The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
He was an artist–such things as happened to him happen sometimes to artists.
He was a German–such things as happened to him happen sometimes to Germans.
He was young, handsome, studious, enthusiastic, metaphysical, reckless, unbelieving, heartless.
And being young, handsome and eloquent, he was beloved.
He was an orphan, under the guardianship of his dead father’s brother, his uncle Wilhelm, in whose house he had been brought up from a little child; and she who loved him was his cousin–his cousin Gertrude, whom he swore he loved in return.
Did he love her? Yes, when he first swore it. It soon wore out, this passionate love; how threadbare and wretched a sentiment it became at last in the selfish heart of the student! But in its golden dawn, when he was only nineteen, and had just returned from his apprenticeship to a great painter at Antwerp, and they wandered together in the most romantic outskirts of the city at rosy sunset, by holy moonlight, or bright and joyous morning, how beautiful a dream!
They keep it a secret from Wilhelm, as he has the father’s ambition of a wealthy suitor for his only child–a cold and dreary vision beside the lover’s dream.
So they are betrothed; and standing side by side when the dying sun and the pale rising moon divide the heavens, he puts the betrothal ring upon her finger, the white and taper finger whose slender shape he knows so well. This ring is a peculiar one, a massive golden serpent, its tail in its mouth, the symbol of eternity; it had been his mother’s, and he would know it amongst a thousand. If he were to become blind tomorrow, he could select it from amongst a thousand by the touch alone.
He places it on her finger, and they swear to be true to each other for ever and ever–through trouble and danger–sorrow and change–in wealth or poverty. Her father must needs be won to consent to their union by and by, for they were now betrothed, and death alone could part them.
But the young student, the scoffer at revelation, yet the enthusiastic adorer of the mystical, asks:
“Can death part us? I would return to you from the grave, Gertrude. My soul would come back to be near my love. And you–you, if you died before me–the cold earth would not hold you from me; if you loved me, you would return, and again these fair arms would be clasped round my neck as they are now.”
But she told him, with a holier light in her deep-blue eyes than had ever shone in his–she told him that the dead who die at peace with God are happy in heaven, and cannot return to the troubled earth; and that it is only the suicide–the lost wretch on whom sorrowful angels shut the door of Paradise–whose unholy spirit haunts the footsteps of the living.
The first year of their betrothal is passed, and she is alone, for he has gone to Italy, on a commission for some rich man, to copy Raphaels, Titians, Guidos, in a gallery at Florence. He has gone to win fame, perhaps; but it is not the less bitter–he is gone!
Of course her father misses his young nephew, who has been as a son to him; and he thinks his daughter’s sadness no more than a cousin should feel for a cousin’s absence.
In the meantime, the weeks and months pass. The lover writes–often at first, then seldom–at last, not at all.
How many excuses she invents for him! How many times she goes to the distant little post-office, to which he is to address his letters! How many times she hopes, only to be disappointed! How many times she despairs, only to hope again!
But real despair comes at last, and will not be put off any more. The rich suitor appears on the scene, and her father is determined. She is to marry at once. The wedding-day is fixed–the fifteenth of June.
The date seems to burn into her brain.
The date, written in fire, dances for ever before her eyes.
The date, shrieked by the Furies, sounds continually in her ears.
But there is time yet–it is the middle of May–there is time for a letter to reach him at Florence; there is time for him to come to Brunswick, to take her away and marry her, in spite of her father–in spite of the whole world.
But the days and the weeks fly by, and he does not write–he does not come. This is indeed despair which usurps her heart, and will not be put away.
It is the fourteenth of June. For the last time she goes to the little post-office; for the last time she asked the old question, and they give her for the last time the dreary answer, “No; no letter.”
For the last time–for tomorrow is the day appointed for the bridal. Her father will hear no entreaties; her rich suitor will not listen to her prayers. They will not be put off a day–an hour; to-night alone is hers–this night, which she may employ as she will.
She takes another path than that which leads home; she hurries through some by-streets of the city, out on to a lonely bridge, where he and she had stood so often in the sunset, watching the rose-coloured light glow, fade, and die upon the river.
