MORVEN’S CHRISTMAS GIFT
We were sitting in the twilight of Christmas Eve. A long, restful silence had fallen. It was broken at last by the shouts of the children, coming down stairs and full of Christmas turbulence. Just as Morven’s wife had slipped to his side under cover of the shadows, so she now dropped his hand and slipped away before the advancing noise and light. The tie between them always reminded me of some powerful undercurrent, swift, deep, still. It had little or no surface manifestation, but if you chanced to drop into its shadowed seclusion, you felt it actually in the air about you, wave on wave, a mighty pulsation.
The jolly little scamps who called Morven Uncle burst in, following the butler, the lamp, and tea. In their midst they bore Morven’s only child, a wonderful boy of some three years, with a serene, grave, angelic face, and a mysterious look deep in his starry eyes. I never saw such eyes before. They had rings of light around the pupil; their clearness and stillness were wonderful; they were eyes that gazed upon unseen things. The baby had a gravity and a gentleness beyond his years: he looked like a baby St. John, and I used to call him— predicting, perhaps— “the young disciple.”
On this occasion he was promptly transferred to his mother’s neck, where he accomplished his customary feat of throwing out one dimpled arm like a tendril and linking his father to the group. To see the Morvens standing thus, united by that gravely radiant child, was to feel instinctively that their’s was no ordinary history, that the child was born to some unusual and high, if intangible, destiny. Even the noisy children stood, touched and adoring, at the sight, and kissed his pretty hands as he smiled down on them. This mood soon passed, and presently I heard one ask Morven who gave him the best Christmas gift he ever had.
“My best Christmas present,” he answered, “ was from myself to myself.” ‘
The children laughed, then asked what it was.
“This,” he said, raising Mrs. Morven’s hand to his lips.
“Pshaw ! I should think Aunty gave you that,” they remonstrated.
“No, she didn’t,” insisted Morven. “It came from myself to myself.”
The children scented a story and fell upon him as legitimate prey. Mrs. Morven, however, gave him a warning look and diverted their attention in her skilful way until bedtime. But my curiosity had been aroused, and, when bed had swallowed up the merry cohort, I told Morven I wanted to hear that story. He hesitated.
“Do you believe,” he said, “in the latent powers in man?”
“H — m. That depends.” “Exactly. And on your reply my telling the story, or not, depends.”
“Well, old man; your price is high. Christmas gifts generally do come high, however; so I’ll brave your probable ridicule and admit that I do believe in them, to some extent, in some men.”
“That is, that they inhere in the inner man, (grant me the inner man, for a Christmas story anyhow), and may manifest under unusual circumstances?”
“In some men, while latent in all. Precisely; you put my idea in a nut shell.”
“Well, then, you shall have the story. In the year 1870 I was a young business man of good prospects, going into the world a good deal, rather sought by it as well, and full of material life and worldly ambition. I had engaged myself to a Miss Y., a handsome girl, well born, well educated, a promising society leader, with a fortune about equal to my own, and a Father who could decidedly advance my business prospects. I had carried her away from a score of admirers, and I have heard of her saying somewhat the same thing of myself. We were satisfied with our arrangement; I preferred her to all the women of our circle; she always satisfied my pride and sometimes aroused my passion. I expected no more of any woman. So I never knew exactly why a chilly shadow seemed to fall across my mind now and then. This shade was an indefinite, lurking, irregular thing. I set it down to a touch of dyspepsia. Then I noticed that it vaguely connected itself with my engagement. The moment this fact became apparent to me, I interrogated myself, like an honest man. Had I seen any other woman who attracted me? I knew I had not. There was an ideal head, a St Cecilia, by Raphael, the engraving of which I had loved from childhood, when I manifested a peculiar fondness for it. My mother had left me the engraving in consequence; it always hung over my desk. It was the one hidden soft spot in my heart, but I knew I had never seen a woman like it. Not one gave me that soft glow, as of reminiscent tenderness, which awoke in me as I looked on that grand face. This I attributed to the genius of the painter, who has set the seal of Harmony upon its noble brows. Finding no rival but this for Miss Y., I laughed at my chimera and dismissed it to the land of shades from which it came. Or— to be exact— I tried to dismiss it. Such ghosts “will not down” at our bidding, and especially did I feel its forbidding gloom when Miss Y. granted me any of the privileges of an accepted lover. Then the shadow seemed to rise between us, chilling the touch of my lips and hand, however I might argue it away. Our engagement was only six weeks old when I called on her two days before Christmas. As I entered the parlor, a snatch of music rang from the boudoir beyond, the closing notes of some majestic theme. At the same moment the face of St Cecilia rose vividly before me, objectively floating in the air and accompanied by a peculiar crackling sound.
