The curtain has but recently fallen on a touching drama of society, whose hero’s name I could give you if I chose. Though I suppress the chief actor’s name, the play has naught of fanciful construction, being really a natural series of terrible facts.
The personage in question, who is in the enjoyment of a high social position, a handsome establishment and a large fortune, had, as a consequence of a youthful folly, a natural daughter, whose mother died a few years after her seduction. The seducer, afterwards marrying, had not force of character enough to confess to his young wife the existence of this poor child, and having long confined himself to a mere mercenary care of the latter, he finally neglected her altogether.
The aged mother of this parvenu, being cognizant of the circumstances, was deeply moved by this abandonment, though she herself was barely supported by her snobbish son, in lodgings respectably distant from his own sumptuous hotel. But Madame N—–, the mother, who had in days gone by pinched herself to pay for her son’s education, and having nothing but the little pension she now received from him, nevertheless took all possible care of the forsaken child. And the child grew up to be a fine young girl capable of taking up some occupation. The occupation chosen was art.
Hortense, that was the girl’s name, applied herself to it with all her mind and heart, and struggled bravely against the many difficulties which society stupidly puts in the way of unmarried women in their efforts at self-support. She thus reached her twentieth year, her grandmother her seventy-eighth. While the father of one, the son of the other, gave magnificent balls, delicious dinners, vain fêtes in his rich hotel, the young girl and the old woman suffered the most cruel privations—the requests for a little supplementary aid from the rich man being often left unanswered.
One night the poor old woman died. At the simple funeral which he gave her the son necessarily came into contact with his daughter, and, glad of the chance to persuade himself that she now had a livelihood, departed, leaving her a trifling pecuniary assistance. A few weeks rolled by, and society’s whirlpool engulphed him deeper than ever.
Winter came. He gave a ball one night, and the salons of his hotel were crowded with the fashionables of the court and of the city. The rooms were dazzling with the light, the rich toilets, the French and foreign uniforms, the decorations, the gilded ceilings, the polished mirrors, the everything that could lend a lustre to the scene. The conservatory, lit up by colored lanterns, afforded little mysterious corners, where beautiful and romantic Polish women listened to the whisperings of love. The English ladies present danced with untiring gaiety; the daughters of Italy, listlessly extended on the sofas, kept up their flowery chat; the Parisiennes, with a Frenchwoman’s eye to good things, began to look for the magnificent supper which was to be served by Chevet. The rich man had the world in his salons. He revelled in ostentation and vanity, he was intoxicated with the great names announced at his door, his cup of pride was filled to the brim, and when ministers of state, with waistcoats bedizened with honorary orders, came to shake him by the hand, his delirium was not far from that when Cæsar, at the culmination of unheard-of power, exclaimed, “I feel myself a god.” Our parvenu mentally said, “I feel myself a duke.”
A group of guests had surrounded him, loading him down with praises of his fête as they sipped his delicious sherbets. A great foreign lady complimented him upon the completeness of his conservatory; an ambassador told him that his ball was the thousand and second night. The rich man, crammed with vanity, was fast losing his senses, when suddenly a valet de chambre enters, passes through the aristocratic circle, and presents to his exalted master a large letter on a golden salver.
The rich man, brusquely awakened from his dream, followed into his empyrean of pride, deprived of his aureole of glory, and nettled at being brought down to earth again by so vulgar a matter, exclaimed,
“You stupid rascal, idiot, donkey! could you not choose another time!”
And he pushed away the salver with an angry movement; but as the servant resisted a little, his eyes fell upon the peaceful cause of the disturbance, the letter, and in an instant he turned frightfully pale.
By his half-stifled cry, by the haggard eyes which he could not remove from that mysterious letter, every one about him saw that something extraordinary had occurred.
The guests politely drew aside, whispering to themselves, exchanging looks and words of surprise. Soon our Crœsus found himself alone with the valet in the middle of the salon, and still before his face the obstinately presented letter.
He had recognized in the address the handwriting of his mother, who had been dead eight months!
He seized the letter with a trembling hand and succeeded with difficulty in reaching the adjacent library, where he locked himself in, to the great surprise of his guests, who had followed his movements with wondering eyes. There he fell, rather than sat down on a sofa and looked at this terrible letter, sent him from the grave and bearing the unmistakable trace of a hand long since cold in death.
He summoned up all his strength, excitedly broke the black seal of the letter, and read as follows:
“My son, your daughter is suffering! her ill-requited labor does not suffice to keep want away from her door. In the midst of your opulence remember her. Your mother begs you to do it; your mother who is now looking upon you and knows what is passing in your heart.”
Then followed the signature.
In intense excitement the gentleman rang a bell; a servant answered it.
“Who brought this letter?” he asked.
The lackey replied that it was a young girl poorly clad, who had been nearly run over by the equipage of a Russian count, as it dashed into the courtyard of the hotel.
The host returned to his salon with a pale and troubled face; a cloud had settled over his fête, and his guests saw it without understanding the reason.
He retired early, before the party had broken up, but could not sleep, so strong a hold did the ghostly features of this demand from his dead mother take upon his imagination.
In the morning he sent two hundred francs to the young artist, who, in point of fact, had not money enough to buy bread to eat nor colors to work. What would this miserable sum do to rescue her from such distress? But the gentleman probably thought he had been very generous.
The winter past, he went to Italy.
Months went by, and the circumstance became erased from his mind. One evening at Naples, he had just returned with a brilliant company of tourists from an excursion to an island near by. As he entered his room he discovered on a table a letter bearing the Paris postmark. He opened it carelessly, continuing his chat with his friends. But suddenly he became agitated, turned away and left the room. It was another call from the grave; it was his mother again imploring aid for his child. Finally, several months after, in Paris, at his own house, as he was just stepping into his carriage for a drive in the Bois, another letter was handed him, another appeal, and this time more earnest, more imperious, more solemn than ever before.
He now determined to rid himself at once of the annoyance; he was becoming blasé to the emotion. He went to his lawyer and constituted in favor of Mademoiselle L—–, artiste, a life pension, just sufficient, if not to live on, at least to keep her from starving— exacting at the same time that he should have handed over to him in a lump all the letters which might yet remain in the hands of her who had received this trust so admirably conceived, so terribly made use of!
In fact, as you have, perhaps, all ready divined, the poor old mother dying had foreseen the future miseries of the young girl, for she well understood the character of her precious son. Hence, she had the sublime inspiration of the letters, and, thanks to them, the maiden—that child of love, protected by death—was snatched from a poverty so full of perils to one of her age—her sex, and, above all, her abandonment.
Frank Leslie’s Weekly.22 October 1859.
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: What a pity that the shock occasioned by the letters from beyond the grave was not fatal. His daughter would then have had a claim upon his estate and could have lived happily ever after without repeated calls upon the cold charity of such a heedless father. A life pension “sufficient, if not to live on, at least to keep her from starving,” suggests that he had not learnt anything from the salutary letters. Mrs Daffodil hopes that his mother decided to appear in person, preferably in a state of advanced decomposition in a bloody shroud, a visit which might have proved more effective than writing.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.