He returns from Florence. He had received her letter. That letter, blotted with tears, entreating, despairing–he had received it, but he loved her no longer. A young Florentine, who has sat to him for a model, had bewitched his fancy–that fancy which with him stood in place of a heart–and Gertrude had been half-forgotten. If she had a rich suitor, good; let her marry him; better for her, better far for himself. He had no wish to fetter himself with a wife. Had he not his art always?–his eternal bride, his unchanging mistress.
Thus he thought it wiser to delay his journey to Brunswick, so that he should arrive when the wedding was over–arrive in time to salute the bride.
And the vows–the mystical fancies–the belief in his return, even after death, to the embrace of his beloved? O, gone out of his life; melted away for ever, those foolish dreams of his boyhood.
So on the fifteenth of June he enters Brunswick, by that very bridge on which she stood, the stars looking down on her, the night before. He strolls across the bridge and down by the water’s edge, a great rough dog at his heels, and the smoke from his short meerschaum-pipe curling in blue wreaths fantastically in the pure morning air. He has his sketch-book under his arm, and attracted now and then by some object that catches his artist’s eye, stops to draw: a few weeds and pebbles on the river’s brink–a crag on the opposite shore–a group of pollard willows in the distance. When he has done, he admires his drawing, shuts his sketch-book, empties the ashes from his pipe, refills from his tobacco-pouch, sings the refrain of a gay drinking-song, calls to his dog, smokes again, and walks on. Suddenly he opens his sketch-book again; this time that which attracts him is a group of figures: but what is it?
It is not a funeral, for there are no mourners.
It is not a funeral, but a corpse lying on a rude bier, covered with an old sail, carried between two bearers.
It is not a funeral, for the bearers are fishermen–fishermen in their everyday garb.
About a hundred yards from him they rest their burden on a bank–one stands at the head of the bier, the other throws himself down at the foot of it.
And thus they form the perfect group; he walks back two or three paces, selects his point of sight, and begins to sketch a hurried outline. He has finished it before they move; he hears their voices, though he cannot hear their words, and wonders what they can be talking of. Presently he walks on and joins them.
“You have a corpse there, my friends?” he says.
“Yes; a corpse washed ashore an hour ago.”
“Yes, drowned. A young girl, very handsome.”
“Suicides are always handsome,” says the painter; and then he stands for a little while idly smoking and meditating, looking at the sharp outline of the corpse and the stiff folds of the rough canvas covering.
Life is such a golden holiday for him–young, ambitious, clever–that it seems as though sorrow and death could have no part in his destiny.
At last he says that, as this poor suicide is so handsome, he should like to make a sketch of her.
He gives the fishermen some money, and they offer to remove the sailcloth that covers her features.
No; he will do it himself. He lifts the rough, coarse, wet canvas from her face. What face?
The face that shone on the dreams of his foolish boyhood; the face which once was the light of his uncle’s home. His cousin Gertrude–his betrothed!
He sees, as in one glance, while he draws one breath, the rigid features–the marble arms–the hands crossed on the cold bosom; and, on the third finger of the left hand, the ring which had been his mother’s–the golden serpent; the ring which, if he were to become blind, he could select from a thousand others by the touch alone.
But he is a genius and a metaphysician–grief, true grief, is not for such as he. His first thought is flight–flight anywhere out of that accursed city–anywhere far from the brink of that hideous river–anywhere away from remorse–anywhere to forget.
He is miles on the road that leads away from Brunswick before he knows that he has walked a step.
It is only when his dog lies down panting at his feet that he feels how exhausted he is himself, and sits down upon a bank to rest. How the landscape spins round and round before his dazzled eyes, while his morning’s sketch of the two fishermen and the canvas-covered bier glares redly at him out of the twilight.