“I interrupted him. “I have heard that some such tense sound often accompanies a so-called psychic event.”
“Very true. But I did not stop to analyse that I attributed the thing to the music and the train of thought thus established, while Miss Y ’s entrance put a stop to all meditation. Presently I asked her who the unseen musician was.
“The children’s governess,——a distant connection. Have you never seen her?”
I hesitated, searching my memory. Miss Y seemed surprised, even a little suspicious.
“If you have not, it is odd,” she said. ‘‘And if you have, and have forgotten it, that is odder still.” She drew a large portfolio before her. “The face is a peculiar one; see!” She held up a large photograph before me.
“You are out there,” I smiled, for this is Raphael’s St Cecilia,” and I turned the photograph toward her. She laughed triumphantly.
“Just so. I’m glad you see the resemblance. It was my discovery, but no one could see it till I dressed her hair and gowned her like the original and had this photograph taken. But you’re tired. Sit down.”
She pushed a chair towards me and I dropped into it mechanically. Something extraordinary was taking place within me. I couldn’t have spoken for my life, really. My experience had no name for the feeling that took possession of me. Something coursed up and down in my veins like fiery mist. Pictures swam in and out of my brain, all of them connected with that face. I seemed to hear the roaring of cataracts. A great Past was on the point of opening before me; my mind was swallowed up in it already. As soon as I could, I took my leave, but not before Miss Y. had noticed my altered manner and responded to it by a touch of coldness in her own. As I rose, she detained me.
“You know I am not of a suspicious nature,” she said. “But several times lately I have noticed a change in you; an abstraction, a distance. I do not know whether it relates to our engagement.”
I began to protest. She stopped me proudly.
“Let me finish, please. I have no reasons, and I think you have none, to be dissatisfied with our plans. But I do not understand a woman’s giving her heart fully until after marriage, and, if before that time yours or mine should waver, it would be far better to tell the truth then.”
“I assented; praised her right feeling ; assured her of my——heaven knows what!——and got away, leaving her evidently dissatisfied. I wanted to get out of the house and think. The deuce of it was, I couldn’t think. Everything seemed at boiling point. I heard those chords, I saw that face, and hurrying phantoms, shapes of air and fire, opened the flood gates of an unknown Past that plucked at my brain, urging me to I knew not what Seriously alarmed, I hurried home, intending to send for a physician. Exhausted, I dropped into the nearest arm chair, when all at once the fierce tension relaxed, something seemed to snap inside me,— I fell back and fell asleep.
When I awoke, it was ten o’clock of the next day, and I felt like a man who has recovered from a long illness. I believed that opportune sleep had saved me from one. As I rose, a bit of paper fluttered from my knee to the floor. I did not stop to pick it up. For years I had not felt so light of heart. Tons seemed lifted off me. I whistled and sang while I dressed, — and became aware that it was those remembered chords I repeated,— and airily kissed my fingers to my St Cecilia with an “Au Revoir” as I clattered down stairs. I was not due at the Y. mansion until afternoon. All through the day’s occupations my unwonted cheerfulness did not desert me, and my partner congratulated me on having “downed that dyspepsia.” I felt a marked impatience to go to the Y’s, and finally forestalled the hour by some twenty minutes. The butler portentously stopped me as I was entering the parlor.
“Mr. Y. wishes to see you in his study, sir.”
Surprised, I accompanied the man and found Mr. Y . waiting for me. He waved my offered hand aside.
“Excuse me a moment, Mr. Morven,” he said. “Let us first understand one another.”
I stared at this singular preliminary, but replied that I was at his service. We both sat down, and he resumed.
