Tag Archives: infernal machine

What a Key Unlocked: 1875

1874 lucretia crouch wedding gown gauze.JPG

What a Key Unlocked.

They were as handsome a couple as one would have wished; indeed, many persons who knew them both intimately, said that Mr. and Mrs. Vivian were samples of what true marriage ought to be. On this bitingly cold January morning they were standing in the elegant library of their residence in New York, numerous evidences of aesthetic tastes surrounding them on all sides; yet, to have looked in their faces, it needed only a glance to tell you of deep abiding trouble. She was a beautiful woman, this peerless Ethel Vivian, with a grave dignity about her that was perfection; with a rare, refined face, lighted by such winsome, violet blue eyes, framing the clear, pure complexion, pale cheeks and glowing scarlet mouth, with masses of pale, dead gold hair that had made her husband so madly in love only two years before. Now, two years, after one year of perfect happiness, when Ethel would tell her husband such bliss so unalloyed could not last much longer; after six months more of vague suspicion, founded on the most shadowy foundation ; then, after the last six months of gradual, then rapid distrust, jealousy, anger— it had all come to this horrible open rupture. And on that beautiful winter morning Ethel Vivian and her husband had met in the library of their home for the last time as man and wife.

And the ponderous document lying on the table where the two had so often read together, was a bill of divorce. Yes, it had come to that—open separation —and all because—why? Ethel Vivian could have told you of Laura St. John’s wondrous face; she could have drawn you a picture of her with such perfection of accuracy, that you would hardly need to see her. And this is how Ethel would have described the woman who lay at the bottom of her life-long misery. A face, witching as a Venus, with such a dainty, scarlet mouth, with the tiny, seed-pearl teeth peeping between her lips, just as the little dimple was called to her scarlet-tinted cheeks by the laugh that so often came.

Her eyes laughed, too—those sunshiny eyes, that sparkled as though they were varnished; wondrous eyes of amber red, with such magnificent red gold lashes, that lay like a heavy shadow on her cheek; perfect arched brows, and hair that seemed a fairy gift, so perfect it was in texture, colour and grace.

Sometimes when she wore it hanging, unbound and unbraided, just as nature had waved it, from the crown of her little, royally set head, to far below her waist, you would have taken Laura St. John for a sprite uncanny gnome, Ethel said; a nymph of rarest beauty, goodness and innocence.

Even after Edward Vivian learned how deceitful, how utterly unprincipled she was, he forgave it her, because it was himself she loved. So, now that this beautiful demoness had so worked her plans that Edward Vivian was oftener by her side of an evening than at his wife’s—now that Ethel had freely come to learn she was no longer necessary to her husband’s happiness, she had requested him to let her go away; let him be freed legally from the bonds that had grown so galling. Now, there the two stood, face to face, to coldly say good-bye. Ethel was deadly white as she took the pen her husband courteously handed her, to sign her name to that which, once signed, unwifed her forever. But was it not better thus? Had she a right to stay where she felt her presence was a burden—where she knew she was merely tolerated? Then rushing memories of the days when she came there in the flood-tide of happiness came surging over her sore heart; she trembled violently; her cold fingers refused to clasp the pen; and, with one swift, piteous look up in her husband’s face, Ethel bowed her head over the divorce bill and wept as only such a woman could weep at such a time. Mr. Vivian looked amazed, then surprised; then a sudden grave expression came into his eyes. He turned away from her, and began to promenade to and fro, walking with restless strides, the while flinging quick glances at the glorious head bowed in such mute agony on the table before him. Then half reluctantly, half angrily, he paused beside her.

“I am so astonished, Mrs. Vivian: I had not expected anything of this kind. I presumed you had arrived at your deliberate decision, and that thenceforth the past was only the past; the future—’

She raised her white face, with its haunting eyes.

‘Oh, the future! The awful midnight, trackless,  endless future that lies before me. Edward! Edward! This will kill me!”

She was trying to speak calmly; she sat folding and unfolding her nervous, chilly hands; but in her very attitude, her vain efforts at courage, was a dumb despair that touched his heart.  “Ethel”—he had not called her Ethel for so long before that  thrilled her to her very soul to hear it once more—“There was no actual need for this. “ and he lightly touched the document “It was at your own request that I had it procured.”

A little wailing cry interrupted him.

“I know, I know,’ she moaned; I wanted you to do this; I want it still, because you love me no longer; because you love Laura St. —’

‘Mrs. Vivian.’

He was stern and icy again, she knew by the curt, sharp way he interrupted her. ‘This is not the first time you have openly accused me of infidelity to you and loyalty to Miss St, John. Cannot a man express admiration for a beautiful woman without a jealous wife using it as a weapon to destroy her own happiness? Miss St. John would be insulted beyond measure did she for a moment suppose—’

‘What?!’

It was a siren voice that startled them both; and then Laura St. John, herself, radiant in daintiest blue velvet and miniver costume, came laughing in, so sweet, so arch.

‘My dear Mrs. Vivian, I am so delighted to—why—’

For Ethel had arisen, cold and still, with no welcome on her white face, and only reproachful sorrow in her eyes.

‘Miss St. John has no reason to be delighted to see the woman whose life she has blasted—whose husband she has tempted,’

Ethel spoke very deliberately, looked Laura full in the face; then she turned to her husband, in whose eyes  there shone a red gleam that portended wrath,

‘Perhaps you will assure your friend she is in the way just now,’ she said, ‘I have only a quarter of an hour to attend to our business.’

And then Ethel consulted her watch with an air of quiet; but, oh, how, under that cold exterior, were her pulses leaping, bounding!