At last, after sitting a long time by the roadside, idly playing with his dog, idly smoking, idly lounging, looking as any idle, light-hearted travelling student might look, yet all the while acting over that morning’s scene in his burning brain a hundred times a minute; at last he grows a little more composed, and tries presently to think of himself as he is, apart from his cousin’s suicide. Apart from that, he was no worse off than he was yesterday. His genius was not gone; the money he had earned at Florence still lined his pocket-book; he was his own master, free to go whither he would.
And while he sits on the roadside, trying to separate himself from the scene of that morning–trying to put away the image of the corpse covered with the damp canvas sail–trying to think of what he should do next, where he should go, to be farthest away from Brunswick and remorse, the old diligence coming rumbling and jingling along. He remembers it; it goes from Brunswick to Aix-la-Chapelle.
He whistles to the dog, shouts to the postillion to stop, and springs into the coupé.
During the whole evening, through the long night, though he does not once close his eyes, he never speaks a word; but when morning dawns, and the other passengers awake and begin to talk to each other, he joins in the conversation. He tells them that he is an artist, that he is going to Cologne and to Antwerp to copy Rubenses, and the great picture by Quentin Matsys, in the museum. He remembered afterwards that he talked and laughed boisterously, and that when he was talking and laughing loudest, a passenger, older and graver than the rest, opened the window near him, and told him to put his head out. He remembered the fresh air blowing in his face, the singing of the birds in his ears, and the flat fields and roadside reeling before his eyes. He remembered this, and then falling in a lifeless heap on the floor of the diligence.
It is a fever that keeps him for six long weeks on a bed at a hotel in Aix-la-Chapelle.
He gets well, and, accompanied by his dog, starts on foot for Cologne. By this time he is his former self once more. Again the blue smoke from his short meerschaum curls upwards in the morning air–again he sings some old university drinking song–again stops here and there, meditating and sketching.
He is happy, and has forgotten his cousin–and so on to Cologne.
It is by the great cathedral he is standing, with his dog at his side. It is night, the bells have just chimed the hour, and the clocks are striking eleven; the moonlight shines full upon the magnificent pile, over which the artist’s eye wanders, absorbed in the beauty of form.
He is not thinking of his drowned cousin, for he has forgotten her and is happy.
Suddenly someone, something from behind him, puts two cold arms round his neck, and clasps its hands on his breast.
And yet there is no one behind him, for on the flags bathed in the broad moonlight there are only two shadows, his own and his dog’s. He turns quickly round–there is no one–nothing to be seen in the broad square but himself and his dog; and though he feels, he cannot see the cold arms clasped round his neck.
It is not ghostly, this embrace, for it is palpable to the touch–it cannot be real, for it is invisible.
He tries to throw off the cold caress. He clasps the hands in his own to tear them asunder, and to cast them off his neck. He can feel the long delicate fingers cold and wet beneath his touch, and on the third finger of the left hand he can feel the ring which was his mother’s–the golden serpent–the ring which he has always said he would know among a thousand by the touch alone. He knows it now!
His dead cousin’s cold arms are round his neck–his dead cousin’s wet hands are clasped upon his breast. He asks himself if he is mad. “Up, Leo!” he shouts. “Up, up, boy!” and the Newfoundland leaps to his shoulders–the dog’s paws are on the dead hands, and the animal utters a terrific howl, and springs away from his master.
The student stands in the moonlight, the dead arms around his neck, and the dog at a little distance moaning piteously.
Presently a watchman, alarmed by the howling of the dog, comes into the square to see what is wrong.
In a breath the cold arms are gone.
He takes the watchman home to the hotel with him and gives him money; in his gratitude he could have given the man half his little fortune.
Will it ever come to him again, this embrace of the dead?
He tries never to be alone; he makes a hundred acquaintances, and shares the chamber of another student. He starts up if he is left by himself in the public room of the inn where he is staying, and runs into the street. People notice his strange actions, and begin to think that he is mad.
But, in spite of all, he is alone once more; for one night the public room being empty for a moment, when on some idle pretence he strolls into the street, the street is empty too, and for the second time he feels the cold arms round his neck, and for the second time, when he calls his dog, the animal shrinks away from him with a piteous howl.