“I am a believer in perfect frankness. My daughter received last night an anonymous communication concerning you.”
I suppose I looked the surprise I felt. His tone softened somewhat.
“Such communications are better put in the fire and forgotten. Unfortunately— or fortunately, as the event may decide— my daughter remembered certain things which seemed to confirm the statements of this note. With the good sense which always characterizes her,’’ (here I bowed my assenting admiration, while he frowned at me), “she decided to bring the note to me. In my opinion, we are justified in bringing it to your attention. You have only to deny or confirm the statements it makes. My daughter and I are agreed, Mr. Morven, that we may safely accept your word.”
I tried to thank him. “Not at all,” said he. “So much is due to ourselves. Our present relation would not exist at all, if you were not a man of honor. Permit me to read you the note.”
Taking a sheet of paper from his desk, he read as follows.
“Your lover does not love you. Ask him if this is not true. He struggles against an affection which is beyond his control. He tries to subordinate that to the worldly advantages of his previous engagement with you. But it is your cousin whom he loves, just as she loves him, although no words have passed between them. They love with a force which you will never know, in this life at least, or be able to understand. Morven tries to keep his pledge to you, but shall you hold him against his hidden desire, his secret will? If you do, your whole life will feel the blight of your action.” As Y. read this extraordinary production, I sat like one deaf and dumb. Again the air about me surged and sang, bringing vague memories on its burning tide. As Y. concluded, he looked up abruptly.
“Have you any idea who could have written the thing? It is a peculiar hand”— and he placed the note in my hands.
I looked at it, fascinated. Then I rose to my feet. The hand writing was my own. Not my ordinary hand, but one I had practiced from boyhood to write in my private diary. Every accustomed quirl of the letters was there. As I mutely glared at it I heard in the distance the harmony I knew so well. The face of St Cecilia rose again before me; the floor met the ceiling with a clap, and thoughts of surprising lucidity and swiftness swept through my brain. Only a couple of seconds passed, but I saw it all. I loved her, I had always loved her, and in my sleep my inner self, that part of me where memory of past lives was stored, had awakened and set me free. I turned to the expectant Y.
“As far as I am concerned, Sir,” I said, “I must admit the truth of this accusation. I can only say in extenuation that I did not know myself thoroughly, and that I have not addressed Miss Marie on the subject”
“That is just what she said when my daughter questioned her. It seems a remarkable coincidence of feeling to have arisen without words,” he said with pardonable bitterness. But what did his bitterness matter to me? “Coincidence?” Then she loved me! I hastened to say that in all the circumstances I should wish to see the lady first in his presence. He must have anticipated this on my part, for he opened a door, and my Darling stood before me. To feel what I then felt was to know that I had been hers from all time, that I was hers forever. That she returned this feeling, her timid step and downcast eyes told me eloquently. We found Mr. Y. coldly just. He promised to convey my profound apologies to his daughter, he suggested that I had better be a stranger to his house for some time to come, intimated that when we met again it would be with mutual respect. Then he rose to end the interview. Perhaps the look I gave him reminded him of his own youth, for he left the room. All this while my Darling sat, quivering and shamed, in her chair. I hope I made it up to her. I learned how she had seen me by stray glimpses and loved me. She supposed that I had seen her in the same way, and to this day, the one secret I have from her is in that point. I have never told her that she was known to my inner self alone. When I returned to my room that evening my eye fell upon a bit of paper on the floor. I picked it up. It was a District Telegraph receipt for a note, signed by Miss Y. Here was proof, had I needed any. But I did not. I knew that my Darling was a Christmas gift from myself to myself.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Morven. I now understood the meaning of a gold bracelet she always wore locked upon her wrist, and which bore in letters of sapphire these words: As Ever. Forever.
J. Campbell Ver Planck.
The Path December 1889 pp: 265 -270
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr Morven was, indeed, fortunate to have a subconscious–or “latent powers”–looking out for his interests. Mrs Daffodil suggests that the sort of a young woman who would coif and costume the poor-relation governess, have her photographed in the character of St Cecilia, and then taunt her affianced with the portrait was unlikely to make Mr Morven’s married life a dream of joy.
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.