronounced it his, I gave him money to pay the expenses of the two whom he claimed, to California, and I supposed until to-night, that both had accompanied him. I did not manufacture statements, I only gladly credited them, and believing all that man told me, I felt justified in intercepting letters addressed to you, by the woman he claimed as the mother of his child. Madam do not blame Cuthbert, I did it all.”

     The abject wretchedness of his mien disconcerted her, robbed her of half her anticipated triumph. How could she exult in trampling upon a bruised worm which made no attempt to crawl from beneath her heel? He sat, the image of hopeless dejection, his hands crossed on the gold head of his cane.

     Mrs. Orme walked to the end of the room, lifted the curtain, and at a signal Regina joined her. clasping the girl’s fingers firmly she led her forward, and when in front of the old man, she exclaimed:

     “Rene Laurance -- blood triumphs over malice, perjury, and bribery, whose is this child? Is she Merle, Peterson, or Laurance?”

     Standing before them, in a dress of some soft snowy shining fabric, neither silk nor crape, with white starry jasmines in her raven hair, and up upon her bosom, Regina seemed some angelic visitant -- sent to still the strain of human passions, so lovely and pure was her colorless face, and as Gen. Laurance looked up at her, he rose suddenly.

     “Pauline Laurance, my sister, the exact, the wonderful image! Laurance all Laurance, from head to foot.”

     He dropped back into the chair, and smiled vacantly.

     Cuthbert sprang forward, his face all aglow, his eyes radiant, and eloquent.

     “Minnie, is this indeed our child? Your daughter -- and mine?”

     He extended his arms, but she waved him back.

     “Do not touch her! How dare you? This is my baby, my darling, my treasure. This is the hapless little one, whose wails echoed in a hospital ward, -- who came into the world cursed with the likeness of her father. This is the child you disowned, persecuted, this the baby God gave to you and to me, -- but you forfeited your claim long years ago, and she has no father, only his name henceforth. She is wholly, entirely her mother’s blue-eyed baby. You have your Maud.” As she spoke, a wealth of proud tenderness shone in her eyes, which rested on the lily face of her child, and at that moment how she gloried in her perfect loveliness.

     Her husband groaned, and clasped his hand over his face to conceal the agony that was intolerable, and in an instant, ere the mother could suspect or frustrate her design, the girl broke from her hand, sprang forward and threw herself on Cuthbert’s bosom, clasping her arms around his neck, and sobbing:

     “My father! Take me just once to your heart! Call me daughter, let me once in my life hear the blessed words from my own father’s lips!”

     He strained her to his bosom, and kissed the pure face, while tears trickled over his cheeks, and dripped down on hers. Her mother made a step forward to snatch her back, but at the sight of his tears, of the close embrace in which he held her, the wife, turned away, unable to look upon the spectacle and preserve her composure.

     A heavy fall startled all present, and a glance showed them Gen. Laurance lying insensible on the carpet.

 

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
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