After this he leaves Cologne, still travelling on foot–of necessity now, for his money is getting low. He joins travelling hawkers, he walks side by side with labourers, he talks to every foot-passenger he falls in with, and tries from morning till night to get company on the road.
At night he sleeps by the fire in the kitchen of the inn at which he stops; but do what he will, he is often alone, and it is now a common thing for him to feel the cold arms around his neck.
Many months have passed since his cousin’s death–autumn, winter, early spring. His money is nearly gone, his health is utterly broken, he is the shadow of his former self, and he is getting near to Paris. He will reach that city at the time of the Carnival. To this he looks forward. In Paris, in Carnival time, he need never, surely, be alone, never feel that deadly caress; he may even recover his lost gaiety, his lost health, once more resume his profession, once more earn fame and money by his art.
How hard he tries to get over the distance that divides him from Paris, while day by day he grows weaker, and his step slower and more heavy!
But there is an end at last; the long dreary roads are passed. This is Paris, which he enters for the first time–Paris, of which he has dreamed so much–Paris, whose million voices are to exorcise his phantom.
To him tonight Paris seems one vast chaos of lights, music, and confusion–lights which dance before his eyes and will not be still–music that rings in his ears and deafens him–confusion which makes his head whirl round and round.
But, in spite of all, he finds the opera-house, where there is a masked ball. He has enough money left to buy a ticket of admission, and to hire a domino to throw over his shabby dress. It seems only a moment after his entering the gates of Paris that he is in the very midst of all the wild gaiety of the opera-house ball.
No more darkness, no more loneliness, but a mad crowd, shouting and dancing, and a lovely Débardeuse hanging on his arm.
The boisterous gaiety he feels surely is his old light-heartedness come back. He hears the people round him talking of the outrageous conduct of some drunken student, and it is to him they point when they say this–to him, who has not moistened his lips since yesterday at noon, for even now he will not drink; though his lips are parched, and his throat burning, he cannot drink. His voice is thick and hoarse, and his utterance indistinct; but still this must be his old light-heartedness come back that makes him so wildly gay.
The little Débardeuse is wearied out–her arm rests on his shoulder heavier than lead–the other dancers one by one drop off.
The lights in the chandeliers one by one die out.
The decorations look pale and shadowy in that dim light which is neither night nor day.
A faint glimmer from the dying lamps, a pale streak of cold grey light from the new-born day, creeping in through half-opened shutters.
And by this light the bright-eyed Débardeuse fades sadly. He looks her in the face. How the brightness of her eyes dies out! Again he looks her in the face. How white that face has grown! Again–and now it is the shadow of a face alone that looks in his.
Again–and they are gone–the bright eyes, the face, the shadow of the face. He is alone; alone in that vast saloon.
Alone, and, in the terrible silence, he hears the echoes of his own footsteps in that dismal dance which has no music.
No music but the beating of his breast. The the cold arms are round his neck–they whirl him round, they will not be flung off, or cast away; he can no more escape from their icy grasp than he can escape from death. He looks behind him–there is nothing but himself in the great empty salle; but he can feel–cold, deathlike, but O, how palpable!–the long slender fingers, and the ring which was his mother’s.
He tries to shout, but he has no power in his burning throat. The silence of the place is only broken by the echoes of his own footsteps in the dance from which he cannot extricate himself. Who says he has no partner? The cold hands are clasped on his breast, and now he does not shun their caress. No! One more polka, if he drops down dead.
The lights are all out, and, half an hour after, the gendarmes come in with a lantern to see that the house is empty; they are followed by a great dog that they have found seated howling on the steps of the theatre. Near the principal entrance they stumble over–
The body of a student, who has died from want of food, exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood vessel.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon was born on October 4th, 1835 in Soho, London. Her desire to become a writer started at the young age of six, when her godfather gifted her a writing desk. Finally achieving fame in the 1860s with her novel Lady Audley’s Secret. Though it was her work in Maxwell’s journals, The Sixpenny Magazine that cemented her reputation as a scandalous author who wrote about the darker side of the upper class.