Laura stood motionless, with an ungloved hand resting on the library table, her scarlet lips quivering as if her heart was broken—her big, resplendent eyes slowly filling with tears, as she looked first at Ethel, then Mr. Vivian, as if to humbly beseech them to tell her what it all meant. She was very beautiful at that moment, and she thought Edward Vivian appreciated it to the full; she knew it when he turned towards her.

‘I am sure you will pardon us Miss. St. John,’ he said. At this moment Mrs. Vivian is particularly engaged.

Laura shot him a glance from her liquid eyes.

‘But I must come again and find out what she means! I must know why l am thus accused!’ But her mission was accomplished; and, with a thrill of gratification at her heart, she bowed to Ethel and gracefully departed. And Ethel Vivian, with icy-gleaming eyes, compressed. lip and unfaltering hand, now signed her name in full under her husband’s.

And so it was done—or undone.

***

Two years—twice a twelvemonth— and Laura St. John was standing before her dressing-table, earnestly peering at the splendid reflection she made, with her personal beauty heightened by the chastely-rare bridal attire she wore, that was faultless, from the floating tulle veil, fastened by an orange-blossom spray and a glittering diamond aigrette, to the tiny, white silken slipper, with its rosette scintillating with small jewels. She was beautiful; she was triumphant, for she was successful; and this, her wedding day, would crown her success.

She managed well; according to the chart she had drawn for herself, from the hour she first saw and loved Ethel’s husband, she had marched straight on, regardless of cost, regardless of anything but the ultimate result. Here it was, close at hand—not half an hour from accomplishment.

Down in the saloon Laura heard low, musical laughter at intervals; in the several dressing-rooms opposite she heard the wedding guests preparing to descend to the festivities, and she smiled at her own eyes in the glass, that at last she would marry Ethel’s husband.

And Ethel?

She had dropped suddenly from the social firmament. Like a meteor that comes flashing in dazzling light across the sky, and then plunges into black deeps of obscurity, so had Ethel dazzled delighted and disappointed the people. Now, after two years, she was to them as if she had never been.

To Edward Vivian, if memories of her haunting eyes and quivering lips ever came, he never gave a sign, but deliberately wooed and won Laura St. John.

Laura St. John herself?

In the desert silence of her chamber, as she stood drawing on her gloves—for, with a pretty wilfulness that was irresistible, she had driven her maids from her—a graceful, ebon-robed woman suddenly, silently, swiftly glided across the glaring carpet and confronted her, with upraised veil, and cold clear eyes.

‘It is even I, Miss St. John. Surely you will not despise my congratulations?’ Ethel’s sweet low voice it was, and Laura, after one slight start of great  surprise, bowed constrainedly, and waited.

‘ I will not detain you more than a moment, as Mr. Vivian, doubtless, is impatient for the moment when he may call you his wife. Under the peculiar circumstances, Miss St. John, and to assure you that I bear you no malice, may I present you with this?’

She quietly reached out a small rosewood box, that was mounted with silver.

‘The key is in the lock, you see, Miss St. John. Have I the pleasure of knowing you accept it?’ Ethel set the box on the marble bureau-top, and then awaited an answer.

Laura’s cheeks were flushing slightly; her hands trembled as she essayed to button her glove, and busy thoughts were speeding through her brain.

What did it mean, this sudden appearance of Ethel? Did it augur ill or peace as Ethel declared? Dared this stately, calm woman in black attack her there alone, and wreak a discarded wife’s just vengeance? The thought was natural, and Laura’s heart beat in tempestuous throbs.

‘ I will accept it, Miss Elmore, and thank you. And may I beg that you will allow me to finish my toilette? I would not care to be too late.’

This, with a wonder in her heart if Ethel observed her cowardice.

But Mrs. Ethel—Miss Elmore the law called her—smiled!

‘Assuredly I would not have you too late. I dislike these words, too late. To the superstitious they sound ominous. Adieu, Miss St. John; you will be detained no longer by me, or you might possibly be too late.’

She bowed regally and left Laura shivering with vague unrest at the repeated words. A moment later and from her window she saw Ethel going rapidly down the street, her black veil fluttering like a death pennant in the brisk breeze.

She drew a long breath of relief and then turned to the beautiful little rosewood box with a joyous laugh.

‘Natural curiosity tempts me to see what her present can be. Possibly some horrid snake bracelet, or a dagger for my shawl or something equally delightful.’

She lightly turned the little silver key, and bent her radiant face over the lid. She saw a tiny vaporous smoke wreath roll upward for an instant, and then—

The terrible noise of the explosion brought the horrified guests to her door, and they found her lying in her bridal robes, fresh in her goodness-like beauty, dead.

On the pink velvet carpet, her eyes fixed in a stare that was frozen horror, Edward Vivian bent over her, and knew for a surety what had wrought it, though no lip then, or afterwards, ever uttered a name in connection with the diabolical engine, whose silver key had unlocked the portals of death’s domains to Laura St. John.

Auckland [NZ] Star 25 September 1875: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Miss St John belongs to that particularly odious class of woman who scorns the honourable addresses of unencumbered young men, but finds that the real sport in life lies in seducing married gentlemen away from previously happy homes, while feigning wide-eyed innocence. Sadly, her machinations are only crystal clear to the victim’s wife; never to the “mark” himself.

One wonders if the alimony paid by the bewitched Mr Vivian purchased the infernal machine in the little rosewood box. The creator of such a small, yet deadly, object must have been exceedingly clever. Perhaps the former Mrs Vivian found love with a young munitions expert, who–wittingly or unwittingly–helped her take her revenge.

 

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 anecdote

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.